Whether you’re still socially distancing this holiday season or finally having that family get-together that was cancelled in 2020, you’ve got holiday shopping to do…and nothing fits better in a UPS envelope or a Christmas stocking than a nicely-wrapped book. Here are my recommendations for your next online shopping trip, twenty-one of the best books I read in 2021, though not all were published this year. Some of these were written by friends and colleagues, some by authors I only hope to meet someday when the world fully re-opens—but all were fabulous reads, and would make a great holiday gift for someone in your life. I’ve even given you some help figuring out who…
1. The Children’s Blizzard by Melanie Benjamin
A historic blizzard swoops down out of the blue over the plains, fatally testing the lives and decisions of two young sisters working as schoolteachers, with consequences that ripple through lives and families alike. Breathtakingly good; a story that soars like a prairie hawk.
Buy for: Your schoolteacher aunt, who will reflect that Zoom teaching may be hell, but at least she and her students aren’t freezing to death inside a haystack.
2. The Secret Keeper of Jaipur by Alka Joshi
The sequel to Joshi’s “The Henna Artist,” though it can be read on its own. Former street urchin Malik, now grown, charming, and courting the wary widow Nimmi, finds himself embroiled in a Pink City mystery as a luxurious cinema collapses on opening night. His investigation leads to old secrets buried deep…and hopefully a third novel in the Jaipur trilogy.
Buy for: Your mom, who lives for Reese’s Book Club picks and already devoured “The Henna Artist.” She’ll love seeing how Lakshmi’s little found family has grown and prospered.
3. The Betrayals by Bridget Collins
Montverre: an elite mountain academy that teaches society’s best and brightest to play the great game, an elite competition combining music, art, mathematics, poetry, and philosophy…but Hogwarts this ain’t. An embittered former student returns to Montverre just as the all-male enclave elects its first female leader, and chaos ensues.
Buy for: That guy friend who went to boarding school and has endless stories about how weird it was. “As weird as this?” you can now ask.
4. Yellow Wife by Sadeqa Johnson
A heart-ripper of a tale about a resourceful young enslaved woman robbed of her expected emancipation, who finds herself fighting for the freedom of herself and her children in the infamous Devil’s Half-Acre jail where she lives as the jailer’s unofficial “yellow wife.”
Buy for: Your high-school aged babysitter, who isn’t learning this history in school but should be.
5. Paris Never Leaves You by Ellen Feldman
Single mother Charlotte survived the Nazi occupation of Paris to make a postwar life for herself and her daughter as a book editor in New York City—but the past is never far behind, and uncomfortable secrets come knocking. A searing examination of survivor’s guilt and the uneasy moral compromises entailed in living through an occupation.
Buy for: Your editor, who will dig reading an editor heroine whose job is actually realistically written and not something out of “Younger.”
6. Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo
Alex Stern, high-school dropout and sole survivor of a horrific unsolved murder scene, gets a fresh start with a full ride to Yale. But her scholarship has a price, as she is tasked with monitoring Yale’s infamous secret societies—havens of the future rich-and-powerful which dabble in the occult, with sometimes-deadly results.
Buy for: That young man in your life (son, nephew, little brother) soon heading off to college. Inscribe with “These are the kind of college boys you DON’T want to be.”
7. The Last Rose of Shanghai by Weina Dai Randel
Jewish refugees flee Hitler’s Berlin for faraway Shanghai, struggling to survive in the uneasy co-existence of Chinese magnates and Japanese invaders, and love blooms between a sophisticated Chinese heiress and a Jewish pianist. Poignant, beautiful, unexpected, a fresh angle in a field crowded with war stories.
Buy for: Your histfic-loving cubicle mate who says World War II books are done to death. Guarantee she hasn’t read anything like this one.
8. The Happiest Girl In The World by Alena Dillon
A budding world-class gymnast sacrifices everything—meals, sleep, family time, friendships, her own health—for a chance at Olympic gold. But what if she never makes it? Was the sacrifice worth it? A gripping novel that asks the question “At what price glory?”
Buy for: Your ex-gymnast sister, who will nod at the descriptions of gym rips, four a.m. practices, and Achilles injuries.
9. Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir
An amnesiac astronaut wakes up alone on a spaceship orbiting a faraway star, facing an impossible mission to save humanity. A book that made me ugly-cry in the best possible way, and believe in the potential of kindness, courage, and friendship to save the day…and it has the best, most unlikely bromance of all time.
Buy for: Your sci-fi-loving dad who swears he never cries at books. He’ll cry at this one.
10. Iron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao
Pacific Rim meets Tang Dynasty China in a fantasy land defended by giant mecha machines piloted by young men and fueled by their disposable concubines—until Wu Zetian comes along. A badass heroine tottering on bound feet but snarling with rage, two complex bisexual heroes, and a love triangle where for once the girl thinks “Why do I have to choose? Why not both?”
Buy for: The whip-smart teenage girl in your life, be it granddaughter or niece or sister-in-law, who is SO OVER young-adult love triangles and SO INTO smashing the patriarchy.
11. Sisters In Arms by Kaia Alderson
A novel brimming with camaraderie and fire. Black army officers Grace, Eliza, and their sister soldiers battle enemies at home and abroad as they serve in the only all-Black female battalion deployed overseas in WWII, and it’s a fight to make you stand up and cheer.
Buy for: The ex-Army brother-in-law who loves military history. He already knows about the Tuskegee airmen, but he’ll savor this lesser-known bit of military history, and tell you stories of the tough women he’s served with who are just like Grace and Eliza.
12. The Women of Chateau Lafayette by Stephanie Dray
A powerhouse of a novel weaving three women, three wars, and three timelines around one castle in France. Adrienne, wife to the Marquis de Lafayette, champions her husband’s legacy of democracy at Chavaniac where future champion Beatrice will take up the torch in World War I, then pass it to document forger Marthe in World War II. Simply stunning.
Buy for: Your Hamil-Fan bestie, who eats up absolutely anything to do with America’s Favorite Fighting Frenchman.
13. Tokyo Ever After by Emiko Jean
An utterly darling princess fable with any number of fresh modern twists. Japanese-American teenager Izumi finds out her father is a Japanese prince, and heads to Tokyo for a whirlwind introduction to the Imperial court, Imperial etiquette, and a host of sometimes friendly, sometimes hostile Imperial relations.
Buy for: Your middle-grade daughter, who will swoon for the romance and the makeovers while absorbing the lovely arc of a girl searching for where she truly belongs.
14. Portrait of a Scotsman by Evie Dunmore
Evie Dunmore’s suffragette heroines are such a delight, and budding artist Hattie is no exception. Even as she falls in love, she grieves her loss of independence, refuses to be charmed when the hero is high-handed, and struggles to forge her own kind of marriage in a world that wants her simply to submit to her vows without questioning them.
Buy for: Your grandma, who lives for smart romances with independent heroines.
15. The Guncle by Steven Rowley
A TV actor with a stalled career finds himself parenting his young niece and nephew while their father gets clean in rehab. Gay Uncle Patrick, as he dubs himself, must channel his inner Auntie Mame to show two grieving children why life is a banquet—and remember how to live himself, in the bargain.
Buy for: The woman you drew in the office Secret Santa exchange—the one who cracks slightly homophobic jokes. Either she’ll be charmed by Patrick and finally learn something about acceptance, or she’ll be so offended she never speaks to you again. Either way, you win.
16. Island Queen by Vanessa Riley
Meticulous research brings an obscure heroine to center-stage life. Passionate, steel-willed Dorothy Kirwan Thomas was a woman to be reckoned with, born into slavery in the Caribbean but rising to become a powerhouse entrepreneur, a legacy-building matriarch, a lover to both paupers and princes, and so much more.
Buy for: Your women’s-studies-major neighbor, who loves finding little-known badass women of history to geek out over.
17. Hench by Zina Natalie Walschots
A bisexual office temp with a biting tongue and a gift for numbers gets injured by a superhero on a rampage, and finds her calling in number-crunching for supervillains instead. Who else is going to hold the Supermans of the world accountable for all the collateral damage they leave in their wake?
Buy for: Your college grad niece who is binging WandaVision for the third time as she updates spreadsheets at her temp job.
18. The Heart Principle by Helen Hoang
A burned-out violinist struggles to find balance between her demanding art, her equally demanding family who expect her to wear herself out as parental caretaker, and an asinine fiance who only wants an open relationship until a gentle tattooed motorcyclist comes into her life with the most unexpected thing of all: acceptance.
Buy for: Your cousin who’s still worn to the bone after years of looking after her aging dad. She’ll identify deeply with the sensitive portrayal of caregiver burnout.
