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 2017 (though not all were published this year) and just who you should buy them for…
1. Flight of Dreams by Ariel Lawhon. Really stellar. Suspenseful, tightly plotted, and racheting its way to a merciless climax, “Flight of Dreams” takes a famous historic disaster–the explosion of the Hindenburg–and uses it as a ticking clock to power the novel along as a handful of likeable and unwitting characters scheme, dawdle, fret, kiss, drink, smoke, and kill time on the great luxury dirigible crossing the Atlantic, as all the while the reader is screaming at them to get off the balloon before it’s too late. Usually I can pick up clues in books like these and figure out in advance who will live and who will die, but this time I was blindsided. A terrific read.
Buy for: Your office Secret Santa who you don’t know from Adam. There’s seriously no one who won’t be sucked in by this book—your thrill-loving cubicle-mate who loves a mystery with flying bullets, your corner-office feminist boss who likes her heroines smart and assertive, or the barely-out-of-her-teens office intern who will identify with the poignant coming-of-age subplot. This book has something for everyone.
2. Conclave by Robert Harris. A sensationally gripping book covering the tense few days between the death of one pope and the election of another. Who will it be? Harris makes these quiet scenes of old men casting ballots in a locked room unbearably tense, and his hero–a thoughtful Italian cardinal with no desire to be Pope–is a humble, lovable Everyman we can all root for. The end is a shocker.
Buy for: Your relapsed Catholic great-aunt who hasn’t been to confession since Vatican II. She’ll get a kick out of this peek behind the doors of Sistine Chapel.
3. Possession by A.S. Byatt. A dense, delicious, literary puzzle as two modern-day poetry scholars unravel a hidden love affair between a pair of famous (fictional) 19th century poets. Switching back and forth between the Victorian lovers who fall in love via their intense shared love of their work, snippets of their luscious poetry and heart-breaking letters, and the 20th century scholars on the hunt for those same letters and poems, this is a dazzlingly complicated puzzle, an ode to scholarship and poetry, and a tragic love story all in one.
Buy for: Your bookaholic mother, who already has a copy but it’s falling to pieces. Get her a new one just to say a) “You were totally right, I should have read this years ago like you said” and b) “I found a copy with the Burne-Jones Beguiling of Merlin on the cover instead of Gwyneth Paltrow from that crappy rom-com movie remake.”
4. Dragon Springs Road by Janie Chang. A fierce, elegant coming-of-age story starring an orphaned Eurasian girl struggling to find her place in the world among the tumultuous shifting tides of the early Chinese republic. Jialing is a desperately appealing heroine, struggling for an education, a job, a husband, anything that will give her a future, and continually having doors slammed in her face. A touch of magic realism makes this one special, as the isolated Jialing’s only constant friend is a mischievous fox spirit who makes her home at Dragon Springs Road.
Buy for: Your hist-fic-devouring pal who has been complaining for years that there isn’t enough historical fiction written outside western Europe. Make her day and give her Chang’s compelling Three Souls too, with a fan to cool her cheeks when the Chinese communist poet sweeps the heroine off her feet.
5. Piece of Cake by Derek Robinson. A real classic of wartime literature: a squadron of RAF fighter pilots making their way first through the idyllic boredom of the “Phony War,” and then being plunged headlong into the hellish dangers of the Battle of Britain. Tragedy and humor and spine-tingling action run side by side in this tale; Robinson pulls helpless laughter out of you with the high-jinks of his adrenaline-junkie young heroes, then turns the pace on a dime and has you mopping your eyes as the cruel odds of aerial battles against enemy Messerschmitts sends the irrepressible fliers you’ve come to love spiraling one by one to their deaths. An unforgettable heart-breaker.
Buy for: Your grumpy great-grandpa with his cane and his WWII Veteran cap. Maybe he’ll unbend after reading, and tell you a few things about what his war was like. Or maybe not. But I bet he’ll enjoy this book.
6. Goodnight From London by Jennifer Robson. Another tale of the London Blitz, this one told from the ground looking up rather than the sky looking down. The terror and courage of London under fire is seen through the eyes of Ruby, a gritty young female journalist trying to make her mark in a man’s world. Ruby’s little band of friends—boarders at her boarding house, colleagues at the office, a certain taciturn fellow who keeps disappearing on unexplained missions overseas—make for an appealing gang to root for in a world where the next bomb may claim any or all.
Buy for: Your tart-tongued grandma who remembers just what it was like to be the only working girl in a man’s office, and will get steamed up all over again at the trials Ruby faces dodging around the desks and struggling to get credit for her own ideas.
