December 7, 2016
Nothing fits better in a Christmas stocking than a book. Here are my recommendations for your next shopping trip, ten of the best books I read in 2016 (though not all were published this year) and just who you should buy them for . . .
1. "Fingersmith" by Sara Waters
A taut, atmospheric, Victorian-era thriller with more twists and turns than a Whitechapel alley. At first absolutely no one is likable in this tale, which centers around a queasy scheme to lock an heiress in a mad-house and seize her fortune. But the plot whip-lashes like a snake, accomplishing the impossible in making us empathize deeply with characters we at first despised. And the tender romance that grows between two brutalized women is a heart-breaker.
Buy for: your thriller-loving bestie who has lived for morally-gray anti-heroines ever since "Gone Girl."
2. "The Betrayal" by Helen Dunmore
Soviet Russia comes to life here in all its paranoid complexity, seen through the eyes of an idealistic young doctor and his quiet wife, both survivors of the devastating Leningrad siege. All they want is to enjoy the tiny pleasures of life allowed by the state, but the wheels of power have a way of grinding people like this into paste, and they both know the danger they are in when the doctor is called to treat the mortally ill son of a powerful party member. Terrifying and intense to the last page.
Buy for: that Marx-reading uncle who still drones on at Thanksgiving about how communism could have worked if only. Chortle silently as you introduce him to the historical reality.
3. "The Engagements" by J. Courtney Hall
"A diamond is forever." A sharp-witted ad-woman pens the immortal line for Tiffany's in the 40s, and launches four seemingly unconnected stories of love, marriage, fidelity, infidelity, secrets, and and marriages. Poignant character-building, diamond-bright prose, and witty observations about the insidiousness of the wedding industry make this one a gem.
Buy for: your wedding-obsessed office intern, the one addicted to "Say Yes To The Dress." Get her thinking about WHY she wants that dress and that big sparkly rock--innate romanticism, or clever marketing?
4. "The Vatican Princess: A Novel of Lucrezia Borgia" by C.W. Gortner
One of Gortner's most unique heroines. Unlike his other "bad girls of history" leading ladies, Lucrezia Borgia sees the capacity for violence rooted in her family blood as a concrete thing, not a product of the scandal machine. Her struggle isn't against revisionist history unfairly painting her as wicked and corrupt; her struggle is not to BECOME wicked and corrupt. Inside the shell of papal politics and gorgeous Renaissance settings, this is an extremely personal story about a girl fighting to save her own soul.
Buy for: your psychologist neighbor who lives down the block or in the upstairs apartment. They'll get a kick trying to diagnose the various Borgia family psychoses, neuroses, and manias.
5. "The Wrath & the Dawn" by Renee Ahdieh
Fairy-tale retellings are nothing new, but mostly we see European fairy-tales being told, and really, it is about damn time someone delved into the rich legacy of stories further east. This YA historical fantasy retelling of the 1001 Arabian Nights stars Shahrzad, a tough, clever girl determined to avenge her cousin, who was the latest victim in the parade of brides to march into the Caliph's bedroom and out to an executioner's garrote. On every page the jewels sparkle, the sand grits, the perfume intoxicates, the food is mouthwatering--and the end is a dark cliffhanger. Don't worry, the sequel is already out.
Buy for: the teenage girl in your life, whether daughter or cousin or little sister, whom you're trying to wean off Mary Sue heroines to more bad-ass role-models. Be ready for the excited discussion of how quick wits and a fast imagination really are every bit as bad-ass as being Katniss-Everdeen-quick with a bow.
6. "The Scent of Secrets" by Jane Thynne
For all the myriad novels written about the fight against Hitler, there are few that take place in the belly of the beast--in Berlin, rather than on the battlefield or in some sympathetic Allied nation. But the world of Nazi Berlin is exactly what we get in "The Scent of Secrets," and it's fascinating. Heroine Clara Vine is half-German and half-English, a Mitford-esque society girl making her living on the Berlin film scene as an actress . . . but secretly she uses her connections to Nazi high society to spy for England. The details of Third Reich weddings, bride schools where German girls are trained for marriage, and the shark-like waters where high-society Nazi wives like Magda Goebbels and Emmy Goring rule the roost make for some of the most chilling world-building I've read.
Buy for: your fiery feminist grandmother, who will drop some very ungrandmotherly expletives about the pernicious doctrine of Kinder, Kirche, und Kuche
as she devours every page.
7. "The Summer Before the War" by Helen Simonson
Humorous, heart-breaking, tender, and tragic: a small English village with its cast of eccentrics, academics, intellectuals, and locals, all thrown into disarray first by the arrival of Belgian refugees fleeing the pre-WWI conflict in Europe, and then by the overwhelming tide of war itself.
Buy for: your mother, if like mine she swoons both for rural English novels and Wilfred Owen's war poetry.
8. "The Fireman" by Joe Hill
Writing talent must run in Stephen King's family, because the horrormeister's son pens a thrilling tale here. It's a familiar dystopian saga of a band of survivors hiding from the fallout of a strange incendiary plague--but the high-wire pacing, the sympathetic characters, and some truly detestable villains make this dystopian epic a standout.
Buy for: your brother in the fire department. He'll get a kick out of the mysterious pyro-gifted hero.
