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 2018 (though not all were published this year.) Some were written by friends or colleagues, some by authors I only hope I can meet someday—but all were fabulous reads, and would make a great holiday gift for somebody in your life. I’ve even given you some help figuring out who. The list would have been twice as long if I could include the ARCs I read in advance of publication for cover quotes, but in the spirit of holiday gift-giving, I limited my list below to books you can run, run, run to the bookstore and buy right now!
- THE BEAR AND THE NIGHTINGALE by Katherine Arden
A gorgeous fairy-tale wrapped in the chaotic history of pre-Imperial Russia, so rich with atmosphere you can feel the snow on your cheeks. Full of wicked stepmothers, fanatical priests, whimsical nature spirits, and brave maidens, this was a book I read in one sitting. Better yet, the adventures of bold Vasalisa and enigmatic Morozko continue in “The Girl in the Tower,” with a third novel forthcoming in January.
2. THE ROMANOV EMPRESS by C.W. Gortner
A book with all the glitter and mystery of a Faberge egg, the outer decadence and beauty of Imperial Russia unfolding to reveal the mysteries and horrors within. The waning days of a doomed dynasty are recounted by the vivacious but tough Danish princess who would become one of Russia’s most revered tsarinas, only to see her line end in war and revolution. Gortner pens a beautiful tribute to a lost world, weaving a tale sumptuous as a Russian sable.
Along with the previous book, buy for: Your hist-fic-devouring bestie who is always complaining there isn’t enough historical fiction set outside World War II and the Tudors. They’ll get a romp through Russia’s history to make their head spin if they start with Arden’s wild medieval woods and then sprint to Gortner’s lavish Imperial court.
3. FOOLS AND MORTALS by Bernard Cornwell
A delightful departure from Cornwell’s usual wonderful blood-and-battle epics, depicting in all its glitter and squalor the world of Elizabethan theatre. The hero is Shakespeare’s younger brother Richard, an actor resentful of his dour playwright brother (the great William is not seen through particularly rosy lenses here) and yearning to graduate from women’s roles to men’s roles. “Midsummer Night’s Dream” is to be performed for a noble wedding, after that “Romeo and Juliet” is being written…what part will Richard get, and will some ugly buried secrets and a feud with neighboring players get in the way? Pure magic.
Buy for: The theatre-mad teenage girl in your life,be she daughter, niece, or younger sister. Expect her to start memorizing whole chunks of Shakespeare soliloquies to declaim around the house. This is a habit to be encouraged at all costs.
4. WHAT GIRLS ARE GOOD FOR by David Blixt
David Blixt pens a heroine for the ages in “What Girls Are Good For,”which follows the extraordinary career of pioneer newspaperwoman Nellie Bly. A pint-sized dynamo who refuses to stay in the kitchen no matter how many men tell her to get back there, Nellie fights tooth and nail to make a name for herself as a journalist, battling complacent colleagues, corrupt institutions, and her own demons along the way. Nellie Bly was a real-life Lois Lane, and I loved every minute of her adventures.
Buy for: Your brother the high school English teacher, who is always looking for books with great women role models to give his students. Offer them extra credit if they read Nellie Bly’s own book “10 Days In A Madhouse” as a companion to this one.
5. GENTLEMAN BASTARDS SERIES by Scott Lynch
Start with “The Lies of Locke Lamora” and proceed straight on to “Red Seas Under Red Skies” and “Republic of Thieves”–Scott Lynch’s series about a gang of high-stakes thieves in a magical version of Renaissance Venice is a hoot. The hero is a skinny hyperactive wheeler-dealer who can talk himself into and then out of more trouble in a single day than most people will meet in a lifetime; his strong-and-stalwart sidekick Jean is much more than just the muscle, and the twists and turns of the adventures these con-artist brothers-in-arms find themselves in will leave you gasping, laughing, and crying.
Buy for: Your bookworm second-wave-feminist aunt who complains that fantasy is all white dudes and orcs. Lynch’s world is peopled with characters of all colors, and capable women in every walk of life and corridor of power imaginable. Just wait till your aunt gets to the black female pirate captain who stalks through Book 2 like a force of nature.