7. Between Two Fires by Christopher Buehlman. A curious, fascinating book that mixes fantasy, horror, and history in a deft, riveting blend. In the wasteland of medieval France, riddled by the aftermath of war and the horrors of the Black Death, a trinity of unlikely pilgrims come together: a cynical knight mourning the loss of family and honor, a fallen priest racked by both homosexuality and guilt, and a young girl who is most definitely something otherworldly. As she leads them on a quest to rediscover their own souls and bring an end to the plague, they battle earthly foes (starvation, illness, mobs) and unearthly ones (demons, angels, and some truly hair-raising monsters). Theirs is a rollercoaster ride through demon lands and angel-scapes, and maybe not for everyone–both the violence and gross-out factor are fairly high–but I was spellbound to the end.
Buy for: That teenaged nephew or son who doesn’t read but has a ghoulish imagination (what teenage boy doesn’t?) He’ll get sucked into the gore, the sword-fights, and the spilling monster entrails, and come away knowing more than he ever thought to learn about French medieval history.
7. The Girls In The Picture by Melanie Benjamin. An unabashed power anthem celebrating female friendship and female ambition, wrapped in the sparkling myth of the early Hollywood film scene. Budding screen-writer Frances gets her big break in an unexpected partnership with America’s sweetheart Mary Pickford, a mega-star whose ringlets and dimples hide flinty determination to succeed. Frances and Mary’s friendship may be rocked by wartime politics, scheming colleagues, and jealous husbands, but it’s always to each other that these complicated, powerful women return. Glamour, glitz, and girl power galore.
Buy for: That young woman in your life, be it daughter, niece, or girl next door, who’s just going off to college. This will encourage her to chase her ambitions, no matter how huge they are, rather than apologize for them. Ambition, as Reese Witherspoon said, is not a dirty word.
8. Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Frye by Rachel Joyce. Newly-retired Harold is quietly having a midlife crisis, left at loose ends with too much time, too many regrets, and a wife gripped by her own internal struggles. A letter from dying friend Queenie jolts Harold into unexpected motion: he decides to cross England on foot to Queenie’s bedside, convinced she will live until he can see her face to face and make amends. The people he meets along the way, humorous and helpful and annoying, sometimes all three, will change Harold as he changes them, and his left-behind wife isn’t just the typical nagging scold but turns out to have an epiphany and a secret all her own. A quirky, delightful, unexpected read with some real tear-jerker moments.
Buy for: Your newly-retired uncle, who will get a kick out of a book where the questing hero isn’t some teenager but a middle-aged guy with a big dream. Buy him a pair of good walking shoes to go with the book, just in case he gets inspired.
9. Last Christmas in Paris by Hazel Gaynor and Heather Webb. This joint collaboration is a gripping epistolary novel beginning with heartbreaking gaiety at the start of the First World War. A progression of letters flies between a spirited female journalist, a bookish new-minted soldier, and the various bright young things who make up their band of friends, charting the slow, heartbreaking passage of years as war and disillusion grind away youthful dreams and ideals. Humor, love, tragedy, and hope make for a moving, uplifting read.
Buy for: The unabashed romantic in your life—sister? BFF? Aunt Jo?–who doesn’t mind whipping out a hankie over the last chapter and whimpering “No…no…please tell me they don’t die…”
10. Lions of Al-Rassan by Guy Gavriel Kay. I’m a new convert to GGK’s work thanks to the recommendations of my writing buddy SJA Turney (whose work has also been on my top ten list) and this is a book that made me weep ugly tears. It’s a fantasy version of Moorish Spain, where three factions very recognizable as the Moors in power, the Spaniards in neighboring border kingdoms who eye the territory lost centuries ago, and the Jewish population who just tries to get by in both worlds are poised on the brink of an ugly religious re-conquest. But for the space of a year or so, peace is held and explored through the odd partnership of a Moorish warrior-poet, a Spanish mercenary captain, and a fierce female Jewish physician who bridge the religious and cultural gaps to find friendship, and dare to hope their people can do the same. Transcendent and heartbreaking.
Buy for: Everyone you know. Absolutely everyone. Because this beautifully-written paean to the wisdom of choosing understanding and friendship over the barriers of hatred, religion, and race has never, EVER been more timely.
And for bonus reads: The Woman In Black by Susan Hill, if you love a good Gothic ghost story to raise the hairs on your neck…Crown In Candlelight by Rosemary Hawley Jarman if you like gorgeously lush historic tales with poetic language…The Wardrobe Mistress by Meghan Masterson for a lovely French Revolution-set coming-of-age story… Feast of Sorrow by Crystal King for a Roman epic about a young slave who helps pen one of the world’s most famous gourmet cookbooks!
Get thee hence to a bookstore and finish up your holiday shopping. Happy Saturnalia!
Nothing fits better in a Christmas stocking than a book. Here are my recommendations for your next shopping trip, the best books I read in 2015 (though not all were published this year) and just who you should buy them for. Why eleven and not the usual ten? I got bored, so you get a bonus book.
1. “The Solitary House” by Lynn Shepherd.