9. "America's First Daughter" by Stephanie Dray & Laura Kamoie
Sure, I'm good friends with both authors--but this was one of the break-out historicals of the year, coming 3rd in the Goodreads Choice Awards, so clearly there are plenty of readers out there who agree with me about the merits of this warts-and-all look at one of our most complicated, troubling Founding Fathers. Told through the eyes of Jefferson's daughter Patsy, AFD examines themes of racism, slavery, politics, revolution, domestic abuse, war, and the secret legacy that all those influences has left in America's past.
Buy for: your civics-minded dad who still can't understand how the election turned out the way it did, and who has been reading a lot of American history ever since to figure out how exactly we got here.
10. "Before The Fall" by Noah Hawley
A private plane inexplicably crashes into the ocean fifteen minutes after take-off, and only two survivors emerge from the wreckage. Why? This deeply character-driven twister of a story unravels forward and backward from the central accident: the survivors limping ahead into the chaotic aftermath of the crash, and the dead who one by one tell the stories that brought them to the plane on that fatal morning. Who or what caused the crash? The answer will surprise and move you.
Buy for: your brainiac husband, who lives to untangle plotty whodunits. Bet him dinner at a 3-star restaurant if he fingers the right perp. Smile, collect your filet mignon and bay scallops, and admit you didn't get this one right on your first read either.
Get thee hence to a bookstore and finish up your holiday shopping. Happy Saturnalia!
December 19, 2015
Nothing fits better in a Christmas stocking than a book. Here are my recommendations for your next shopping trip, the best books I read in 2015 (though not all were published this year) and just who you should buy them for. Why eleven and not the usual ten? I got bored, so you get a bonus book.
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!
December 15, 2014
I'm about to start a long road trip, throwing the Praetorian Dog in the car and heading off to spend Christmas with the Dowager Librarian in California—but I've got just enough time to turn out the mandatory “Top Ten Books I Read This Year!” blog post—and in time to help you complete your holiday shopping! Because nothing fits better in a Christmas stocking than a book. Here are my recommendations, the best books I read in 2014 (though not all were published
this year) and just who you should buy them for . . .
1. "The Elegance of the Hedgehog" by Muriel Barbery. A quirky and unabashedly intellectual book about smart people thinking smart thoughts. Renee is a Paris concierge, hiding her passion for books and art behind a concierge's stereotypical surliness; Paloma is a twelve-year-old genius being driven mad by school, life, and the stupidity around her. She's planning to kill herself when she turns thirteen, more or less out of boredom—but a cautious friendship with the prickly Renee and a contemplative Japanese businessman changes all three lives in astounding ways.
Buy for: that ultra-smart kid in your life, whether it's your bookworm daughter or your genius little brother or that eleven-year-old you babysit for who gets bullied because she's already reading Jane Austen. That kid will see themselves in Paloma, and like she did probably develop a passion for French art and Japanese calligraphy.
2. "Blood Eye" by Giles Kristian. I found Kristian's Viking series after going into serious withdrawal from Bernard Cornwell's “Saxon Stories,” and it doesn't disappoint. This story of a boy named Raven swept up into the crew of a Viking longship is everything you want from guts-and-glory historical fiction: bone-crunching shield-walls, pulse-pounding adventures, and prose of blood-stirring action and sometimes lyrical beauty.
Buy for: your mother, if she's like mine and absolutely adores a good skull-crushing with her evening glass of chardonnay.
3. "Prince of Shadows" by Rachel Caine. I know nothing about Caine except that she has a YA vampire series, so this book was an expected shock of deliciousness: Romeo and Juliet retold with a surprising twist. The hero and heroine here are Benvolio (Romeo's steady best friend) and Rosaline (Romeo's first infatuation, ditched for Juliet). This pair is smarter, older, and far more savvy than their more famous counterparts, and they struggle to stop the inevitable—all the while feeling like the "curse on both their houses" may be a literal catalyst for all this disaster, and not just a poetic conceit.
Buy for: your office-mate whose cubicle is pasted with Shakespeare quotes, and who can be heard muttering “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow creeps in this petty pace from day to day” as she watches the clock move toward 6pm. She'll geek out on the way Caine weaves Shakespeare's lines into her own dialogue.
4. "One Plus One" by Jojo Moyes. A feel-good book which also manages to be whip-smart and side-splittingly funny—no small feat to pull off. Ed is a tech-head millionaire currently on the outs for unwitting insider trading, hiding from his family and looking for new purpose. New purpose storms into his life in the form of Jess, a blue-collar single mom with a giant farting dog, a sullen teenage stepson, and a genius daughter who has to get to Scotland for a math competition if she has any chance of getting into an elite school and out of the cycle of poverty. Ed ends up driving the band of misfits to Scotland, and over the next week as his car and his life are systematically dismantled, something else starts to form—a rag-tag little family.
Buy for: that friend who's been a bit battered by life lately, and really needs a smile on her face. Reassure her in advance that the dog doesn't die.
5. "Live by Night by Dennis Lehane. Sequel to his fabulous “The Given Day,” and centering around a cocky Irish boy who starts low on the rungs of the Boston mob during Prohibition, and rises steadily through the roaring 20s until he is running the Florida division of the mob's liquor business. Shifts effortlessly from 20s-era Boston to Florida to Cuba in a whirl of crime bosses, hit men, bathtub gin parties, good girls gone bad, bad girls gone good, and the inevitable consequences to a life of crime. Seedy, violent, glorious.