19. The Night Strangers by Chris Bohjalian
Chris Bohjalian’s “Hour of the Witch” took the world by storm (and it’s wonderful!) but this backlist title really made my hair stand on end: an airline pilot traumatized by a recent crash brings his family to a small rural town for a fresh start, and finds eerily friendly neighbors with herbal names and a consuming interest in his twin daughters.
Buy for: The guy in your book club who loves scary reads. He’ll sleep with a night-light all month.
20. The Steal by C.W. Gortner & M.J. Rose
“To Catch A Thief” meets “The Three Musketeers” in this dual-penned tale that pairs a diamond magnate’s daughter and a battered veteran investigator in a chase across the sun-drenched Riviera to catch an elusive jewel thief. Hitchcockian chases, sinuous romance, and gorgeous scenery abound in this escapist gem.
Buy for: The frazzled nurse in your social circle, who badly needs (and deserves) a trip to Cannes and a diamond necklace, even if only vicariously.
21. The Husbands by Chandler Baker
A gender-flipped “Stepford Wives” for the modern era, as a stressed-out career woman finds herself fed up with the work-life-family balance just as she also finds a community of power wives with eerily supportive husbands. Wickedly funny, full of biting observations about just how hard it is for women to Have It All.
Buy for: That high-powered career woman in your life, the one who juggles job and kids and makes it look easy. Guarantee she doesn’t find it so easy as all that, and she’ll nod all the way through reading this.
Happy holidays, and happy reading!
2020 may well go down in our nation’s history as the Lost Year, the year an entire nation hit Pause, the year the TV show known as America jumped the shark and the screenwriters really got desperate (whatever happened to the murder hornets sub-plot? Did they just merge that into the Covid-rabid minks plot-line? I have so many questions!) However, 2020 was a great year for one thing: books. Most of us ended up with lots more time to read than anticipated, and thank goodness our towering TBR lists were there to help.
Since most of us are having socially distanced holidays away from our extended families this December, you’ll probably be sending lots of presents through the mail…and nothing fits better in a UPS envelope than a nicely-wrapped book. Here are my recommendations for your next online shopping trip, twenty of the best books I read in 2020, though not all were published this year. Why twenty and not the usual ten? Because quarantine is ongoing and we’re all going to need more than the usual top-ten list. Some of these were written by friends and colleagues, some by authors I only hope to meet someday when the world re-opens—but all were fabulous reads, and would make a great holiday gift for someone in your life. I’ve even given you some help figuring out who, depending on how they’ve been passing their time in isolation…
1. AND THEY CALLED IT CAMELOT by Stephanie Thornton. A dishy, sympathetic deep-dive into the mind and life of Jackie the debutante turned Jackie Kennedy turned Jackie O.
Buy for: Your best friend who is currently in mourning now that she’s done with Season 4 of “The Crown.” The Kennedys are the closest thing to American royalty we’ve got, and every bit as dishy as the Windsors.
2. LIBRARY OF LEGENDS by Janie Chang. A Chinese university takes to the road to get away from the upcoming sack of Nanking, bringing with them a host of hopeful students, a priceless library of ancient scrolls, and a wandering star-spirit.
Buy for: That frazzled mom in your life who has been supervising three kids through virtual schooling all year—she’ll reflect that Zoom classrooms are a pain in the ass, but at least she hasn’t been slinging today’s lesson plan on her back while hiking her students through a war zone.
3. THE CHOSEN ONES by Veronica Roth. A non-YA contribution from the Divergent author, examining a team of superheroes not as young world-savers, but afterward, when teenage phenoms have become adults grappling with fame, PTSD, and new threats to the world.
Buy for: Your Marvel-loving ex-roommate who just finished binging “The Umbrella Academy”—which also stars teen superheroes turned screwed-up twenty-somethings.
4. HER LAST FLIGHT by Beatriz Williams. A voic-y, vivid tale of an Amelia Earhart-esque flyer who disappears on her last flight, and the intrepid young journalist who tracks her down decades later.
Buy for: Your adrenaline-junkie cousin who hasn’t been able to sky-dive, rock-climb, parasail, or zipline all year along, and needs a virtual dose of sky-time danger.
5. DREAD NATION by Justina Ireland. Kickass heroines, racial politics in a post-apocalyptic 19th century world, and lots of zombie-slaying.
Buy for: The kid brother who blitzed through all of “The Walking Dead” in October. He’ll be begging for a scythe just like the one on DREAD NATION’s cover.
6. THIS TERRIBLE BEAUTY/Katrin Schumann. A love triangle in post-WWII east Germany, as a nation struggles to come to grips with its war-time crimes, and a single act of cruelty between husband and wife ripples profoundly through the next decade.
Buy for: Your news-fiend dad, who is burned out on current events and will enjoy looking back to the days when the Berlin Wall was the biggest story around.
7. THE NIGHT CIRCUS by Erin Morgenstern. I’m late to this particular circus, but here’s a rare fabulously-hyped novel that is worth all the hype.
Buy for: That colleague who is struggling with the blues in isolation, and badly needs a dash of stardust and wonder in their life.
8. JANE DOE by Victoria Helen Stone. A darkly hilarious tale of deliciously exacted revenge, as a frank, self-aware young sociopath decides to seduce, take down, and utterly ruin the toxic boyfriend who drove her best friend to suicide.
Buy for: Your neighbor who used quarantine to finally binge “Dexter”—all eight seasons of it—and is now missing their daily dose of friendly neighborhood justice-dealing sociopath.
9. CLEO MACDOUGAL REGRETS NOTHING by Allison Winn Scotch. A brisk, practical-minded Congresswoman driving at a presidential run confronts a nasty op-ed piece and embarks on a funny, poignant campaign to address past regrets.
Buy for: Your Rachel-Maddow-watching, AOC-re-Tweeting pal who happily voted Joe but still mourns that ultra-competent slate of female presidential candidates back in the primary.
10. A TREACHERY OF SPIES by Manda Scott. An unbelievably complex mystery unraveling across decades as a WWII betrayal that blew apart a network of French Resistance spies goes unresolved until someone begins picking off the octogenarian survivors…who are still deadly determined to find the mole in their midst.
Buy for: Your grandmother, who has hated being cooped up all year and will love this tale of not-to-be-messed-with seniors.
11. LOVE FROM A-Z by S.K. Ali. Two bright, charming Muslim teenagers meet in Qatar and grapple with everything from medical diagnoses to Islamophobe high school teachers as they sidle toward each other with many a wary, romantic sidelong glance.
Buy for: The smart high-schooler in your life—son, granddaughter, nephew, teen babysitter—who is bored out of their mind with virtual class.
12. ONE TO WATCH by Kate Stayman-London. A confident fashion blogger becomes the first plus-sized star on a TV show obviously based on “The Bachelorette”; reality-TV shenanigans and touching revelations to follow.
Buy for: That cubicle-mate who lives for every season of “The Bachelor” but hates that all the contestants are size double zero.
13. HEART SHAPED BOX by Joe Hill. An aging rock star with a taste for the macabre buys a ghost on eBay—and gets much more than he bargained for, as he ends up fighting for his life and sanity as he examines the mistakes of his past.
Buy for: That slightly ghoulish friend who just re-binged all of “American Horror Story” on Netflix, for the third time.
14. FLORENCE ADLER SWIMS FOREVER by Rachel Beanland. A beautiful family drama where a single well-meaning lie unravels the beach-side summer of a Jewish family in 1930s America.
Buy for: Your soft-hearted aunt, who misses her family in lockdown and will love spending time with this one.
15. THE FLIGHT PORTFOLIO by Julie Orringer. An American scholar becomes a Marseilles escape facilitator for artists, Jews, and political outcasts looking to flee Hitler’s shadow—brilliantly moving, as love and idealism forge a pleasant dilettante into a hero who will spit in the face of the Gestapo to get just one more innocent out of Nazi clutches.
Buy for: Your bisexual co-worker who adores finding great same-sex love stories—they’ll swoon for the epic m/m romance that forms the heart of this war story.
16. THE SEVEN DEATHS OF EVELYN HARDCASTLE by Stuart Turton. Groundhog Day meets Downton Abbey, as a nameless hero wakes up every day in an English country-house party where the daughter of the house dies every night—solve her murder, and he might get out of the endless cycle, but why is he here?
Buy for: Your noir-loving uncle who has rewatched every black and white Sam Spade mystery he can find on Amazon Prime, and grumping that modern mysteries are all gunfire and no plot.
17. MEXICAN GOTHIC by Sylvia Moreno-Garcia. Bluebeard’s Castle meets Rebecca, as a Mexico City debutante goes to rescue her beloved cousin from a brooding husband, his isolated mountain estate, and his increasingly creepy family.