Is there any fictional setting more delicious than the seamy underbelly of Victorian England? Lynn Shepherd dives deep under the prim-and-proper surface of 1850s London with this superbly atmospheric tale of a young detective on the hunt for a missing child and a mysterious killer who might just be a young Jack the Ripper. Street urchins, Whitechapel prostitutes, powerful men with depraved secrets, not-so-insane patients locked up in lunatic asylums, and a Dickensian Bleak House twist make this one a winner, and better yet, the first in a series. Shepherd’s young detective goes on to star in at least two more adventures.
Buy for: your mother, if like mine she is pining for the return of “Penny Dreadful.”
2. “Praetorian” by S.J.A. Turney
Delicious unpredictability is what sets “Praetorian” apart from the rest of the guts-and-glory Roman HF out there. A villain looks like he’s shaping up to be a long-term adversary, only to be suddenly killed off. Emperor Commodus comes onto the scene, trailing hints of madness, hubris, and Joaquin Phoenix, but is unexpectedly . . . a nice guy? You never quite know where the twisting path of the plot will take you, so all you can do is follow along with stalwart and endlessly likable legionary Rufinus as he is promoted from simple legionary to Praetorian guard, and thrust into a world of plots, shadows, assassinations, and heart-stopping swordplay.
Buy for: that teenage boy in your life, be it son or grandson or nephew, who doesn’t like history. He’ll be sucked into Rufinus’ adventures before he knows it, and probably beg for a gladius. Settle for getting him “Rome: Total War” and the sequel to Praetorian which is already out.
3. “The Secret Life of Violet Grant” by Beatriz Williams
A charming, quirky, witty dual narrative that snaps back and forth between Vivian, a ’60s career girl struggling to make a name as a journalist, and Violet, her scientifically-minded aunt struggling to be accepted as a physicist in pre-WWI Berlin. Vivian’s narrative as she tries to untangle her aunt’s long-buried secrets is flippant, funny, and delightful.
Buy for: the most irreverent member of your Girl Squad. She’ll see herself in Vivian.
4. “Defending Jacob” by William Landay
Read about teen killers in the media, and we all shake our heads. How could their parents not have known?” William Landay dives into that question in this tense and terrifying tale where a teenage boy is accused of murdering a classmate, and quickly becomes the town pariah as the court case grinds on. The boy’s staunchest defender is his powerhouse lawyer father, who wrestles legal demons and personal ones as he comes to face the question: what if his son is guilty after all? An unputdownable book that screams to a breathtaking climax.
Buy for: your legal beagle cousin. Watch him switch his dreams from prosecution attorney to family law.
5. “Rodin’s Lover” by Heather Webb
Camille Claudel would not have been an easy woman to know, but she sure was a fascinating one to read about. The daughter of French bourgeoisie, she has zero interest in marriage or domesticity–zero interest in anything, really, except becoming a sculptor. Prickly, proud, disciplined, and obsessed, Camille pushes away friends, alienates suitors, and uses family, all in the fierce pursuit of art. Her partner in art and love is Rodin, who understands Camille’s drive because he shares it. Powerful, poignant, beautifully written.
Buy for: your niece going off to art school. Tell her that if she starts hearing voices like Camille, for God’s sake go to a doctor.
6. “Queen of the Tearling” by Erika Johansen
The first in a fascinating new fantasy series revolving around a young queen struggling to protect her country from a terrifying neighboring empire which demands monthly Hunger-Games-like slave tributes. There is magic and mayhem and battle, but the real draw here is the young Queen herself: refreshingly plain, resolutely blunt-spoken, headstrong and compassionate and brave. She’s a real girl who dreams about romance but has no time for it with a new throne and an incipient invasion on her hands. I look forward to the next installment in her adventures.
Buy for: that smart-as-a-whip little girl in your life, whether sister or daughter or just the kid down the block who you babysit. Promise you’ll take her to the upcoming movie of this book once it comes out, starring Emma Watson.
7. “Leviathan Wakes” by James S.A. Corey
Space opera for the ages by an author team who knows how to turn up the tension like almost no other writers I’ve ever read. The world-building is impeccable, the science is sound without drowning the story in techno-babble, the space-battles are thrilling, and the characters solid: an idealistic ship captain and his shattered crew running from a lethal secret in a world where humanity has colonized the solar system but not yet the stars. There are four books following “Leviathan Wakes” in the Expanse Series, and a Sy-Fy TV show airing this month.
Buy for: your geek buddy at work who hates how women in sci-fi/fantasy so often fail the Bechdel Test. She’ll be in agony which Expanse character to cosplay next: tough-as-nails Marine Bobbie, brilliant engineer Naomi, or foul-mouthed little politician Avasarala.
8. “The Conqueror’s Wife” by Stephanie Thornton
Stephanie Thornton is rapidly becoming my favorite author for badass women of the ancient world, and this is her best yet. The focus here isn’t really on Alexander the Great, but on the people who surrounded him and shaped his legacy: his tomboy sister Thessalonike who yearns to be a warrior; scientifically-minded Persian princess Drypetis who seethes in captivity after her father is dethroned; ruthless beauty Roxana who craves power as Alexander’s wife; and the lovable Hephaestion who is the conqueror’s boyhood companion and lover. All these narrators are fascinating, and their voices interweave in a gorgeous chorus of stirring battles, opulent feasts, luxurious palaces, and a never-ending web of intrigue.