Buy for: your dad who has a passion for gangster movies. Tell him it's “The Godfather” and “The Departed” rolled into one.
6. Speaking of living by night, try "The Quick" by Lauren Owen. This is Bram Stoker-style Victorian gothic at its best; buttoned-up London suits and properly closed doors, and the horrors that sometimes live behind them. A shy young poet comes to London and is introduced to a secret society of London's most lethal men—a society that will have to be fought with blood when the poet disappears, and his determined sister comes to town looking for answers. A brave heroine, a band of eccentric vigilantes, and a villain named Doctor Knife—this will have you reading far into the night, and falling asleep with all your lights on.
Buy for: your gay bestie, because there is a tender and wonderful m/m romance tucked into all the supernatural tension.
7. "The Tiger Queens: The Women of Genghis Khan" by Stephanie Thornton. Four narrators handing the torch to each other in turn: the Khan's seeress first wife, his brash tomboy daughter, a Persian captive turned councillor, and finally a watchful daughter-in-law who will seize the reins when the great Khan's empire begins to fracture. Other women have roles to play as well: a tough-as-nails adopted daughter; a rape-ravaged princess whose madness will have unspeakable consequences for one of the four narrators. These women are fascinating, and there isn't a weakling among them.
Buy for: your sister, so you can speculate how the two of you would have fared managing a ger
and drinking fermented mare's milk.
8. "Joyland" by Stephen King. No one can write a coming-of-age story like (ironically) the master of horror. This beauty has it all, a bittersweet and moving tale of a college boy whose summer stint at an old-fashioned carnival turns out to have a lot of firsts: first love, first heartbreak, first real job, first sex partner—and since there is both a ghost and a serial killer on the loose in the carnival, first brush with death and the supernatural.
Buy for: your nephew going off to college for his own coming-of-age story. Write your phone number on the inside: “If a girl dumps you and you get as depressed as the hero in this book, don't sit there listening to the Doors and thinking about suicide the way he does. CALL ME.”
9. "The Magicians Trilogy" by Lev Grossman. This is the book for you if you ever wished you could go to Narnia or Hogwarts. Quentin is a brilliant student with a fanboy crush on a series of books clearly based on CS Lewis's Narnia; the kid who never got over the fact that he didn't open a wardrobe and find a fantasy paradise. But he does get his Hogwarts letter, finding himself accepted to a college called Brakebills which trains the gifted few in the arts of magic. Quentin is a bit of a prat through the first two books, but the world-building is wonderful: Brakebills is like Harry Potter with drinking, screwing, and swearing.
Buy for: your older brother, so you can reminisce back to the days when he played Peter, you played Lucy, and you both just knew you were going to open a door to Narnia someday and become High King and Queen of Narnia.
10. "The Complete Unwind Dystology" by Neal Shusterman. YA dystopia stories are a dime a dozen these days, but this quartet is a cut above the rest, envisioning a world where the abortion debate and most of the world's diseases have been solved in the most horrific way possible: abortion is illegal, but from the ages of 13 to 18, parents can elect to have their problem teens Unwound, their bodies harvested as replacement organs and parts for the nation's diseased and wounded (it doesn't count as murder, the argument goes, because all the dead teen's parts are still alive, just in separate bodies!) The book starts with three teens on the run from this grim fate, but spans out to encompass many more characters. A horrifying, thought-provoking, unflinching read through four unputdownable books.
Buy for: your bookworm grandma who thinks YA has turned into nothing but sparkly vampires and love triangles. Be prepared for a long thoughtful discussion on the social ramifications of organ harvesting.
And for a final bonus book . . .
11. "A Day of Fire: a novel of Pompeii" by Stephanie Dray, Ben Kane, E. Knight, Sophie Perinot, Vicky Alvear Shecter and, yes, me. Normally I wouldn't list one of my own titles on any best-of list, but I only wrote 1/6 of this collection—I had no idea what my collaborators were going to come up with, and I was as agog and delighted as any strange reader when I got to read the whole collection A-Z. Vicky's heart-breaking boy on the cusp of manhood; Sophie's quiet engineer hero; Ben's disreputable ex-soldier with his dogged loyalty; Eliza's young mother-to-be and Stephanie's pair of lion-brave whores—these characters didn't come from my brain, and they combined into a wonderful whole to tell the story of Pompeii's last fatal day, so I feel justified in pimping my fellow authors. Buy for: everybody you know. Absolutely everybody. Because I want to see this book on the NYT list, don't you? Let's make it happen.
December 12, 2013
In compliance with federal law, which apparently states that all book bloggers must post a “Top Ten Books I Read This Year!” list on their blogs in December, I'm giving you mine—and in time to help you complete your holiday shopping! Because nothing fits better in a stocking than a book. Here are my recommendations, the best books I read in 2013 (though not all were published
this year) and just who you should buy them for . . .