Buy for: Your Gothic-loving mother who enlivened the “Rebecca” watch party by demanding “Why is Maxim de Winter dressed like a banana?” and “This remake doesn’t lean into the darker elements nearly enough” and “Well, that was putrid.”
18. WHEN NO ONE IS WATCHING by Alyssa Cole. When gentification turns murderous, and a determined young woman teams up with her preppy neighbor to find out why her thriving Black community is suddenly turning into Yuppieville.
Buy for: The head of your Zoom book club, who will be ecstatic to find a suburban whodunit that isn’t about well-to-do white moms.
19. THE ARCTIC FURY by Greer McCallister. A thirteen-woman expedition to the Arctic goes horrendously wrong, and turns into a sensational murder trial—what happened out there on the ice?
Buy for: Your ultra-athletic sister who hasn’t done a single triathlon all year, and needs a vicarious survival-of-the-fittest stress-test.
20. YOU WILL KNOW ME by Megan Abbott. A brilliant, claustrophobic mystery centering around a murderous accident that blows up the tight-knit community of an elite gymnastics team, the girls’ driven parents, and particularly their budding-Olympic star.
Buy for: The Sports Dad in your life, the one who hardly knows what to do with himself when he’s not juggling his kids’ practices, out-of-state games, and booster meetings.
Summer’s here, we’re all still in lock-down, and probably going a little bit stir-crazy. I’m yearning for Europe, but even if I won’t be hopping on an international flight anytime soon, there are books that will take me there! Not a complete list of European countries below, but a fair sampling. If you’re aching for…
…England? ALL CREATURES GREAT AND SMALL by James Herriot wraps you up in the beauties of Yorkshire through the eyes of a thirties-era small-town vet; BATH TANGLE by Georgette Heyer immerses you in Regency-era Bath along with its two rebellious heroines seeking to control their lives; Winston Graham’s POLDARK series gallops you along the windswept cliffs of Cornwall; Bill Bryson’s THE ROAD TO LITTLE DRIBBLING tootles you in humorous fashion from modern-day Bognor Regis to Cape Wrath and everywhere else between.
…Ireland? Maeve Binchy’s lengthy backlist will take you from modern day Dublin (THE SCARLET FEATHER, as a pair of cooking-school besties try to get a catering company off the ground) to fifties-era small towns (THE GLASS LAKE, as a mother’s abandonment of her family plays out in tense drama through two generations); Patricia Falvey’s THE YELLOW HOUSE and THE LINEN QUEEN immerse you in northern Ireland’s respective struggles for independence and World War II involvement, as seen through the eyes of two fierce young heroines.
…France? THE ORACLE GLASS by Judith Merkle Riley takes you to the Sun King’s Versailles; THE PARIS WINTER by Imogen Robertson immerses you in the belle-epoque Paris of starving artists and Seine-side cafes; MEET ME IN MONACO by Hazel Gaynor & Heather Webb covers not only into Monaco but the sun-drenched Cote d’Azur.
…Italy? ENCHANTED APRIL by Elizabeth von Arnim sweeps you off to Portofino with four disenchanted English heroines looking to rediscover their zest for life; THE FOOD OF LOVE by Anthony Capella retells a modern-day Cyrano de Bergerac love-triangle among the high-cuisine restaurants of Rome (recipes included!); THE BOTTICELLI SECRET by Marina Fiorato embroils a Renaissance-era courtesan and a reluctant monk in a zany caper through the city-states of Italy from Florence to Pisa to Genoa to Venice and more.
…Spain? A SPANISH LOVER by Joanna Trollope follows a buttoned-up Englishwoman who falls for the glories of both Spain and a Spanish suitor; C.W. Gortner’s THE QUEEN’S VOW takes us further back to Renaissance Castile where a young queen dons her armor and her faith to unite her country’s warring factions.
…Austria? MADENSKY SQUARE by Eva Ibbotson is a glorious valentine to pre-WWI Vienna; VOICES OF SUMMER by Diane Pearson sweeps you to a spa town in the mountains where an operetta company puts on the season of a lifetime and all kinds of lives are both hilariously and poignantly at stake.
…Bulgaria? VALLEY OF THRACIANS by Ellis Shuman takes you through modern day Bulgaria in the search for a missing Peace Corps volunteer and a missing ancient artifact; Elizabeth Kostova’s THE SHADOW LAND explores the beauties of Sofia as a World War II-era mystery unfolds from past to present.
…Hungary? THE INVISIBLE BRIDGE by Julie Orringer follows a Jewish family from dreamy Paris to exuberant Budapest to the horrors of Carpathian labor camps throughout World War II; CSARDAS by Diane Pearson follows three generations of an aristocratic family from pre-war Austro-Hungarian glory through post-World War II peace.
…Romania? THE GIRL THEY LEFT BEHIND by Roxanne Veletzos sumptuously and poignantly evokes forties-era Bucharest; DRACULA by Bram Stoker is the Romania-set novel of all time.
…Russia? (Ok, I know Russia isn’t in Europe, but I couldn’t resist one more step east!) Katherine Arden’s THE BEAR AND THE NIGHTINGALE sings an enchanted song of pre-czarist Russia, its myriad spirits, and a brave horse-loving heroine; Cynthia Harrod Eagles’s ANNA evokes glorious Imperial Russia through the eyes of an English governess come to tutor a Russian count’s children as Napoleon sets his sights on invasion; Paullina Simons’s THE BRONZE HORSEMAN brings the siege of Leningrad to life in the midst of a passionate forbidden love story.
Next up: the books that will take us to the myriad countries of Asia, Africa, South America, and more…
Happy reading, and stay safe!
Everybody needs some feel-good reading while quarantined. Here are some of my favorites…and yes, there are quite a lot of kids’ books on there. This is both for parents looking for books to share with stir-crazy offspring, and adults who simply want some comforting literary nursery food. And most of these come with hefty backlists or are the start of a series, so you should be reading–and smiling–for quite some time.
“Dealing With Dragons” by Patricia Wrede. A princess keeping house (cave?) for a dragon…only this princess wasn’t captured, but volunteered for her post after being bored to tears by palace etiquette and thick-skulled princes. The start of an enchanting four-book series, the Dragons books were doing the hilarious-skewed-fairytale thing long before Shrek made it cool.
“Half Magic” by Edward Eager. Four siblings at the start of a long hot summer wonder crossly why they never seem to stumble across magical adventures like the Narnia siblings or the Nesbitt children. Cue the arrival of a magic talisman that grants wishes but only in halves, and let the fractionally-challenged adventures (hilariously) ensue. At least three books follow, all of the kids-go-magically-adventuring sort, all funny.
“Cheaper By The Dozen” by Frank Gilbreth & Earnestine Gilbreth Carey. A breezy turn-of-the-century motion studies expert and his high-powered wife (both real historical figures) have a brood of 12, and the hi-jinks of six brothers and six sisters across WWI and the twenties is funny and touching. The sequel, “Bells On Their Toes”, is even funnier.
“A Countess Below Stairs” by Eva Ibbotson. For anyone who’s already binged “Downton Abbey” and needs a fix, pick up this delightful period piece starring a Russian countess fleeing the Bolsheviks only to find herself scraping a living as a housemaid in a falling-to-bits country manor owned by a PTSD-ravaged young earl newly returned from the trenches of WWI. No sex, lots of humor, and enough upstairs-downstairs shenanigans among the stately-home set to feed your Julian Fellowes craving. And Eva Ibbotson has a huge backlist, all wonderful.
“The Blue Castle” by L.M. Montgomery. You’ve already reread all of Anne of Green Gables–try this standalone by the same author, more poignant and deeply satisfying. A shy, emotionally-battered spinster gets news from her doctor that she has only a year to live, and decides to live it with a vengeance–telling her emotionally abusive family to shove it, getting the first job of her life, then becoming the town scandal when she elopes with a mysterious ex-convict. One of the most satisfying beaten-down-woman-reclaims-her-life stories ever, with a sweet ending. This one doesn’t lead to a series, like Anne’s tales, but L.M. Montgomery’s backlist has lots more besides Anne, and they’re all worth investigating.
“The 101 Dalmatians” by Dodie Smith. Sure, you’ve seen the animated Disney film and the live action remake–but have you ever read the book? Smith’s prose is droll, dry, delightful, very British, and the read will delight you if the story of Pongo, Perdita, Missus, and their kidnapped puppies is one you assume you know.
Happy reading, and stay safe!
“I’ve been given 112 little princesses; what am I supposed to do with them?”
That was a Russian general’s response, at the height of World War II as the Nazis rolled unstoppably into the Soviet Union, when he was presented with what would eventually be called the 46th Taman Guards Night Bomber Aviation Regiment: an all-female regiment of fliers. One hundred and twelve women who had been flying planes since their teens, who had trained for months for a chance to fight and defend their homeland, and who were less than thrilled to be called “princesses.” They would eventually go on to earn the nickname “the Night Witches” for their spectacular war record against Hitler’s eastern front.