Buy for: that old college history professor you still meet now and then for coffee. He’ll swoon for the lush historical detail. If you’re feeling really evil, buy an extra copy for that anti-gay-marriage drone you drew for Secret Santa at work, and watch their heads explode as they read about all these sexually-fluid Greeks.
9. “Lords of Discipline” by Pat Conroy.
A tortured, beautiful, moving story of the friendship between four boys attending an elite Southern military academy, surviving brutal hazing and the agonies of first romance even as the school goes through its own growing pains with integration, institutional racism, and the looming threat of the Vietnam War. Betrayal and tragedy will strike one of the four before graduation, but the ending is full of a savage and gorgeous payback.
Buy for: your ex-Army dad. Ask him if all officers really had to go through hazing this horrible.
10. “The Tudor Vendetta by C.W. Gortner
The third in Gortner’s rip-roaring series about Tudor spy Brendon Prescott, who has his hands full this time around: a poisoning attempt on on the newly-ascended Queen Elizabeth, a missing lady-in-waiting, and a dire Spanish plot–not to mention a deadly adversary come back to haunt him. Tudor fiction can feel tired, but the Spymaster trilogy is fresh, fast-paced, and delightful.
Buy for: your uncle, the one whose wife made him sit through all of “The Tudors” and now consequently thinks the whole era is bodice-ripping and leather pants and pouty-lipped kings. Brendon’s sword fights and spy games will balance the scales.
11. “Medicis Daughter” by Sophie Perinot.
This is Renaissance France meets Game of Thrones: dark, addictive historical fiction that coils religious strife, court intrigue, family hatred, and betrayed innocence like a nest of poisonous snakes. Princess Margot, daughter of the infamous Catherine de’Medici, is our guide to the heart of her violent, incestuous family: a French Sansa Stark who transforms from naive beauty to accomplished game player to woman of conscience.
Buy for: your sophisticated older sister, because she reminds you of Margot’s worldly, witty, and hysterically funny mentor the Duchesse de Nevers. We all need such women in our lives.
And we all need these books in our lives, too. Hurry outside, go buy them–and Merry Christmas!
I’m about to start a long road trip, throwing the Praetorian Dog in the car and heading off to spend Christmas with the Dowager Librarian in California–but I’ve got just enough time to turn out the mandatory Top Ten Books I Read This Year! blog post, just in time to help you complete your holiday shopping! Because nothing fits better in a Christmas stocking than a book. Here are my recommendations, the best books I read in 2014 (though not all were published this year) and just who you should buy them for . . .
1. “The Elegance of the Hedgehog” by Muriel Barbery. A quirky and unabashedly intellectual book about smart people thinking smart thoughts. Renee is a Paris concierge, hiding her passion for books and art behind a concierge’s stereotypical surliness; Paloma is a twelve-year-old genius being driven mad by school, life, and the stupidity around her. She’s planning to kill herself when she turns thirteen, more or less out of boredom–but a cautious friendship with the prickly Renee and a contemplative Japanese businessman changes all three lives in astounding ways.
Buy for: that ultra-smart kid in your life, whether it’s your bookworm daughter or your genius little brother or that eleven-year-old you babysit for who gets bullied because she’s already reading Jane Austen. That kid will see themselves in Paloma, and like she did probably develop a passion for French art and Japanese calligraphy.
2. “Blood Eye” by Giles Kristian. I found Kristian’s Viking series after going into serious withdrawal from Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon Stories, and it doesn’t disappoint. This story of a boy named Raven swept up into the crew of a Viking longship is everything you want from guts-and-glory historical fiction: bone-crunching shield-walls, pulse-pounding adventures, and prose of blood-stirring action and sometimes lyrical beauty.
Buy for: your mother, if she’s like mine and absolutely adores a good skull-crushing with her evening glass of chardonnay.
3. “Prince of Shadows” by Rachel Caine. I know nothing about Caine except that she has a YA vampire series, so this book was an expected shock of deliciousness: Romeo and Juliet retold with a surprising twist. The hero and heroine here are Benvolio (Romeo’s steady best friend) and Rosaline (Romeo’s first infatuation, ditched for Juliet). This pair is smarter, older, and far more savvy than their more famous counterparts, and they struggle to stop the inevitable–all the while feeling like the “curse on both their houses” may be a literal catalyst for all this disaster, and not just a poetic conceit.
Buy for: your office-mate whose cubicle is pasted with Shakespeare quotes, and who can be heard muttering Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow creeps in this petty pace from day to day as she watches the clock move toward 6pm. She’ll geek out on the way Caine weaves Shakespeare’s lines into her own dialogue.