1. “Longbourn” by Jo Baker. Jane Austen meets “Downton Abbey”--this is the story of the mostly-silent servants who make their way through the Bennet house in Pride & Prejudice—and this is their story, not Elizabeth and Darcy's, which is what makes it refreshing. Housemaid Sarah wants to do something with her life besides empty chamber pots and scrub petticoats, and that's far more important to her than who any of the Bennet girls marry. But like Elizabeth, Sarah has her choice between a charming unreliable suitor and a silent passionate one, and like Elizabeth, Sarah will take her chance at happiness into her own hands. Buy for: your Janeite bestie, the one whose “Pride & Prejudice” blu-ray skips automatically to Colin Firth climbing out of the pond. The descriptions of Regency housework alone will keep her from ever sighing again “I wish I was born back then!”
2. “Eleanor and Park” by Rainbow Rowell. One of the sweetest and tenderest stories about young love I have ever read; good enough to touch even a cynical heart like mine. The plot couldn't be simpler: two brainy sixteen-year-olds with variously screwed-up home lives meet on a school bus and fall in love. The genius is in the details: the awkward pauses, the fragility of emotions, the pitch-perfect dialogue of smart kids who can throw around words like “phylum” and discourse on Shakespeare, but then get flustered and only mutter “God!”
Buy for: that awkward teenager in your life, be it a younger sister or a teenage son. They will read this book thinking “This is my life.”
3. “The Pagan Lord” by Bernard Cornwell. The latest installment in the Saxon Stories, with the always entertaining shield-wall adventures of cranky Viking-trained hero Uhtred as he kills enemies, insults priests, and strides around being the colossus that he is. Cornwell never fails to entertain, and this one is fabulous blood-and-battle fun. Buy for: your husband, who you recently got hooked on the Uhtred books during a long car ride, and who has been plowing through them ever since with a feverish gleam in his eye like a heroin addict (ahem).
4. “The Secret of the Glass” by Donna Russo Morin. My favorite book from one of my favorite writer friends. The nice thing about Donna's historical heroines is that they always have something on their minds besides their love life—and Renaissance gal Sophia might have a Tom Brady look-alike sending her passionate glances, but this girl already has her hands full running her dying father's glassblowing business, and knowing it will be scooped out of her hands as soon as he dies because of course, women can't run glassblowing businesses. Rarely has the helplessness of historical women at the hands of society been so well explored; I spent much of this book in a fit of outrage on Sophia's behalf. Buy for: your feminist cubicle mate, who will realize all over again that women today might be saddled with the GOP, but we've still got it a lot better than our historical counterparts.
5. “BZRK Reloaded” by Michael Grant. I'm a born Luddite who can break a computer just by walking past it, so if you'd told me I'd be this riveted by a YA thriller about nanobot technology, I'd have laughed in your face. But Grant's tale of the Hallmark company trying to enslave the minds of humanity and the teenage hackers who try to stop them is hard-edged and riveting. Light YA this ain't; Grant pulls no punches in depicting a covert revolution where death, enslavement, and madness are right around around the corner for all concerned. Buy for: the office nerd you drew for Secret Santa. Sit back and enjoy the fun as he becomes paranoid—“I know I've got bots on me, I just KNOW it!!”
6. “Wool” by Hugh Howey. I devoured this post-apocalyptic doorstopper in a matter of days, unable to look away from Howey's compulsively readable and utterly horrifying vision of a future where humanity lives in underground silos—but what's really outside those silos? And the heroine, a tough as nails mechanic, is just a delight from start to finish. Buy for: your garage mechanic uncle. He'll be tickled to read a story where the mechanic saves humanity from destruction, rather than some covert ops James Bond type.
7. “The Queen's Pawn” by Christy English. Don't be fooled by the quietness of this historical novel that mostly takes place in the cushioned spaces of a queen's medieval solar—this is a nail-biting examination of female power-play in an era where women weren't supposed to have any power. Eleanor of Aquitaine takes one half of the narrative, and facing her as protege and eventual rival is Princess Alais of France who Eleanor raises as future wife to Richard the Lionheart, but who will strike out on her own in a grab for Eleanor's throne and Eleanor's husband. But this is no cat-fight story of two women fighting over a man—Eleanor's fierce pride in Alais never wavers even when Alais moves against her, and Alais's love and respect for Eleanor proves a beacon when her ambitions begin to falter. Buy for: your mother, because this is a mother-daughter story unlike any you've ever read.
8. “Kristin Lavransdatter” by Sigrid Unset. A riveting trilogy set in medieval Norway, following a headstrong girl, her feckless but charming husband, her many sons, and the richly-textured community in which they live. Astounding that 800 pages of a woman obsessing about sin could be so flat-out absorbing, but then again, it's a classic for a reason. Buy for: that niece who's backpacking to Norway to see the Northern Lights. Be prepared for a puzzled email about why she missed the Northern Lights because she was too wrapped up in a medieval Norwegian girl obsessing about sin.
9. “Cuckoo's Calling” by J.K. Rowling. Mas
respect for Rowling, who didn't coast on the success of Harry Potter but struck out into other genres—first adult contemporary with “Casual Vacancy,” and then even more brilliantly into crime with “Cuckoo's Calling.” This is old-fashioned noir at its best: a brilliant down-on-his-luck detective and his sweet-as-cream Gal Friday negotiating the seedy glamor of the high fashion industry as they try to discover why a supermodel plunged to her death from a locked apartment. Buy for: your dad, who loves the crime shows but wishes they'd move away from the damn evidence labs and the DNA stuff, and go back to the Colombo model of Detective Who Just Asks Questions.