Witches and princesses—all little girls are raised on stories of witches and princesses. 21st century girls grow up with Disney princesses: their candy-colored skirts and passionate Alan Menken ballads, blocked from their handsome prince by a sinister witch in black eyeliner, horned headdress, or tentacles. The Russian girls who joined the Soviet Union’s only all-female night bomber regiment would have heard the story of Vasalisa the Beautiful, peasant girl elevated to royalty by a lovestruck tsar after she outwits malevolent Baba Yaga, the witch with the mortar and pestle. Princess myths tell little girls that if they are patient and good, they will be rewarded with glittering crowns, handsome husbands, happiness in the ending credits. Someday your prince will come; just fold your hands and look pretty and wait.
But at some point, the girls of yesterday and the girls of today get tired of waiting and start doing.
In 1941, the young women who joined the Night Witches were not fazed when they were told the Red Air Force was not accepting females. They barnstormed their way into the fight, championed by famous aviatrix Marina Raskova who was the Soviet Amelia Earhart and who used her fame and connections to get her protegees to the front. Once there, they cut off their long hair, donned the world’s ugliest overalls over men’s briefs (because the USSR did not have military-issued underwear designed for women) and racked up a lethal record against the invading Nazis—who, whenever the bombardment from above was particularly unrelenting, warned each other “Look out, the ladies are in the air.”
In 2020, young women aren’t waiting, either. More young women than ever are postponing family and marriage to establish careers, lining up at the polls to vote on what they think is important, planning on running for office. They’re reading “Teen Vogue” not just for the beauty tips, but for the articles on constitutional ethics. They’re marching in the streets and demanding to be heard…and in return, they’re nicknamed “witches,” too. And other names much more offensive.
But despite our childhood myths, the witch doesn’t have to be the villain. The witch in a fairy-tale is always powerful and ambitious and unapologetic about what she wants, and when the princess clashes with her, she gains a new power all her own.
Young women of today have taken the princess role and expanded it to encompass the witch, just as one hundred and twelve Russian girls took pride in their transformation from princess to witch by the forces of war and self-determination. A Russian general who snorted at the idea of bringing girls into battle was soon handing them medals for bravery in combat, and twenty-first century naysayers are learning just how powerful young women can be when they raise their voices in boardrooms, classrooms, and chatrooms across the world.
More than a princess. More than a witch. Like the women of the 46th, take to the sky and soar.
Nothing fits better in a Christmas stocking than a book. Here are my recommendations for your next shopping trip, eleven of the best books I read in 2019, though not all were published this year. Why 11 and not the usual 10? I didn’t want to leave any of these beauties off the list! Some were written by friends and 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…
I couldn’t photograph the rest of these books, because I read them on my Kindle while traveling!
1. THE BUTTERFLY GIRL by Rene Denfeld
A woman’s search for a killer interweaves with a homeless girl’s struggle to survive in this beautiful, devastating novel of humanity’s lost and forgotten who can so easily fall through the cracks. Investigator heroine Naomi is something of a lost girl herself, lone escapee of a killer who has never been caught, and who may still hold Naomi’s never-escaped sister. That search leads Naomi to twelve-year-old Celia, savvy and cynical, dreaming of butterflies to escape the ugliness of her life on the streets. Fraught topics like child abuse, sexual molestation, homelessness, and murder are delicately handled, weaving a story both poignant and ultimately satisfying.
Buy for: Your retired social worker grandmother. The details here are real enough to invigorate memories of her old caseload, but the hopefulness of the ending will give her the smile she often didn’t have when dealing with real-life cases.
2. MUNICH by Robert Harris.
Everyone knows that the Munich peace conference of ’38 ended with Neville Chamberlain’s famous “Peace in our time”—an illusion all too soon shattered. But Robert Harris brings unbelievable tension to this well-known moment of history, as two old university friends face each other on opposite sides of the diplomatic table: a junior English diplomat fighting to buy his country enough time to arm for war, and a German patriot determined to bring Hitler down by any means necessary, and begging England’s help to do it. You know how this will end, but your heart will be in your throat anyway, as the two men join forces to bring about the impossible.
Buy for: Your dad, who’s tired of reading about young James Bond types. He’ll love these desperate young brainiacs trying to save the world with words rather than martial arts and gunfire.
3. PARK AVENUE SUMMER Renee Rosen
Renee Rosen’s latest stars small-town girl Alice who arrives in New York in the glittering sixties and lands a job for Cosmopolitan‘s razor-sharp new editor Helen Gurley Brown, who sees in Alice the quintessential young career woman who is her new target audience. Alice dreams of becoming a photographer, Helen dreams of blazing a trail in the men’s club of the magazine world which is rooting for her to fail, and both women will lean on each other as they chase their ambitions. A delightful summer cocktail of a read.
4. CITY OF GIRLS by Elizabeth Gilbert
Another “girl comes to New York” story, this one set on the cusp of World War II. Bored, blue-blooded Vivian drops out of college and is shipped off to the Big Apple where her aunt runs a raucous, barely-hanging-on playhouse—a world of showgirls, nightclubs, sex, jazz, and fun into which Vivian flings herself headlong. Her joyous pursuit of life and all it has to offer is funny, maddening, tragic, uplifting, and always entertaining—there are more laugh-out-loud zingers in this book than I can count.
Along with the previous book, buy for: that young girl in your life (daughter, sister, niece) who’s heading off to a new state, a new job, or a new school. There are such lovely meditations in these books on ambition, sex, love, work—and above all, mistakes. Gilbert said she wanted to write a book about a girl whose life isn’t ruined when she makes a mistake—write that on the gift card when you wrap these books up for your young woman, who is undoubtedly headed for some missteps of her own.
5. THE LIE TREE by Frances Hardinge
A gothic YA with a touch of the fantastic. Fourteen-year-old Faith struggles to fit the mold of obedient daughter demanded by her harsh, exacting father, but everything changes when a mysterious scandal forces the family to relocate. Faith, searching for answers in her father’s increasingly erratic behavior, discovers a curious miniature tree hidden among his scientific specimens…a tree that apparently grows on whispered lies, and bears fruits of astonishing truth. The 19th century struggle to find belief somewhere between emerging scientific theory and religious dogma is no less important here than a girl’s struggle to find her own worth in a time that values her virtue over her intelligence. Just magical.
Buy for: That smart kid you used to babysit, who has already powered through all of Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, and the Hunger Games. Expect a long fired-up discussion on female roles, parental relationships, and Darwin vs. God.
6. THE SECRETS WE KEPT by Lara Prescott
Two gripping narratives unfold in the pressure-cooker of the Cold War: passionate, courageous Olga who stands in the shadow of Soviet author Boris Pasternak yet inspires him to write a heroine for the ages, and the cynical, equally-overshadowed women of the CIA who help bring Pasternak’s masterpiece “Dr. Zhivago” to bear as a weapon against Soviet oppression. From the gulags of the USSR to the cherry-blossom trees of Washington D.C., the story grips and won’t let go—and the poignant love story between two female spies caught in the middle is the cherry on top.
Buy for: Your mom, who cries every time she watches “Dr. Zhivago.” She’ll love the behind-the-scenes details of the story’s conception.
7. DAISY JONES AND THE SIX by Taylor Jenkins Reid.
Billy is the charismatic drug-reformed front-man of rising seventies rock band The Six. Daisy is the hard-partying wild-child pop-star shoved together with The Six to write an album. Sparks of all kinds fly when two people with every reason to despise each other realize they are, like it or not, creative soul-mates. This is no romance, but a gritty, fascinating examination of raw artistic talent—what it demands of the people who have it, how it torments the people who don’t have it, and how it can create a bond like no other between people who are each other’s best bad idea.
Buy for: Your teenaged nephew who lives for his garage band. He’ll dig the dishy, behind-the-scenes soap opera of rock n’ roll fame, and maybe absorb a few ideas about the darker side of that fame along the way.
8. RED, WHITE, AND ROYAL BLUE by Casey McQuiston.
A funny, moving, delightful romance between a fairy-tale prince and another fairy-tale prince. Ambitious, smart-mouthed Alex already has targets on his back—he’s the half-Mexican son of America’s first Madam President, for one thing—and he knows publicly acknowledging his own bisexuality is not going to help his mother’s re-election odds. But he’s falling hard and fast for Prince Henry, England’s second heir to the throne (a fictional, adorable Harry clone), and increasingly determined to win a happy ending with the man of his dreams as well as a second term for his mother. A romance to root for, packed with laugh-out-loud zingers, election-trail gossip, and pop-culture gags galore.