4. “One Plus One” by Jojo Moyes. A feel-good book which also manages to be whip-smart and side-splittingly funny–no small feat to pull off. Ed is a tech-head millionaire currently on the outs for unwitting insider trading, hiding from his family and looking for new purpose. New purpose storms into his life in the form of Jess, a blue-collar single mom with a giant farting dog, a sullen teenage stepson, and a genius daughter who has to get to Scotland for a math competition if she has any chance of getting into an elite school and out of the cycle of poverty. Ed ends up driving the band of misfits to Scotland, and over the next week as his car and his life are systematically dismantled, something else starts to form–a rag-tag little family.
Buy for: that friend who’s been a bit battered by life lately, and really needs a smile on her face. Reassure her in advance that the dog doesn’t die.
5. “Live by Night by Dennis Lehane. Sequel to his fabulous “The Given Day,” and centering around a cocky Irish boy who starts low on the rungs of the Boston mob during Prohibition, and rises steadily through the roaring 20s until he is running the Florida division of the mob’s liquor business. Shifts effortlessly from 20s-era Boston to Florida to Cuba in a whirl of crime bosses, hit men, bathtub gin parties, good girls gone bad, bad girls gone good, and the inevitable consequences to a life of crime. Seedy, violent, glorious.
Buy for: your dad who has a passion for gangster movies. Tell him it’s “The Godfather” and “The Departed” rolled into one.
6. Speaking of living by night, try “The Quick” by Lauren Owen. This is Bram Stoker-style Victorian gothic at its best; buttoned-up London suits and properly closed doors, and the horrors that sometimes live behind them. A shy young poet comes to London and is introduced to a secret society of London’s most lethal men–a society that will have to be fought with blood when the poet disappears, and his determined sister comes to town looking for answers. A brave heroine, a band of eccentric vigilantes, and a villain named Doctor Knife–this will have you reading far into the night, and falling asleep with all your lights on.
Buy for: your gay bestie, because there is a tender and wonderful m/m romance tucked into all the supernatural tension.
7. “The Tiger Queens: The Women of Genghis Khan” by Stephanie Thornton. Four narrators handing the torch to each other in turn: the Khan’s seeress first wife, his brash tomboy daughter, a Persian captive turned councillor, and finally a watchful daughter-in-law who will seize the reins when the great Khan’s empire begins to fracture. Other women have roles to play as well: a tough-as-nails adopted daughter; a rape-ravaged princess whose madness will have unspeakable consequences for one of the four narrators. These women are fascinating, and there isn’t a weakling among them.
Buy for: your sister, so you can speculate how the two of you would have fared managing a ger and drinking fermented mare’s milk.
8. “Joyland” by Stephen King. No one can write a coming-of-age story like (ironically) the master of horror. This beauty has it all, a bittersweet and moving tale of a college boy whose summer stint at an old-fashioned carnival turns out to have a lot of firsts: first love, first heartbreak, first real job, first sex partner–and since there is both a ghost and a serial killer on the loose in the carnival, first brush with death and the supernatural.
Buy for: your nephew going off to college for his own coming-of-age story. Write your phone number on the inside: If a girl dumps you and you get as depressed as the hero in this book, don’t sit there listening to the Doors and thinking about suicide the way he does. CALL ME.
9. “The Magicians Trilogy” by Lev Grossman. This is the book for you if you ever wished you could go to Narnia or Hogwarts. Quentin is a brilliant student with a fanboy crush on a series of books clearly based on CS Lewis’s Narnia; the kid who never got over the fact that he didn’t open a wardrobe and find a fantasy paradise. But he does get his Hogwarts letter, finding himself accepted to a college called Brakebills which trains the gifted few in the arts of magic. Quentin is a bit of a prat through the first two books, but the world-building is wonderful: Brakebills is like Harry Potter with drinking, screwing, and swearing.
Buy for: your older brother, so you can reminisce back to the days when he played Peter, you played Lucy, and you both just knew you were going to open a door to Narnia someday and become High King and Queen of Narnia.
10. “The Complete Unwind Dystology” by Neal Shusterman. YA dystopia stories are a dime a dozen these days, but this quartet is a cut above the rest, envisioning a world where the abortion debate and most of the world’s diseases have been solved in the most horrific way possible: abortion is illegal, but from the ages of 13 to 18, parents can elect to have their problem teens Unwound, their bodies harvested as replacement organs and parts for the nation’s diseased and wounded (it doesn’t count as murder, the argument goes, because all the dead teen’s parts are still alive, just in separate bodies!) The book starts with three teens on the run from this grim fate, but spans out to encompass many more characters. A horrifying, thought-provoking, unflinching read through four unputdownable books.
Buy for: your bookworm grandma who thinks YA has turned into nothing but sparkly vampires and love triangles. Be prepared for a long thoughtful discussion on the social ramifications of organ harvesting.