10. “One Dog and His Boy” by Eva Ibbotson. Ibbotson's last delightful comic romp in a long career. Here she gives us a lonely little rich boy whose parents can't see why he's upset when the dog they've rented for one weekend just to give him "the dog experience" has to be returned. Hal refuses to accept this, and takes off with the dog. Adventures ensue, and Ibbotson's trademark humor lifts her prose a cut above, such as when a fiery little Pekinese reflects, "There is absolutely nothing wrong with old ladies, but when your ancestors have been bred to ride on the saddle of the Emperor when he gallops off to war, you do not feel like being told you are an itsy-bitsy little doggie, aren't you." Buy for: that person in your life who needs a little comfort food for the soul. Maybe that's you—because the stream of disasters from the daily news or your latest Gillian Flynn binge is leaving you depressed, then this is the book to cheer you up.
February 28, 2013
It's still February, if only just, so here you go: the other half of that mandated pair of yearly blog posts for all book bloggers. First comes “The 10 Best Books I Read Last Year,” and then comes “10 Hotly Anticipated Reads of This Year.” I can already tell it's going to be a good year for reading. Here, in no particular order, are the ten books that top my list for 2012, some of which have been around for a long time, others of which will be released at some point over the next ten months . . .
1. "The Passage," by Justin Cronin
Since it's already late February, I've already read the first book on this year's to-read list. And what a stunner! Think Stephen King's “The Stand” crossed with the “Walking Dead” – a terrifying dystopian vision of the future when infected humans become bat-like “virals,” and humanity is reduced to a fading minority. The key to the dilemma seems to be Amy, a teenage girl who is somehow a century old, and who can somehow control the virals. But what exactly is the ageless and mysterious Amy? Expect this doorstopper of a book, and its equally brick-like sequel “The Twelve,” to devour a good month of your life, minimum.
2. "Light," by Michael Grant
Speaking of dystopian fantasies, I can't wait for the final installment of the “Gone” series. This isn't quite the end of the world, like “The Passage,” but possibly it's the end of the mysterious dome which isolated a group of teenagers from the rest of the adult population five books ago. This is YA, but it's not “Twilight” or even “The Hunger Games” – it's more like “Lord of the Flies,” and these kids are far too busy surviving to care about love triangles. I'm crossing my fingers that Grant will finish this hair-raising saga with his signature style – swaggering heroes you love and slimy villains you love to hate, all wrapped in a ball of non-stop action.
3. “War and Peace,” by Leo Tolstoy
I've read and adored Anna Karenina, but somehow never got around to Tolstoy's companion classic. Time to find out if the story of Natasha, Prince Andrei, et al fascinates me as it has so many others across the centuries.
4. “The Painted Girls,” by Cathy Marie Buchanon
I love ballet, I love French Impressionist art, and I love books about painters (“Girl With A Pearl Earring!” “The Swan Thieves!”) and dancers (“Russian Winter!” “A Company of Swans!”) So what could be more promising than this just-released tale of two sisters, one a former dancer entering the Parisian demi-monde, and the other Degas's inspiration for his famous “Little Dancer” sculpture? Highly anticipated.
5. "The Bronze Horseman," by Paullina Simons
One of those books with a large, persistent, and vocal group of fans. Over and over I've heard readers swoon about the star-crossed lovers! The pulse-pounding war drama! The Russian setting! Time to see what all the fuss is about. War-torn Russia is a fascinating setting in and of itself, so I'm anticipating good things from this one.
6. "The Fiery Heart," by Richelle Mead
First the Vampire Academy series, and now the Bloodlines series – Mead's fast and funny YA vampire books are my delicious guilty pleasure. These are written for teenage girls in the best sense of the word, because Mead's heroines are never palely loitering Mary Sues with not a thought in their pretty little heads outside their love lives. Her VA heroine was an ass-kicker in the Buffy style; the gal who stars in the Bloodlines series is more brains than brawn, but just as resourceful in a crisis. “The Fiery Heart” is fourth in the series, and November can't come soon enough.
7. "Daughters of the Nile," by Stephanie Dray
Talk about girl power – Cleopatra's daughter Selene has it in spades. This is the third and final installment in Dray's delicious romp through ancient Roman politics and Isis magic. I had the privilege of a sneak peek at the book's early draft (privileges of being friends with the author) and I know how much tweaking and polishing has been done since then, so I can't wait to read the final product. This I predict without Isis's help: Selene will be queenly and occasionally terrifying in her goal to rule her kingdom and found a dynasty; her husband Juba will be appealing and occasionally maddening in his efforts to win his queen's love; and Emperor Augustus will continue to raise the hairs on my neck every time he walks (slides, slithers) onto the page.
8. "The Tudor Conspiracy," by C.W. Gortner
Gortner takes a refreshing spin on oft-tread ground with his Tudor Spymaster series, sending his fictional hero Brendan on an exhilarating scramble through political snakepits rife with real historical figures like the young Princess Elizabeth. This second installment in the series has Brendon scheming to save Elizabeth from her vengeful sister Queen Mary. God knows how he'll do it, but I can't wait to find out.