Buy for: Your politics-and-romance-loving bestie who toggles between Rachel Maddow and Julia Quinn in her reading material. A sweeping romance with political in-jokes is just the ticket she wants to vote for. Bonus: buy an extra copy for the gay-bashing jerk one cubicle down who you somehow drew for Secret Santa, just to see if his head explodes.
9. NO EXIT by Taylor Adams
Almost unbearably tense pacing and once of the toughest, scrappiest heroines it’s been my pleasure to read in a very long time. Broke college student Darby, driving long-distance from school to a family crisis, breaks down in a lonely mountain rest stop with an impending snowstorm, no wi-fi, no cell service, and four strangers…then realizes one of them is transporting a kidnapped child in their van. She decides she will get involved, and my God, what a ride.
Buy for: Your tough-guy uncle who loves Jack Reacher, Jack Bauer, Jack Ryan, and all the other terrorist-fighting tough-as-nails fictional crime-fighters. Expect a 3am text: “JFC, even Jack Bauer never got his hand slammed in a door hinge!”
10. THE STARLET AND THE SPY by Ji-Min Lee
A poignant, beautiful book set in the wreckage of Seoul after the Korean War. The war has been (technically) won, but victory means very little to broken survivors like Alice, who struggles to get by from day to day and tries not to think about what she has lost. Marilyn Monroe, sauntering into the book (and history) on a USO tour, may just provide an opportunity for fragile, damaged Alice to piece her soul back together—I read with my heart in my throat, yearning for it to happen.
Buy for: Your gym buddy who always comes to yoga in a Marilyn Monroe t-shirt. She’ll love this historical glimpse at one of MM’s less famous epochs of life.
11. ONE FOR THE BLACKBIRD, ONE FOR THE CROW by Olivia Hawker
A story of family, friendship, and survival on the prairie frontier. Two homesteader families are thrown together under possibly the most awkward circumstances possible: Cora is found in bed with Nettie Mae’s husband, shots are fired, and when the smoke clears Nettie Mae is a widow and Cora’s husband is in jail. To say these two women want nothing to do with each other would be the understatement of the century, but as they stare down the barrel of an impending Wyoming winter with no men to work their farms and no other neighbors within miles, they realize they must rely on each other if their children are to survive. Quiet, lyrical, lovely, a paean to steel-spined women and the harsh beauty of the big sky country.
Buy for: Your wild-child aunt who lives in hiking boots. She’ll identify with the heroine’s quiet, nature-worshipping daughter whose connection with the earth under her feet is profound without ever tipping into New Age sentimentality.
Get thee to a bookstore, and happy holidays!
It’s finally time to celebrate the release of our novel, Ribbons of Scarlet: A Novel of the French Revolution’s Women, releasing October 1. We’re thrilled to be hitting the road to share the book with so many of you in person. Between September 30 and November 21, all six authors will be making appearances across the country, sometimes all together, and sometimes in smaller groups or solo – and we’d love to see you along the way! See below for all the details – and if you haven’t grabbed your copy of the book yet, do it now!
THE RIBBONS OF SCARLET TOUR:
Note: All events are open to the public unless listed otherwise. Various authors will appear at events; please check each event’s description to see who will appear near you. Events listed as author or book events will include book signings. Please support our booksellers by purchasing books from them. We look forward to seeing you on the road!
~ The Scarlet Sisters
P.S. from Kate: I’ve highlighted in bold all events where I’m appearing!
- 1PM EST, FACEBOOK LIVE, WITH ALL 6 AUTHORS
- 7PM, THE STRAND, NEW YORK CITY, WITH ALL 6 AUTHORS
- Offer available through September 30 – order a copy signed by all 6 authors
- More information from The StrandOCTOBER 1
- TBD, RIVERSTONE BOOKS, PITTSBURGH, PA, WITH STEPHANIE DRAY AND ELIZA KNIGHT
- 12PM, LIVE AT YOUR LIBRARY SERIES, GASTON COUNTY PUBLIC LIBRARY WITH PARK ROADS BOOKS, GASTON, NC, WITH KATE QUINN AND LAURA KAMOIE
- 3PM, BOOK REVIEW CLUB, GASTON, NC (PRIVATE EVENT)
- 6PM, FICTION ADDICTION BOOKSTORE, GREENVILLE, SC, WITH KATE QUINN AND LAURA KAMOIE
- TBD, AUTHOR TALK, COLLEGE OF WOOSTER, WOOSTER, OH, WITH SOPHIE PERINOT
- 11:30AM, HOLCOMB READING CLUB, SPARTANBURG, SC, WITH KATE QUINN AND LAURA KAMOIE (PRIVATE EVENT)
- 12PM, MONDAY BOOK REVIEW CLUB, YOUNGSTOWN, OH, WITH STEPHANIE DRAY AND ELIZA KNIGHT (PRIVATE EVENT)
- TBD, KEYNOTE ADDRESS, CONVERSE COLLEGE, SPARTANBURG, SC, WITH KATE QUINN AND LAURA KAMOIE
- 7PM, AUTHOR TALK, CUYAHOGA COUNTY PUBLIC LIBRARY, BRECKSVILLE, OH, WITH STEPHANIE DRAY, ELIZA KNIGHT, AND SOPHIE PERINOT
- 11:30AM, LEXINGTON FRIENDS BOOK TALK, COLUMBIA, SC, WITH KATE QUINN AND LAURA KAMOIE
- 6PM, AUTHOR TALK, CHARLESTON LIBRARY SOCIETY, CHARLESTON, SC, WITH KATE QUINN AND LAURA KAMOIE
- 7PM, AUTHOR TALK, ST. LOUIS COUNTY LIBRARY, ST. LOUIS, MO, WITH STEPHANIE DRAY, ELIZA KNIGHT, AND SOPHIE PERINOT
- 7PM, HEATHER WEBB IN CONVERSATION WITH ALLISON PATAKI, BOOK CULTURE ON COLUMBUS (AT 82ND), NEW YORK CITY
- 11AM, MOVEABLE FEATURE LUNCHEON HOSTED BY LITCHFIELD BOOKS, PAWLEYS ISLAND, SC, WITH KATE QUINN AND LAURA KAMOIE
- 2PM, BOOKSIGNING, LITCHFIELD BOOKS, PAWLEYS ISLAND, SC, WITH KATE QUINN AND LAURA KAMOIE
- 6:30PM MEET & GREET; 7PM MEET THE AUTHORS AT MACINTOSH BOOKS, SANIBEL, FL, WITH STEPHANIE DRAY, HEATHER WEBB, ELIZA KNIGHT, AND SOPHIE PERINOT
- 2PM, IN CONVERSATION WITH THE AUTHORS OF RIBBONS OF SCARLET, SHANNON STAUB LIBRARY, NORTH PORT, FL, WITH ALL 6 AUTHORS