And for a final bonus book . . .
11. “A Day of Fire: a novel of Pompeii” by Stephanie Dray, Ben Kane, E. Knight, Sophie Perinot, Vicky Alvear Shecter and, yes, me. Normally I wouldn’t list one of my own titles on any best-of list, but I only wrote 1/6 of this collection–I had no idea what my collaborators were going to come up with, and I was as agog and delighted as any strange reader when I got to read the whole collection A-Z. Vicky’s heart-breaking boy on the cusp of manhood; Sophie’s quiet engineer hero; Ben’s disreputable ex-soldier with his dogged loyalty; Eliza’s young mother-to-be and Stephanie’s pair of lion-brave whores–these characters didn’t come from my brain, and they combined into a wonderful whole to tell the story of Pompeii’s last fatal day, so I feel justified in pimping my fellow authors. Buy for: everybody you know. Absolutely everybody. Because I want to see this book on the NYT list, don’t you? Let’s make it happen.
In compliance with federal law, which apparently states that all book bloggers must post a “Top Ten Books I Read This Year!” list on their blogs in December, I’m giving you mine–and in time to help you complete your holiday shopping! Because nothing fits better in a stocking than a book. Here are my recommendations, the best books I read in 2013 (though not all were published this year) and just who you should buy them for . . .
1. Longbourn by Jo Baker. Jane Austen meets “Downton Abbey”–this is the story of the mostly-silent servants who make their way through the Bennet house in Pride & Prejudice–and this is their story, not Elizabeth and Darcy’s, which is what makes it refreshing. Housemaid Sarah wants to do something with her life besides empty chamber pots and scrub petticoats, and that’s far more important to her than who any of the Bennet girls marry. But like Elizabeth, Sarah has her choice between a charming unreliable suitor and a silent passionate one, and like Elizabeth, Sarah will take her chance at happiness into her own hands. Buy for: your Janeite bestie, the one whose Pride & Prejudice blu-ray skips automatically to Colin Firth climbing out of the pond. The descriptions of Regency housework alone will keep her from ever sighing again “I wish I was born back then!”
2. Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell. One of the sweetest and tenderest stories about young love I have ever read; good enough to touch even a cynical heart like mine. The plot couldn’t be simpler: two brainy sixteen-year-olds with variously screwed-up home lives meet on a school bus and fall in love. The genius is in the details: the awkward pauses, the fragility of emotions, the pitch-perfect dialogue of smart kids who can throw around words like “phylum” and discourse on Shakespeare, but then get flustered and only mutter “God!” Buy for: that awkward teenager in your life, be it a younger sister or a teenage son. They will read this book thinking, This is my life.
3. The Pagan Lord by Bernard Cornwell. The latest installment in the Saxon Stories, with the always entertaining shield-wall adventures of cranky Viking-trained hero Uhtred as he kills enemies, insults priests, and strides around being the colossus that he is. Cornwell never fails to entertain, and this one is fabulous blood-and-battle fun. Buy for: your husband, who you recently got hooked on the Uhtred books during a long car ride, and who has been plowing through them ever since with a feverish gleam in his eye like a heroin addict (ahem).
4. The Secret of the Glass by Donna Russo Morin. My favorite book from one of my favorite writer friends. The nice thing about Donna’s historical heroines is that they always have something on their minds besides their love life–and Renaissance gal Sophia might have a Tom Brady look-alike sending her passionate glances, but this girl already has her hands full running her dying father’s glassblowing business, and knowing it will be scooped out of her hands as soon as he dies because of course, women can’t run glassblowing businesses. Rarely has the helplessness of historical women at the hands of society been so well explored; I spent much of this book in a fit of outrage on Sophia’s behalf. Buy for: your feminist cubicle mate, who will realize all over again that women today might be saddled with the GOP, but we’ve still got it a lot better than our historical counterparts.
5. BZRK Reloaded by Michael Grant. I’m a born Luddite who can break a computer just by walking past it, so if you’d told me I’d be this riveted by a YA thriller about nanobot technology, I’d have laughed in your face. But Grant’s tale of the Hallmark company trying to enslave the minds of humanity and the teenage hackers who try to stop them is hard-edged and riveting. Light YA this ain’t; Grant pulls no punches in depicting a covert revolution where death, enslavement, and madness are right around around the corner for all concerned. Buy for: the office nerd you drew for Secret Santa. Sit back and enjoy the fun as he becomes paranoid: “I know I’ve got bots on me, I just KNOW it!!”
6. Wool by Hugh Howey. I devoured this post-apocalyptic doorstopper in a matter of days, unable to look away from Howey’s compulsively readable and utterly horrifying vision of a future where humanity lives in underground silos–but what’s really outside those silos? And the heroine, a tough as nails mechanic, is just a delight from start to finish. Buy for: your garage mechanic uncle. He’ll be tickled to read a story where the mechanic saves humanity from destruction, rather than some covert ops James Bond type.