9. "The Forsyte Saga," by John Galsworthy
Big multi-generational family epics, plus that same lush period of English history that spawned all my favorite Edith Wharton novels. Let the family drama, the big hats, the high teas, the looming social change, and the seething dialogue begin!
10. "Of Human Bondage," by Somerste Maugham
Yet another of the big classics I haven't gotten around to yet, though I adore Somerset Maugham and have read most of his other work. Plus, this is my mother's favorite book of all time. 'Nuff said; it's going on the list.
And on that note, happy reading!
December 21, 2012
Two things hold true at the end of each year: all book bloggers must, by federal mandate, post a “Top Ten Books of the Year!” list on their blogs, and all of us whether book bloggers or not still have holiday shopping to do. So why not combine the two? Here are the top eleven books I read this year (why eleven? I'm bored with ten), and the Christmas stockings you should consider filling with these titles!
1. “Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children,” by Ransom Riggs. One of those rare smartly-written kid books so creative and quirky that adults die for it too. Eerie real-life photographs weave seamlessly into this story of a boy who discovers a mysterious time-loop full of children with astonishing powers – not to mention the creatures who hunt them. Buy for: that whip-smart kid in your life, be it the young son with his nose in the book or the little girl with the quirky imagination you used to baby-sit for. The one you someday suspect might develop the ability to read minds or walk through walls.
2. “The Edwardians,” by Vita Sackville-West. A delicious high-tea-and-big-hats read about a handsome young Duke and his bohemian sister as they struggle to find love and happiness in pre-WWI England. Buy for: your madly Anglophile mum. This should see her through till Season 3 of Downton Abbey begins.
3. “The Sister Queens,” by Sophie Perinot. A warm and perceptive study of two beautiful heiresses who respectively marry the Kings of France and England – think a high-Medieval version of the Middleton sisters. If you like your historical sister drama real and not reduced to the hissing-spitting-catfighting variety of “The Other Boleyn Girl,” then this book is for you. Buy for: your sister, duh. Book a long lunch afterward for the inevitable argument, “So, you're totally Queen Marguerite, and I'm Queen Eleanor.” “No way, I'm the younger sister so I'm Eleanor . . .” Bonus: if you have more than one sister, stuff their stockings with Sherry Jones's "Four Sisters, All Queens," which tackles the younger pair of sisters in the family too.
4. “Code Name Verity,” by Elizabeth Wein. A riveting edge-of-your-seat World War II thriller about a young female spy weaving a tapestry of lies when she is caught by the Gestapo, and the courageous little pilot who must finish her friend's mission on her own. This is true girl-power; a tale of female friendship and female courage that will knock your socks off. Buy for: that teenage niece you're desperately trying to wean off “Twilight.” Expect her next text to read “OMG, I would SO TOTALLY join the French Resistance!!!” rather than “Team Jacob 4-Ever!!!”
5. “Gone Girl,” by Gillian Flynn. A seemingly perfect marriage reveals itself as a nest of horrors when a beautiful wife goes missing on her anniversary. Twists, turns, and riveting characters galore. Buy for: your uncle who just divorced that psycho ex-wife. He'll be cheered by the thought that no wife is as psycho as the one in this book.
6. “The Queen's Vow,” by C.W. Gortner. Isabella of Castile is commonly vilified as fanatic and bigot: Her Catholic Majesty who expelled the Jews from Spain and unleashed the Inquisition on her people. But Gortner gently humanizes this daunting figure as the beleagured princess grimly clinging to her faith and her future in a world that wants to kill her. Buy for: your historical fiction-addict BFF who complains there's nothing in the genre anymore but Tudor stuff. The setting here is Renaissance Spain in all its bloody, complex glory.
7. “The Invisible Bridge,” by Julie Orringer. The gorgeous saga of a Hungarian Jewish family on the brink of WWII. Not just another harrowing Holocaust tale; this fabulous read is a paean to life, love, family, humor, tragedy, and everything in between. Buy for: your grandma recovering from her knee surgery. She may comment, as my grandma did, “It sure puts things into perspective. My knee may hurt like hell, but at least I'm not being loaded into a cattle car.”
8. “The Flower Reader,” by Elizabeth Loupas. Mercurial queens, secret societies of assassins, a heroine who can read the future in flowers, and a hero with eyeliner – not many authors could assemble a story so fun, so poignant, and so satisfying out of such disparate elements, but Elizabeth Loupas sure can. This is her second novel, proving she has dodged the sophomore slump and is on the historical fiction scene to stay, and as a major talent. Buy for: your aunt who just got back from that walking tour of Scotland. She'll swoon for the heroine's castle by the sea, let alone her hero in his plaids.
9. “Captain Vorpatril's Alliance,” by Lois McMaster Bujold. The latest space-opera romp in Bujold's breezy, humorous, and sometimes harrowing Vorkosigan Saga. This one focuses on the hero's charming playboy cousin Ivan, who surrenders his bachelor status to help a damsel in distress – kind of like a Regency Romance but with bounty hunters and space-ships thrown in with the crusty dowagers and arranged marriages. Pure fun, like all Bujold's books, setting her a cut above in what can be a deadly-serious genre. Buy for: the office nerd you drew for Secret Santa. This'll hook him on the Vorkosigan series, and you'll never have to hear another word about Star Trek.