- 6PM, BOOKS & WINE, COPPERFISH BOOKS, PUNTA GORDA, FL, WITH ALL 6 AUTHORS
- 4PM, CHAMPAGNE & BOOKS, BOOKMARK, NEPTUNE BEACH, FL, WITH ALL 6 AUTHORS
- 11:30AM, BOOKS & BITES, FERNANDINA BEACH LIBRARY WITH THE AMELIA ISLAND BOOK FESTIVAL AND THE BOOK LOFT, FERNANDINA BEACH, FL, WITH ALL 6 AUTHORS
- 7PM, AUTHOR EVENT, THE LITERARY GUILD OF ST. SIMONS ISLAND, ST. SIMONS ISLAND, GA, WITH ALL 6 AUTHORS
- 1PM, AUTHOR TALK, MILTON PUBLIC LIBRARY WITH BOOKMISER BOOK STORE, MILTON, GA, WITH KATE QUINN AND LAURA KAMOIE
- 6:30PM, AUTHOR TALK, FOXTALE BOOK SHOPPE, WOODSTOCK, GA, WITH KATE QUINN AND LAURA KAMOIE
- 6:30PM, AUTHOR TALK, TWO SISTERS BOOKERY, WILMINGTON, NC, WITH STEPHANIE DRAY, SOPHIE PERINOT, ELIZA KNIGHT, AND HEATHER WEBB
- 11AM AUTHOR EVENT, PEACHTREE CITY LIBRARY WITH BOOKMISER BOOKS, PEACHTREE CITY, GA, WITH KATE QUINN AND LAURA KAMOIE
- 5PM, AUTHOR TALK, THE COUNTRY BOOKSHOP, SOUTHERN PINES, NC, WITH STEPHANIE DRAY, SOPHIE PERINOT, AND ELIZA KNIGHT
- 7PM, AUTHOR TALK, MARGARET MITCHELL HOUSE, ATLANTA, GA, WITH KATE QUINN AND LAURA KAMOIE
- TIME TBD, PANEL DISCUSSION, SOUTHERN FESTIVAL OF THE BOOK, NASHVILLE, TN, WITH HEATHER WEBB
- 10AM – 2:30PM, BOOKS & BINGO, HOSTED BY THE WOMENS’ NATIONAL BOOK ASSOCIATION AND ADVENTURES BY THE BOOK, CORONA PUBLIC LIBRARY, CORONA, CA, FEATURING KATE QUINN, KEYNOTE SPEAKER
- 11AM, AUTHOR TALK, ANNE ARUNDEL COUNTY, MD DAR, CROWNSVILLE, MD, WITH LAURA KAMOIE (PRIVATE EVENT)
- TBD, AUTHOR TALK, BARNES & NOBLE, ANNAPOLIS, MD, WITH LAURA KAMOIE
- 1-4PM, A REVOLUTIONARY LUNCH ADVENTURE, HOSTED BY COTE D’AZUR CAFE & BISTRO AND ADVENTURES BY THE BOOK, FEATURING KATE QUINN, KEYNOTE SPEAKER
- 6:30PM, AUTHOR TALK, ADAMS COUNTY ARTS COUNCIL WITH A LIKELY STORY, GETTYSBURG, PA WITH LAURA KAMOIE AND ELIZA KNIGHT
- 4:30PM, SUSAN B. CLEMENTSON AUTHOR SERIES FOR THE BENEFIT OF APALACHICOLA MARGARET KEY LIBRARY, BOOKSELLER: DOWNTOWN BOOKS, APALACHICOLA, FL, WITH STEPHANIE DRAY
- 7PM, FICTION READING EVENT, STRING THEORY YARN SHOP WITH THE CUPBOARD MAKER BOOKS, LEYMOYNE, PA, WITH LAURA KAMOIE
- 10AM – 4PM, FSU PANAMA CITY FRESHMAN READ EVENT, PANAMA CITY, FL, WITH STEPHANIE DRAY
- 10-11AM STUDENT PRESENTATION (PRIVATE EVENT)
- 11:30-1PM LUNCHEON WITH A TALK ON WRITING
- 2-3PM TEA WITH AN AUTHOR BOOKSIGNING WITH BOOKS UNLIMITED
- 3-4PM AUTHOR TALK
- 7PM, EVENING LECTURE, DICKINSON COLLEGE, STERN GREAT ROOM, CARLISLE, PA, WITH LAURA KAMOIE
- PANEL DISCUSSION, CARMEL CLAY PUBLIC LIBRARY FESTIVAL, CARMEL, IN, WITH SOPHIE PERINOT AND HEATHER WEBB
- 7PM, AUTHOR TALK, WELLINGTON SQUARE BOOKSHOP CO-SPONSORED BY CHESTER COUNTY LIBRARY, HILTON GARDEN INN, EXTON, PA, WITH STEPHANIE DRAY AND LAURA KAMOIE
- 6:30PM, AN EVENING WITH A WRITER, SPONSORED BY ESSEX COUNTY FRIENDS OF THE LIBRARY, AT THE ESSEX INN, TAPPAHANNOCK, VA, WITH LAURA KAMOIE, HEATHER WEBB, AND SOPHIE PERINOT
- TIME TBD, LADIES WHO LUNCH, SECCO RESTAURANT WITH FOUNTAIN BOOKSTORE, RICHMOND, VA, WITH LAURA KAMOIE AND SOPHIE PERINOT
- 1PM, AUTHOR TALK, THE BOOK DRAGON, STAUNTON, VA, WITH LAURA KAMOIE
- 7:30PM, RIBBONS OF SCARLET AUTHORS IN CONVERSATION WITH MICHELLE CAMERON, WORDS BOOKSTORE, MAPLEWOOD, NJ, WITH STEPHANIE DRAY, ELIZA KNIGHT, HEATHER WEBB, AND SOPHIE PERINOT
- 11:30AM, AUTHOR LUNCHEON, CORONADO LIBRARY, CORONADO, CA, WITH KATE QUINN
- More information and get tickets on Facebook | Eventbrite
- 6:30PM, AUTHOR TALK, AVON LIBRARY, AVON, CT, WITH STEPHANIE DRAY, SOPHIE PERINOT, ELIZA KNIGHT, AND HEATHER WEBB
- 7:30PM, AUTHOR TALK, WARWICK’S BOOKSTORE, SAN DIEGO, CA, WITH KATE QUINN
- CHAMPAGNE AUTHOR TALK, BANK SQUARE BOOKS, MYSTIC, CT, WITH STEPHANIE DRAY, SOPHIE PERINOT, ELIZA KNIGHT, AND HEATHER WEBB
- 2PM, JOINT AUTHOR PANEL AT THE LIBRARY GUILD OF RANCHO SANTA FE, SAN DIEGO, CA, WITH KATE QUINN
- 2-4PM, BOOKSIGNING, BROWSEABOUT BOOKS, REHOBOTH BEACH, DE, WITH LAURA KAMOIE
- 6:30PM, AUTHOR TALK, CARROLL COUNTY PUBLIC LIBRARY WITH A LIKELY STORY, MT. AIRY, MD, WITH LAURA KAMOIE, STEPHANIE DRAY, AND ELIZA KNIGHT
- 1PM, BOOK TALK ON RIBBONS OF SCARLET, BALTIMORE BOOK FESTIVAL, LITERARY SALON STAGE, BALTIMORE, MD, WITH 5 OF THE 6 AUTHORS (ALL BUT KATE)
- 3PM, WRITING COLLABORATIVELY PANEL, BALTIMORE BOOK FESTIVAL, MARYLAND ROMANCE WRITERS STAGE, BALTIMORE, MD, WITH LAURA KAMOIE, HEATHER WEBB, ELIZA KNIGHT, AND SOPHIE PERINOT
- TIME TBD, FUNDRAISER EVENT, A LIKELY STORY, SYKESVILLE, MD, WITH STEPHANIE DRAY, LAURA KAMOIE, AND ELIZA KNIGHT
- AUTHOR LUNCHEON, LAKE FOREST BOOK STORE AT DEER PATH INN, LAKE FOREST, IL, WITH LAURA KAMOIE, SOPHIE PERINOT, AND ELIZA KNIGHT
- BOOK TALK, THE BOOK CELLAR, CHICAGO, IL, WITH ELIZA KNIGHT, LAURA KAMOIE, AND SOPHIE PERINOT
- 11:30AM, HIGH TEA EVENT, FAIRMONT CHATEAU LAURIER HOTEL, OTTAWA, CANADA, WITH KATE QUINN
- 7:30PM, AUTHOR TALK, JEWISH PUBLIC LIBRARY, MONTREAL, CANADA, WITH KATE QUINN
- 2PM, AUTHOR TALK, MCINTYRE’S BOOKS, PITTSBORO, NC, WITH LAURA KAMOIE, HEATHER WEBB, AND ELIZA KNIGHT
- 6:30PM, AUTHOR TALK, PAGE 158 BOOKS, WAKE FOREST, NC, WITH ELIZA KNIGHT, HEATHER WEBB, AND LAURA KAMOIE
- 7PM, AUTHOR TALK, BOOKMARKS WINE EVENT, WINSTON SALEM, NC, WITH HEATHER WEBB, LAURA KAMOIE, AND ELIZA KNIGHT
- 7PM, AUTHOR TALK, MAIN STREET BOOKS, DAVIDSON, NC, WITH LAURA KAMOIE, ELIZA KNIGHT, AND HEATHER WEBB
- 5PM, LINGER LONGER LIVING SERIES AT REYNOLDS LAKE OCONEE, GREENSBORO, GA, WITH LAURA KAMOIE, HEATHER WEBB, AND ELIZA KNIGHT (PRIVATE EVENT)
- 12PM, MULTI-AUTHOR SIGNING, NORA ROBERTS’S TURN THE PAGE BOOKSTORE, BOONSBORO, MD, WITH LAURA KAMOIE AND ELIZA KNIGHT
As is now traditional: my recap of the 2019 Historical Novel Society Conference! With four HNS conferences under my belt before jetting off to Washington, D.C., I knew two things going in: 1) There would be much fun and very little sleep, and 2) What happens at the conference, stays at the conference.