7. The Queen’s Pawn by Christy English. Don’t be fooled by the quietness of this historical novel that mostly takes place in the cushioned spaces of a queen’s medieval solar–this is a nail-biting examination of female power-play in an era where women weren’t supposed to have any power. Eleanor of Aquitaine takes one half of the narrative, and facing her as protege and eventual rival is Princess Alais of France who Eleanor raises as future wife to Richard the Lionheart, but who will strike out on her own in a grab for Eleanor’s throne and Eleanor’s husband. But this is no cat-fight story of two women fighting over a man–Eleanor’s fierce pride in Alais never wavers even when Alais moves against her, and Alais’s love and respect for Eleanor proves a beacon when her ambitions begin to falter. Buy for: your mother, because this is a mother-daughter story unlike any you’ve ever read.
8. Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Unset. A riveting trilogy set in medieval Norway, following a headstrong girl, her feckless but charming husband, her many sons, and the richly-textured community in which they live. Astounding that 800 pages of a woman obsessing about sin could be so flat-out absorbing, but then again, it’s a classic for a reason. Buy for: that niece who’s backpacking to Norway to see the Northern Lights. Be prepared for a puzzled email about why she missed the Northern Lights because she was too wrapped up in a medieval Norwegian girl obsessing about sin.
9. Cuckoo’s Calling by J.K. Rowling. Mas respect for Rowling, who didn’t coast on the success of Harry Potter but struck out into other genres–first adult contemporary with Casual Vacancy, and then even more brilliantly into crime with Cuckoo’s Calling. This is old-fashioned noir at its best: a brilliant down-on-his-luck detective and his sweet-as-cream Gal Friday negotiating the seedy glamour of the high fashion industry as they try to discover why a supermodel plunged to her death from a locked apartment. Buy for: your dad, who loves the crime shows but wishes they’d move away from the damn evidence labs and the DNA stuff, and go back to the Colombo model of Detective Who Just Asks Questions.
10. One Dog and His Boy by Eva Ibbotson. Ibbotson’s last delightful comic romp in a long career. Here she gives us a lonely little rich boy whose parents can’t see why he’s upset when the dog they’ve rented for one weekend just to give him “the dog experience” has to be returned. Hal refuses to accept this, and takes off with the dog. Adventures ensue, and Ibbotson’s trademark humor lifts her prose a cut above, such as when a fiery little Pekinese reflects, “There is absolutely nothing wrong with old ladies, but when your ancestors have been bred to ride on the saddle of the Emperor when he gallops off to war, you do not feel like being told you are an itsy-bitsy little doggie, aren’t you.” Buy for: that person in your life who needs a little comfort food for the soul. Maybe that’s you–because the stream of disasters from the daily news or your latest Gillian Flynn binge is leaving you depressed, then this is the book to cheer you up.
I love Christmas. I really do. But at some point in the holiday season (usually somewhere around December 1st) certain aspects start to grate. Take Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer–what kind of message is this song sending, telling us that popularity and happiness will only be achieved when others realize that your personal oddities are in fact useful and lucrative? Or Frosty the Snowman. I’ll flip past it approximately 800 times on various TV channels during the holiday season. First 400 times I think he’s kinda cute with the top hat and shoe-button eyes. Last 400 times I start fantasizing about running after him with a hair-dryer.
The trouble is, the Christmas season has become all sugar and no spice. For those of us who want a little bite to the holidays, here are some quick fixes. It’s Christmas Day and I’ve got eggnog to drink, but I can offer solutions to the top three holiday offenders: music, movies, and books.
Is “Winter Wonderland” giving you headaches? Are you on the brink of eating a shotgun if you have to sit through one more hack version of “Jingle Bells” piped over bad speakers at the Gap? Fear not; YouTube has two clips that will have you grinning. First on the list is a sidesplitting “Winter Wonderland” parody sung impeccably by a men’s choir. Let’s just quote the first verse: “Lacy things the wife is missin’/Didn’t ask her permission/I’m wearing her clothes, her silk pantyhose/Walkin’ round in women’s underwear.” Second on the list is men’s a capella group Straight No Chaser, singing a seemingly straightforward “12 Days of Christmas” in which they eventually lose count of which ____ing day it is, break confusedly into other carols such as “Here We Come A Wassailing” and the Dreidel Song, and somehow end up in a Christmas-ed version of Toto’s “Africa.” Bloody brilliant.
By now you’re probably tired of the Charlie Brown Special, Frosty the Snowman, and “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Try “The Ref” instead, a hilarious Christmas comedy starring Kevin Spacey, Judy Davis, and Denis Leary. Leary plays a harassed cat burglar trying to escape on Christmas Eve with the score of a lifetime, and forced to hide out in suburban Connecticut by taking a quarreling couple hostage. Trouble is, the couple can’t stop fighting even when an armed man is pointing a gun at their heads, and soon the burglar is reffing the family disagreements and tearing his hair out. Priceless lines abound, but here’s one for anybody with a relative they would just as soon stayed home: the quarreling couple’s pathologically-bullying mother, finally held up at gunpoint by the burglar who hisses “Nobody move, or I shoot!” After which the beleagered daughter-in-law says with complete sincerity; “Go ahead, shoot her.”