6. MY DEAR HAMILTON by Stephanie Dray & Laura Kamoie
Don’t throw away your shot to read this rich, meticulously researched door-stopper on the woman who was far more than a mere loyal political wife standing in the shadow of a controversial Founding Father. General’s daughter Eliza Schuyler is a true-blue patriot long before she yokes her star to the dynamic Alexander Hamilton, and it’s her vision as much as his that helps forge a nation, even through family drama, the nation’s first political sex scandal, and the inevitable duel.
Buy for: your cousin who wants tickets to “Hamilton” for Christmas, but come on—you’re not mortgaging your house for someone you see twice a year. Expect her to be babbling about this book when you next see her at Easter dinner.
7. CIRCE by Madeline Miller
The author of “Song of Achilles” returns with a female-centric re-shaping of Greek sorceress Circe, who weaves sinuous and threatening through a variety of myths—aunt of the deadly Medea, jealous lover who turned a rival nymph to a sea monster, island witch humbled by the trickster Odysseus. Circe is much more than that here; an immortal consigned to solitude and using it to hone her witchcraft, play hostess to any number of visitors both hostile and friendly (Odysseus is portrayed with complexity and sensitivity here, not merely swapped into the villain’s role), and over the centuries brood on questions such as “What is it to be immortal? And how can those who cannot die ever hope to change?”
Buy for: Your philosophy-major son or nephew in college. He’ll dig deep into the philosophical examination of immortality vs. humanity, and doing it through the eyes of a woman who has confronted the ugly realities of what it is to be female and helpless at the hands of the Greek gods will be a valuable insight.
8. THE LOST FAMILY by Jenna Blum
A Holocaust story unlike any I have ever read. The focus here is less on the camps and what happened there (although flashbacks make that clear, and it’s harrowing reading) and more on how survivor guilt echoes as it filters through generations and decades: first in glittering art-deco sixties New York with Peter, a restauranteur and Auschwitz survivor grieving the loss of his wife and daughters; then in the moving-and-changing seventies as Peter’s beautiful second wife June struggles with how much of her husband is sealed away from her with the ghosts of the past; and finally in the fast-moving eighties as their teenage daughter Elspeth fights for an identity of her own without realizing how much of her parents’ unspoken grief she has internalized. Moving, unexpected, at times funny, often tragic, beautifully realized.
Buy for: Your grandfather who served as a docent at the Holocaust museum. He’ll appreciate the way the different decades are defined, having lived through them all himself, and stoic, war-damaged Peter is a hero he will honor.
9. WENCH by Dolen Perkins-Valdez
A heart-breaker of a book. A decade before the Civil War, four slave women gather summer after summer at an Ohio resort where wealthy southern men vacation with their enslaved concubines. Visiting a free state raises thoughts of emancipation and escape in all the women, but what about the children most of them have left behind on plantations in the south? I didn’t cry at this book’s heartbreaking finish—crying lets you off the hook; lets you have your emotional response, mop your eyes, and move on. There’s no moving on from this story, which stayed with me and sank in deep.
Buy for: Your mother, because at its stark heart this novel asks the terrible question “What happens when a woman is forced to choose between her freedom and her children?” As a bonus, buy this book for the office gift-exchange, and give it to the guy in Marketing who insisted in a water cooler discussion that “Slavery wasn’t really that bad if you didn’t work in the fields.” If he walks sunken-eyed into work the next day, you’ll know Valdez-Perkins’s four heroines gave him something to think about.
10. A MAP OF DAYS by Ransom Riggs
I was doubtful when I heard Ransom Riggs’s perfectly tied-off trilogy about Miss Peregrine’s peculiar children was launching a fourth novel, but “Map of Days” is fantastic, taking the original mythology and spinning it off into America in a twist that is half frontier justice and half wild west adventure. Teenage hero Jacob is brave, capable, yet believably unsure of himself, and his fierce fire-slinging girlfriend Emma is always a delight. The rag-tag band of peculiar friends are on their own this time, and I can’t wait to see where they head next as they explore the “loops”(frozen time pockets) of the USA.
Buy for: Your picture snapping dad who’s always perma-glued to his camera on holidays, recording every minute. He’ll get a kick at the vintage color photographs that scatter the novel, and how ingeniously they tie into the story.
Get thee hence to a bookstore and finish up your holiday shopping. Happy Saturnalia!