Even with that last caveat, there was plenty of fun that’s printable. So here it is: HNS 2019…
I careen into Maryland early thanks to a Monday stop-off through northern California for a bookstore event with the lovely Pam Jenoff. We spend the previous night gabbing about THE HUNTRESS and THE LOST GIRLS OF PARIS respectively…
…and I skate directly cross-country after that. I am swaggering like Captain Marvel because I managed to pack for one week, one conference, three states, four panels, one Koffee Klatch, and an ALA appearance in a single carry-on suitcase–I may not have superpowers, but by God I know how to pack light. The secret is 1) Lots of mix-and-match separates, and 2) Having spent ten years watching your Navy sailor spouse pack for deployments. I’m not as good as the Overseas Gladiator–he could pack an 18th century robe a l’anglaise complete with panniers into a roll the size of a sleeve of dimes–but everything fit in one carry-on, I didn’t repeat a single outfit, and I got out of all checked bag fees. If you aren’t married to a Navy sailor who can give you the tutorial, I suggest picking one up in a bar and offering to buy him or her a six-pack if they’ll show you how to pack a sea-bag. As the OG says, the average Navy sailor will happily work for beer, and you will get a better packing story than if you look it up on Youtube.
I crash the night in the spare room of my beloved writing partner and historical fiction star Stephanie Dray, and since we have a day to kill before heading to the conference hotel, we enact a cherished tradition: head to the nearest Panera with our laptops and put in a day’s work. Future joint projects are discussed, iced coffee is swilled, word-counts are met, and problems thrashed out–Stephanie helps clarify some character decisions I’ve been mulling for my Bletchley Park codebreaker heroines in the upcoming THE ROSE CODE, and I help her debate ending arcs for her WWI heroine in the upcoming WOMEN OF CHAVANIAC. Man, I’ve missed this.
10pm: Thanks to a sudden downpour and a gas stop, it’s nearly 10 by the time we manage to check into the massive, beautiful Gaylord Hotel. I’m bunking with Steph since it’s another day till my room is ready, but we manage to rope in Stephanie Thornton from the lobby and get caught up in our PJs over cans of wine. (Cans. Of wine. This is a thing, apparently? Cabernet with nuances of nickel and overtones of aluminum?) The words are spoken: “Are we going anywhere?” “No. I’m not putting pants back on.” We discuss Stephanie T’s upcoming novel of Jackie Kennedy, AND THEY CALLED IT CAMELOT. I got a sneak peek at this in rough draft form, and I confidently predict that soon I will be pointing at the TV saying “See that gorgeous gal on The Today Show? I drank wine out of a can with her!”
12noon: I check into my room, and realize just how enormous this hotel is. It’s gorgeous…
…but my room is so geographically far from the nearest guest elevator, it’s practically located back in San Diego. Fortunately the service elevator is right across the hall, and I ride down with a basket of sheets for lunch with my Scarlet Sisters. We’ve written a book together–RIBBONS OF SCARLET, out October 1, available for pre-order!–but this is the first time we’ve all been together face to face! We toast our book baby with fizzy pink drinks, and before the opening cocktail reception in the evening, we all get gussied up in scarlet for photo ops. I won’t stop singing “The Scarlet Sister” to the tune of Hamilton‘s “The Schuyler Sisters.” Half me teammates smack me and half sing along.
6pm: opening cocktail reception and cocktail party! I manage to spot Libbie Hawker in Viking gear, Elizabeth Huhn in Civil War hoopskirts, David Ebershoff who was the delightful keynote speaker at a past HNS conference, my wonderful fellow Chesapeake Bay chapter members Matt Phillips and Chris Murray and Elizabeth Bell, my darling friend Anna Ferrell who is dolled up in Tudor garb and having a ball at her first HNS con…and best of all, the fabulous Margaret George who has come as Boudica, complete with red hair and woad!
8pm: Dinner down the street with my agent-sisters–the wonderful Kevan Lyon has probably 20 clients in one place at the same time, and with her in the lead (a string of racehorses following our trainer–she seriously needs to get racing silks for us) we take over an entire room at a local restaurant. I meet the terrific debut authors Bryn Turnbull, Kristin Beck, and Kaia Alderson, greet Renee Rosen for the first time IRL and not just online, and we all decide we should take the collective name “the Lyonesses.” Forget racing silks, we need a House sigil like in Game of Thrones. It’s thundering again, and we all find ourselves relying on Erika Robuck’s rain app to find a gap in the clouds. As far as innovations go, the rain app is much more successful than canned wine.
We snap a pic (this one’s for my favorite book blogger Erin Davies, who isn’t here but made me promise to try to get as many authors as possible into one photo!) and then I’m back to the hotel room where I help my friend Anna practice for her pitch tomorrow. I send her back to her room with firm instructions to sleep and not panic–and the next day I learn she’s had not one but two requests for a look at her novel!
7 am: I’ve got three panels back to back in the morning, and 45 minutes to pull off “polished and professional.” “Vertical and caffeinated” is probably a more realistic goal. Battering my hair into submission with a flat-iron hot enough to forge swords, I observe that the red streaks newly touched up in my hair have bled over onto the blond, and I am looking somewhat…pink. “No time, Strawberry Shortcake,” I mutter, and realize there is no way I can zip up my dress on my own. I put out an emergency call to Heather Webb, and end up sprinting through the Gaylord’s endless halls in search of her, shoes in hand and dress flapping open, wondering if I can convince my panel audience that naked backs are the latest trend. Heather puts up road flares and I manage to locate her for a zip-up, riding the service elevator down with the buckets and mops to make my panel with three minutes to spare.
8am panel: First panel! “Silk Stocking Rebels–Writing STEAM-Powered Women” with Nicky Penttila, Mary Sharratt, and Margaret Porter. We’re up against the industry panel with all the agents and editors which is taking place down the hall, but we have fun with our discussion. Someone in the audience tweets my observation about women of the past usually having to choose between marriage and career, and the bitterness that must have caused considering historical men in the same fields usually managed to have both. I love Mary Sharratt’s observations on the fascinating Alma Mahler, and later someone fills me in on the industry panel: WWI and WWII eras remain popular even with the current market saturation, and so do dual-timeline narratives. This is good news for my future slate of planned projects.
9:15: ” You Mean It Didn’t Rain That Day? Perils and Pitfalls of Writing Modern History” with Stephanie Thornton, Chanel Cleeton, and Camille de Maio. I moderate this one; everyone’s coffee has hit and the group is dynamite. We all agree there’s a lot more to fact-check in the 20th century when so much more documentation survives, so cue the hair-tearing.
— 10:30 panel: I catch up with some lovely readers, then head for my third panel, “Writing The Historical Female in the #MeToo Era” with Laura Kamoie, Eliza Knight, and Heather Webb moderating. Heavy subjects here, all things we discussed nonstop as we wrote RIBBONS OF SCARLET. I talk about writing Manon Roland, a victim of childhood sexual abuse who wrote bluntly about her assault, and we discuss the importance of not taking a victim’s voice away when we so rarely have surviving accounts from historical women in their own words.
–11:30am: Lunchtime, and our first keynote speaker Dr. Dolen Perkins-Valdez. I have been a huge fan of Dolen’s since reading her heartbreaking novel WENCH, and she holds us all spellbound with her speech, which is wry, warm, funny, and inspiring. I lose my heart to this woman the minute she gives us all a humorous look and says “Ya’ll, feel free to make sh*t up.”
1:15 pm: Sit in on “Beyond Rosie the Riveter: WWII Heroines” with Jennifer Robson, Kerri Maher, Sherri Smith, and Kip Wilson, with Greer McCallister moderating. Sherri is hilarious and I mark her new book down immediately for my TBR. Greer gets a big laugh with “The past is not just now, but with hats.” Afterward I meet my former editor Amanda Bergeron for the very first time–we worked together on THE ALICE NETWORK at Morrow before she became executive editor over at Berkley, but have never met in person. We gab happily about books; more titles for the TBR.
3:45 pm: My last panel of the day, “Papal Daughters: women of the Italian Renaissance” with Donna Russo, Alyssa Palombo, and Laura Morelli. This turns into a geek-fest with three ladies whose love for the Renaissance is as great as mine. We debate the Lucrezia Borgia incest rumors and all come down in the “rumor and lies” camp.
6pm: Everyone is at loose ends for dinner tonight, but Berkley is hosting a cocktail party meet-and-greet for any Berkley authors present, and they have my backlist so I head off for canapes. Meet Lauren Willig for the first time–she’s as delightful as I expected–and catch up with the elusive, funny, and fabulous Deanna Raybourn. After that it’s a sushi dinner with my beloved Janie Chang and Jennifer Robson, with whom I first bonded on a book tour cursed with the travel jinx from hell. It’s heaven to see these ladies again, and we end up back in my hotel gossiping over a bag of Reeses Peanut Butter Cups.
11 am: I have coffee in a pool of sunshine with the lovely Beatriz Williams–together with Lauren Willig and Karen White (whom I also have a chance to meet at this con) she helps form the Team W triangle behind my recent fave read THE GLASS OCEAN–and then chat in the lunch line with Rachel Kahan. We talk the #ownvoices movement in histfic; she has a wishlist of things she’d love to see come across her desk. If you aren’t already doing it, follow major editors and agents on Twitter/Instagram/social media–they post their wishlists, and you just might find your WIP on it! I know at least one debut author who got a contract this way.