10. “11/22/63,” by Stephen King. A doorstopper of a book that narrows a tense and terrifying lens on the immortal question “Who killed Kennedy?” A 21st century schoolteacher finds a mysterious portal back in time, and decides to stop the Kennedy assassination . . . but what if he succeeds? Buy for: your dad, who not only remembers the Kennedy assassination, but has his own set of conspiracy theories about whodunit.
11. "The Art of Fielding," by Chad Harbach. A quirky and beautiful tale of small-town college life, focusing around a baseball team gunning for a championship, a star shortstop with a crisis of confidence, a college president blindsided by an unexpected romance, and his daughter trying to re-align her life after a disastrous marriage. Buy for: your sports-addicted husband who claims he doesn't like to read. He'll eat up the baseball in this book before he realizes he's also getting a coming of age story, a poignant romance, and a gorgeous drama.
February 1, 2012
It's February 1st, so here you go: the other half of that mandated pair of yearly blog posts that starts with 10 Best Books I Read Last Year, and ends with 10 Hotly Anticipated Reads of This Year. It's going to be a good year for reading! Here, in no particular order, are the ten books that top my list for 2012, some of which have been around for a long time, others of which will be released at some point over the next eleven months.
1.“Madame Tussaud” by Michelle Moran.
This one came out last year, and I heard such great things about it that I didn't dare pick it up. I've got deadlines to meet, and the last thing I needed was a spicy, decadent read about the French Revolution including a heroine who passes her day making wax death masks. But I can't wait to plunge into Michelle's new French world, having spent so much time in her versions of ancient Egypt and Rome.
2.“Queen Without A Crown” by Fiona Buckley
Finally, a new Ursula Blanchard mystery! I've read and enjoyed all of Buckley's novels about the resourceful Ursula, lady-in-waiting and sometime spy for Elizabeth I. What sets this series of mysteries apart is the authenticity of the opinions expressed by the 16th century characters. Ursula is no striding 21st century miss, but a real woman of her time who struggles to balance her duties to Queen, country, husband, daughter, conscience, and God. “Queen Without A Crown” will apparently throw Ursula into the thick of yet another Mary Stuart plot against the Queen – here's hoping she takes some time off from intrigue and finally, finally gives in to all this passion she's been repressing, for at least four books, for her sweet and steady manservant.
3.“The Painted Veil” by Somerset Maugham
“Moon and Sixpence” and “The Razor's Edge” are two of my favorite reads ever, so how is it I have not read “The Painted Veil” yet? I have no idea, but I'm determined to follow Maugham's idealistic hero and his frivolous erring wife on their journey to China this year, come what may.
4.“The Queen's Vow” by C.W. Gortner
There aren't too many books I would agree to give a blurb too before I had even read them. But if C.W. Gortner told me his next book was titled “How I Spent My Summer Vacation,” I'd know two things: a) it would involve queens, intrigue, sex, betrayal, and the machinations of power, and b) I would not be able to put it down. His forthcoming tome on Isabella of Castile, I predict with confidence, will be no different.
5.“Fear” by Michael Grant
Here's one YA dystopia series that is a lot of fun: think X-Men crossed with Stephen King's “Under the Dome.” But Grant's teenage heroes and anti-heroes, increasingly isolated in their bubble away from adults, are forced to grapple with weighty adult issues like self-government, war, cannibalism, racism, starvation, and religious mania as well as the more usual YA themes of romance and growing pains. The result is addictive story-telling, and thank the gods, the next installment is coming out the same day as my third book. Instead of obsessively checking and re-checking my Amazon rankings, I'll be head-down in the FAYZ with Michael Grant & Co.
6.“The Edwardians” by Vita Sackville-West
I'm in serious “Downton Abbey” withdrawal, and my Anglophile mother assures me that “The Edwardians” will be just the ticket: a big multi-generational English family drama that obviously served as the model for all these “Upstairs, Downstairs” spinoffs. High tea, huge hats, saucy parlormaids and crusty dowagers – I'm there.
7.“The Iliad” by Homer
Yet another classic I haven't for some unfathomable reason gotten around to reading yet. I can quote the entire plot of the Iliad and even some direct passages, but I've yet to plow through the whole thing start to finish. Hector, tamer of horses, here I come.
8.“The Golden Lily” by Richelle Mead
My guilty pleasure read. I'm not really a fan of YA vampire fiction, but I gobble up Mead's work. Maybe it's the humor, maybe it's the politics, maybe it's her intelligent and fiery heroines who buck the trend by not
being Mary Sues. But I can't wait for this one.
9.and 10. “The Sister Queens” by Sophie Perinot, and “Four Sisters, All Queens” by Sherry Jones
I'm listing these two together, not only because I know the authors, but because their books about the same historical figures are being released just a few months apart. The four daughters of the Count of Provence were all beauties who managed to bag kings for husbands: Sophie's “Sister Queens” focuses on the sibling rivalry and friendship between the eldest two, respectively queens of France and England, and Sherry's “Four Sisters, All Queens” brings in the younger two as well with their kingdoms of Germany and Sicily. I can't wait to see the two contrasting takes on a very interesting family. Not to mention sister drama that isn't about the Boleyn family.
So there's my reading list for 2012, or at least the start of it. What are you looking forward to reading this year?