Ah, that annual piece of Christmas torture known as Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. I am probably going to hell (or at least coming across as an incredible philistine) for saying that I hate Dickens with the fire of a thousand suns, but I make no bones about it: I can’t stand his cumbersome humor, his lengthy expositions, or his absurd character names. Worst of his offenses is A Christmas Carol, a piece of sanctimonious treacle that was forced down my throat in some institution of learning or other, and on which I have been gagging ever since. I keeping hoping that someday Scrooge will push Tiny Tim out a high window before we can get to “God bless us every one!” but in abeyance of that miracle, I’ll settle for Laura Ingalls Wilder’s On The Banks of Plum Creek. Wilder’s collection of autobiographical growing-up-on-the-frontier novels will thankfully outlast the dreadful Little House on the Prairie TV show they spawned, and Plum Creek has a particularly good Christmas segment where the heroine’s father heads to town for Christmas candy to stuff his daughters’ stockings, and is caught on his way back by a freak blizzard. He holes up in a snowbank for four days, surviving on the stash of candy and finally emerging alive but with no Christmas presents. The family celebrates minus presents but plus Dad: a far better Christmas message than the “Buy now, buy more!” mentality of “Let’s open Walmart at midnight on Black Friday so everybody can start buying as soon as possible.”
Having sufficiently salted your holiday, I’m off to enjoy mine. Not eggnog, come to think of it. Too sweet. Try dry champagne
Goodwill and happiness has descended upon us in the form of the holiday season, and I am in my usual cynical funk. Having absorbed all the canned Christmas music I can stand in the course of holiday shopping, I am now in no mood to praise anybody. So allow me to sharpen my claws and sink my teeth into a piece of holiday historical fiction which I loathe with the fire of a thousand suns: namely, Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol.
I admit, I am not a Dickens fan. I find his humor cumbersome, and overall he’d have benefited from one of those short-tempered old-fashioned editors who flip through the manuscript and bark, “Cut 50%!” Dickens’s other books are bad enough, but A Christmas Carol is a piece of sanctimonious treacle that was forced down my throat in some institution of learning or other, and on which I have been gagging ever since.
For one thing, (though this is not precisely Dickens’s fault) there is no reason why A Christmas Carol should ever have become family holiday reading in the first place. It is first and foremost a ghost story, and the triple incantation of Christmas Past, Present, and Yet To Come is likely to scare imaginative kids silly, especially if they have ever heard of the decidedly non-Christian legend of the Three Fates. Even for adult readers, the visions Scrooge sees can leave a bad taste: abandonment, betrayal, bitterness, and death. Did he really deserve all that? Why not visit the Three Christmases on a murderer or a wife-beater instead of a crusty old bachelor whose only crimes were a tight fist and a non-politically correct work environment?
This leads to my second point, which is that Scrooge’s change of heart is decidedly suspect. The sentimental might sigh about the power of Christmas having awakened a true desire for change in the old man’s wizened heart, but the cynical among us smell a rat. Scrooge’s transformation from crusty curmudgeon to human saint is less about altruism and more about self-interest. He has, after all, been shown a terrifying vision which convinces him that unless he mends his ways, he will spend eternity in hell clanking around in chains like his former business partner. So, with businesslike efficiency, he proceeds to mend his ways. Smells less like Christmas spirit to me, and more like he was covering his ass with both hands and a stocking.
My third grudge against the book is Tiny Tim. I can’t stand the little wretch, and I doubt Scrooge will be able to either, at least not for long. I always hope he’ll snap halfway through his Christmas chez Cratchit and push the little bugger out a tall window before I have to read the nauseatingly cute “God bless us, every one!”
My last grudge is probably not Charles Dickens’s fault either . . . but do we have A Christmas Carol to blame for what Christmas in America has turned into? Christmas didn’t always use to be a family-centered, child-oriented celebration of treacle. Christmas has its roots in the pagan Saturnalia, which involved all kinds of drunkenness and celebration but no sentimentality. The Puritans made sure to spoil all that pagan fun by making Christmas revolve around church services–any Bob Cratchit who had whined about Christmas dinner to them probably would have gotten a grim lecture on the evils of gluttony. But then the Victorian era came along, and so did the idea of a more family-centered holiday . . . and then came A Christmas Carol, which added all the secular trimmings of food, gifts, games, children, and family gatherings that give us so many headaches in the modern holiday season. Mr. Dickens, you have a lot to answer for.
I believe in Christmas. But crusty old misanthropes should be able to celebrate it too, with neither bad dreams nor overly cute children to ruin the occasion.