1:15 pm: After lunch, it’s time for “Double Trouble: Crafting the Dual Narrative Historical Novel” with Beatriz Williams! I’m absolutely tickled to see the room is full-to-overspilling, and veer off to beg the hotel staff if they can pull back the divider and open up to the room next door. They do, and we fill both rooms to capacity (yes!) No one’s quieting down anytime soon, so I pick up the mic and sing a ringing F sharp until everyone spins around–first time I’ve had the opportunity to use my opera-singer training at a writer’s con. After that, Beatriz and I are off and running, and we have a blast, passing the conversation back and forth as we discuss types of dual narratives, the sales pros and cons, and the creative pitfalls of crafting dual and triple timelines. If you missed our session and are looking for the breakdown, here it is.
Afterward, I get a chance to catch up with the lovely Greer McCallister–conferences are all about the sideways wiggle through the crowd as you grab an elbow exclaiming There you are!–and we chat deadline woes. I laugh way too hard when she deadpans “I can write fast when I’m writing badly.”
3:45: Bookstore signing! The alphabet is kind to me; I’m sitting with Margaret Porter, Alix Rickloff, Jen Robson, and Aimie Runyan. A group photo together…
…and then it’s time for a Sestra Selfie as two authors who both wrote books about Night Witches. (Have you read DAUGHTERS OF THE NIGHT SKY? It’s amazing!)
5:45 pm: Cocktail hour–I’m on my way to meet up with my Chesapeake Bay chapter when I run into my stellar editor Tessa Woodward, and before I know it, we’re gabbing away as the Scarlet Sisters get roped in one by one, and we share tales from the trenches of writing a collaborative novel. Tessa, whom I’ve only ever seen in her book-stacked office at Morrow, is absolutely hilarious in a group chat text session. Also wedged into our table are lovely Brits Hazel Gaynor and Gill Paul–finally meeting these ladies in person!
6:30 pm: Evening Banquet. Leslie Carroll leads the entertainment with a series of historic play excerpts by notable historical women (Mae West was a playwright?!) and afterward I’m up waaaay too late in the lobby, watching silent disco, drinking prosecco, and trading gossip with fellow Chessie member Allison Thurman in cutting-edge white menswear, Zenobia Neil in Greek finery (I can’t wait for her book with the Spartan heroine!), and Donna Russo and Sophie Perinot who put us all to fashion shame in cutting edge jumpsuits.
Sartorially I can’t match them, except in the shoe department. I left my red conference stilettos at home, but I’ve got triple-strapped pumps that I like to think Peggy Carter would wear out dancing when she wasn’t chasing bad guys for SHIELD.
8 am: I crawl out of bed looking like I’ve spent the night under a bridge. Spackle on concealer, catch a brief nap in a basket of clean sheets as I ride down the service elevator one last time, and head for ALA with Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie. I see Robin Hoklotubbe who I’ve met many times before in California at library events, and she asks if she can add me last-minute to a book club panel. “I can panel at five minutes’ notice,” I assure her, and they wedge me in between Steph and Laura to talk about book clubs and how to promote them. I share my favorite book club story, a call-in to a group of nonagenerians who started the conversation off with a brisk “Let’s discuss the sex…” as they expertly flipped their copies of THE ALICE NETWORK open to all the bedroom bits.
1pm: Signing copies of RIBBONS OF SCARLET, THE HUNTRESS, and THE ALICE NETWORK at the ALA HarperCollins booth. After this I’m done, cooked, stick a fork in me, and my lovely colleagues are in the same boat, all of us so tired we’d eat frog spawn if someone would just give us permission to climb into PJs and stare at a wall. I’m crashing in Steph’s spare room again, so we drive back to the Baltimore area singing along with Act I of Hamilton–nothing like barreling down the 295 howling “I’m looking for a mind at WORK, WORK!” with your bestie. That evening is nothing but pajamas, an obscene amount of takeout Chinese, and binge-watching the entire first season of “Fleabag” (excellent!) But we also talk about the conference, which is glowing gently in the memory already. It was a great con: I didn’t have a chance to hit very many panels this time around because I had so many to speak on, but the keynote speeches were inspiring, the chance to meet readers was thrilling (Kerri Kerce, I’m so glad you made it!), and reconnecting with colleagues and friends I only see every other year–and some I’ve only known online up until now–was marvelously rejuvenating. HNS 2019 is over, and already I can’t wait for HNS 2021!
I’m newly back from the 2019 Historical Novel Society Conference, and I promise I’ll get my recap up soon–but in case you missed the Koffee Klatch I did with the fabulous Beatriz Williams on how to craft a dual-narrative historical novel, here are the high points.
Why write a dual narrative historical novel?
- FIRST AND FOREMOST–it’s a way to make a less-marketable historical era more marketable. We all know how hard it is to pitch hist-fic that isn’t set in an era deemed trendy, and adding a second timeline set in a more popular era will help. Maybe you’ve seen eyes glaze when you say “It’s a story about an 8th century Benedictine nun in the south of France” but when you add in “combined with a French Resistance tale that links to the past with a long-hidden murder” those eyes may light back up. Think of it as luring readers and publishers into letting you tell the story you actually want to tell by wrapping it in sparkly, on-trend ribbons.
- Your book can be shelved, tagged, and categorized as more than just historical fiction. If your title can also be found under Contemporary, Women’s Fiction, Mystery, Historical Mystery, and any other tag your secondary timeline gives you, then more readers will find it.
- Variety. If you have a grim war-time drama full of rationing and marching, maybe your secondary timeline introduces a shot of glamour or a setting with some sunshine to vary the pace and give your reader a break. Variety is the spice of books as well as life.
Ok, I want to write a dual timeline historical narrative. What types are there?
- A historical timeline juxtaposed with a modern-day timeline. (Beatriz Williams’s Wicked City)
- A historical timeline juxtaposed with a second historical timeline (Beatriz Williams’s The Secret Life of Violet Grant, my The Alice Network)
- Two historical timelines told by the same narrator, generally flipping from Before and After some pivotal event whose details are slowly revealed to the reader (look no further than Beatriz Williams’s The Summer Wives. Two of the three story threads in my The Huntress also take this route, though told by two different narrators.)
You need a link between your timelines. What creates that link?
- Artifacts are frequently the link between timelines–mysterious photographs, antique objects, a cache of letters (although the “I found a trove of letters in a hatbox in my grandmother’s attic” has been done quite a bit, it feels to me). Examples: Susanna Kearsley’s The Firebird or Jennifer Robson’s The Gown.
- Characters can provide the link, often seen as a young person in one timeline and a much older person in the other–I did this in The Alice Network. Family ties count here too, as a younger family member unravels the mystery of a mother or relative–see Chanel Cleeton’s Next Year in Havana.
- Locations can link stories through time as well as space. Stephanie Dray’s upcoming The Women of Chavaniac features multiple generations of women across several centuries who all live at the Marquis de Lafayette’s castle in France.
What are the pitfalls and problems in writing dual narrative historicals?
- Lots and lots of research. If you choose to write two historical narratives in one novel, that’s double the historical research.
- If you have two stories, it is going to be harder to keep your word count to a reasonable length.
- Balancing the stakes in both narratives. Putting two timelines together invites comparison–maybe in a story of her own, your modern-day college student struggling with an identity crisis and the death of her mother would be 100% sympathetic, but when she’s juxtaposed against your secondary heroine starving to death in the Leningrad siege, your reader may be inclined to think “You’re not starving in a war zone, kid, pull yourself together!” and shut the book in irritation. Keep your stakes high in both timelines.
How do you write your dual narratives–each separately or both together?
- You can write each timeline A-Z, then have a braiding session afterward intercutting the two. Advantages: you can keep the voice more distinct while staying firmly in one timeline, and also keep your historical details more consistent if you don’t have to continually ask yourself what era you’re (only after you realize WWII slang has crept across the timelines into your 1880 heroine’s mouth). Disadvantages: It’s easy to over-write if you do the timelines separately, and end up with way more than you need.
- You can write both timelines at once, cutting between them as the reader would in the final draft. Advantages: It’s easier to tease out the parallels between timelines when you’re going back and forth. Disadvantages: Historical detail has a tendency to drift from one timeline to the next when you aren’t firmly anchored in one time and place, see above.
- Ultimately, however, there is no One True Way. Do what feels most natural for you.
The takeaway: A dual timeline isn’t a sure-fire sale, but agents and editors are still buying them, and readers like them. So why not consider it?
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!