January 2, 2012
Apparently a federal mandate was handed down from the White House, or possibly the Borg, to all book bloggers at the turn of the New Year: You must post a “Top Ten Books I Read in 2011” blog post, or you will be assimilated. Surrender immediately. Resistance is futile.
Who am I to resist Obama, or the Borg Queen? Here's my Top Ten List of books I've read this year (though some were published far previous to 2011). More original post coming next week, assuming I haven't been assimilated.
Best Books I Read In 2011, In No Particular Order
1.“Death of Kings” by Bernard Cornwell
Ah, the master himself with his latest installment in the Saxon Stories, a bloody and exuberant tale starring acerbic warrior hero Uhtred of Bebbanburg. Cornwell provides his usual stream of dry one-liners, battlefield heroics, and gorgeous writing – all wrapped up in one lovely package with a hero so hunky that I would time-travel back to the Dark Ages, risking an existence of dismemberment, violence, and no deodorant, for a single chance to meet him in person.
2.“The Second Duchess” by Elizabeth Loupas
The best debut I've read in a long time: a clever and level-headed Austrian princess newly married to the same Duke of Ferrara who stars in the famous Browning poem. Cautiously, the new duchess investigates the mysterious death of her predecessor while negotiating the snakepit of Renaissance politics and the attentions of her sometimes attractive, sometimes terrifying new husband. Deliciously twisty plotting, sensuous prose, and unforgettable characters.
3.“The Last Queen” by C.W. Gortner
A much sadder historical fiction read which I nevertheless devoured in a single hot summer day. The life of Juana of Castile makes for gut-wrenching reading as she travels from exuberant young princess to the woman who will be walled up and unfairly dismissed by history as a madwoman, but it's like watching a car wreck – you can't look away for a minute. Read with a large plate of Spanish tapas and a glass of sangria for consolation, preferably under the loggias of the Alhambra palace where Juana grew up.
4.“Ghost Story” by Jim Butcher
Just to prove that I don't only read historical fiction. Jim Butcher's urban fantasy series about a lanky wise-cracking wizard operating in modern-day Chicago is as addictive as crack. This one is no exception. Harry Dresden, wizard and wise-ass, is one of the best fictional heroes around – and this is one of the few books I can think of where the narrator spends pretty much the whole book dead.
5.“Song of the Nile” by Stephanie Dray
I love an unabashedly ambitious heroine, and Dray's Selene really fills the ticket – Cleopatra's intelligent daughter who does her best to claw, scheme, and manipulate the Emperor of Rome into giving back her birthright of the throne of Egypt. If only the Emperor of Rome weren't a first-class creep who wants waaaaaay
more than a girl should reasonably have to give up in pursuit of power. Sequel to “Lily of the Nile,” and altogether a darker, harder, more grown-up read.
6.“Major Pettigrew's Last Stand” by Helen Simonson
A gem – if Masterpiece Theatre doesn't snap this book up for a movie remake starring Derek Jacobi, it would be a crime. A gentle but hysterically funny romance about a reticent English widower who finds himself, to his considerable inconvenience, falling in love with a charming Pakistani widow. Humorous, understanding, and sweet – and how lovely to see a passionate romance between a Romeo of sixty-eight and a Juliet of fifty-eight. As if only the young and beautiful are entitled to star in great love stories.
7.“Dance With Dragons” by George R.R. Martin
The long and not very patiently awaited installment in Martin's iconic and massive “Song of Ice and Fire” series. I won't bother recapping the plot of this thousand-page doorstopper, since your screen would explode, but it was worth every hour of sleep I lost over it.
8.“11/22/63” by Stephen King
Another doorstopper on the top of the New York Times Bestseller list, and worth every penny of the doctor's bills you will incur for the wrist strain that settled in after hours of holding this brick up close enough to read. A teacher in 2011 finds a mysterious portal that takes him back to 1958 – and he decides to stick around and see if he can't prevent the Kennedy assassination from happening. The answer may surprise you – Stephen King has not one whit lost his touch for horror, creativity, and poignancy, sometimes all in the same sentence.
9.“Mr. Rosenblum Dreams In English” by Natasha Solomons
Middle-aged Jack Rosenblum is a German Jew who escaped Nazi Germany by moving his family to England - and for twenty years, Jack has devoted himself to becoming the perfect English gentleman. He has the tweed suits from Harrods, the pipe and the Jaguar, but one thing eludes him: membership to a golf club. When every good golf club rejects Jack (no Jews allowed! Germany certainly didn't corner the market on anti-Semitism) Jack decides with grandeur that he will build his own golf course. What a bad idea – and what a funny, moving, satisfying book about the results.
10.“Kitchen Confidential” by Anthony Bourdain
How to classify this book: Memoir? Expose? Humor? Its author is easier to pin down: a hard-drinking, hard-swearing, hard-living executive chef (and now Travel Channel star) who can't write a sentence without being funny, poignant, or offensive, often simultaneously. Bourdain's macho testosteronal voice would be unbearable if he didn't make just as much fun of himself as he does of everyone else. I can't walk into a restaurant now without wondering if the crew making my food is the kind of swaggering foul-mouthed batch of borderline psychos who are depicted so vividly in the pages here.
So there it is – my top ten list, along with everyone else's. Now please, Mr. President or Ms. Borg Queen, can I pretty please go back to my book and not be assimilated?