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!