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.
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!
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!
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, ten of the best books I read in 2016 (though not all were published this year) and just who you should buy them for . . .
1. “Fingersmith” by Sara Waters
A taut, atmospheric, Victorian-era thriller with more twists and turns than a Whitechapel alley. At first absolutely no one is likable in this tale, which centers around a queasy scheme to lock an heiress in a mad-house and seize her fortune. But the plot whip-lashes like a snake, accomplishing the impossible in making us empathize deeply with characters we at first despised. And the tender romance that grows between two brutalized women is a heart-breaker.
Buy for: your thriller-loving bestie who has lived for morally-gray anti-heroines ever since “Gone Girl.”
2. “The Betrayal” by Helen Dunmore
Soviet Russia comes to life here in all its paranoid complexity, seen through the eyes of an idealistic young doctor and his quiet wife, both survivors of the devastating Leningrad siege. All they want is to enjoy the tiny pleasures of life allowed by the state, but the wheels of power have a way of grinding people like this into paste, and they both know the danger they are in when the doctor is called to treat the mortally ill son of a powerful party member. Terrifying and intense to the last page.
Buy for: that Marx-reading uncle who still drones on at Thanksgiving about how communism could have worked if only. Chortle silently as you introduce him to the historical reality.
3. “The Engagements” by J. Courtney Hall
“A diamond is forever.” A sharp-witted ad-woman pens the immortal line for Tiffany’s in the 40s, and launches four seemingly unconnected stories of love, marriage, fidelity, infidelity, secrets, and and marriages. Poignant character-building, diamond-bright prose, and witty observations about the insidiousness of the wedding industry make this one a gem.
Buy for: your wedding-obsessed office intern, the one addicted to “Say Yes To The Dress.” Get her thinking about WHY she wants that dress and that big sparkly rock–innate romanticism, or clever marketing?
4. “The Vatican Princess: A Novel of Lucrezia Borgia” by C.W. Gortner
One of Gortner’s most unique heroines. Unlike his other “bad girls of history” leading ladies, Lucrezia Borgia sees the capacity for violence rooted in her family blood as a concrete thing, not a product of the scandal machine. Her struggle isn’t against revisionist history unfairly painting her as wicked and corrupt; her struggle is not to BECOME wicked and corrupt. Inside the shell of papal politics and gorgeous Renaissance settings, this is an extremely personal story about a girl fighting to save her own soul.
Buy for: your psychologist neighbor who lives down the block or in the upstairs apartment. They’ll get a kick trying to diagnose the various Borgia family psychoses, neuroses, and manias.
5. “The Wrath & the Dawn” by Renee Ahdieh
Fairy-tale retellings are nothing new, but mostly we see European fairy-tales being told, and really, it is about damn time someone delved into the rich legacy of stories further east. This YA historical fantasy retelling of the 1001 Arabian Nights stars Shahrzad, a tough, clever girl determined to avenge her cousin, who was the latest victim in the parade of brides to march into the Caliph’s bedroom and out to an executioner’s garrote. On every page the jewels sparkle, the sand grits, the perfume intoxicates, the food is mouthwatering–and the end is a dark cliffhanger. Don’t worry, the sequel is already out.
Buy for: the teenage girl in your life, whether daughter or cousin or little sister, whom you’re trying to wean off Mary Sue heroines to more bad-ass role-models. Be ready for the excited discussion of how quick wits and a fast imagination really are every bit as bad-ass as being Katniss-Everdeen-quick with a bow.
6. “The Scent of Secrets” by Jane Thynne
For all the myriad novels written about the fight against Hitler, there are few that take place in the belly of the beast–in Berlin, rather than on the battlefield or in some sympathetic Allied nation. But the world of Nazi Berlin is exactly what we get in “The Scent of Secrets,” and it’s fascinating. Heroine Clara Vine is half-German and half-English, a Mitford-esque society girl making her living on the Berlin film scene as an actress . . . but secretly she uses her connections to Nazi high society to spy for England. The details of Third Reich weddings, bride schools where German girls are trained for marriage, and the shark-like waters where high-society Nazi wives like Magda Goebbels and Emmy Goring rule the roost make for some of the most chilling world-building I’ve read.
Buy for: your fiery feminist grandmother, who will drop some very ungrandmotherly expletives about the pernicious doctrine of Kinder, Kirche, und Kuche as she devours every page.
7. “The Summer Before the War” by Helen Simonson
Humorous, heart-breaking, tender, and tragic: a small English village with its cast of eccentrics, academics, intellectuals, and locals, all thrown into disarray first by the arrival of Belgian refugees fleeing the pre-WWI conflict in Europe, and then by the overwhelming tide of war itself.
Buy for: your mother, if like mine she swoons both for rural English novels and Wilfred Owen’s war poetry.
8. “The Fireman” by Joe Hill
Writing talent must run in Stephen King’s family, because the horrormeister’s son pens a thrilling tale here. It’s a familiar dystopian saga of a band of survivors hiding from the fallout of a strange incendiary plague–but the high-wire pacing, the sympathetic characters, and some truly detestable villains make this dystopian epic a standout.
Buy for: your brother in the fire department. He’ll get a kick out of the mysterious pyro-gifted hero.
9. “America’s First Daughter” by Stephanie Dray & Laura Kamoie
Sure, I’m good friends with both authors–but this was one of the break-out historicals of the year, coming 3rd in the Goodreads Choice Awards, so clearly there are plenty of readers out there who agree with me about the merits of this warts-and-all look at one of our most complicated, troubling Founding Fathers. Told through the eyes of Jefferson’s daughter Patsy, AFD examines themes of racism, slavery, politics, revolution, domestic abuse, war, and the secret legacy that all those influences has left in America’s past.
Buy for: your civics-minded dad who still can’t understand how the election turned out the way it did, and who has been reading a lot of American history ever since to figure out how exactly we got here.
10. “Before The Fall” by Noah Hawley
A private plane inexplicably crashes into the ocean fifteen minutes after take-off, and only two survivors emerge from the wreckage. Why? This deeply character-driven twister of a story unravels forward and backward from the central accident: the survivors limping ahead into the chaotic aftermath of the crash, and the dead who one by one tell the stories that brought them to the plane on that fatal morning. Who or what caused the crash? The answer will surprise and move you.
Buy for: your brainiac husband, who lives to untangle plotty whodunits. Bet him dinner at a 3-star restaurant if he fingers the right perp. Smile, collect your filet mignon and bay scallops, and admit you didn’t get this one right on your first read either.
Get thee hence to a bookstore and finish up your holiday shopping. Happy Saturnalia!
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.
It’s still February, if only just, so here you go: the other half of that mandated pair of yearly blog posts for all book bloggers. First comes “The 10 Best Books I Read Last Year,” and then comes “10 Hotly Anticipated Reads of This Year.” I can already tell it’s going to be a good year for reading. Here, in no particular order, are the ten books that top my list for 2012, some of which have been around for a long time, others of which will be released at some point over the next ten months . . .
1. “The Passage,” by Justin Cronin
Since it’s already late February, I’ve already read the first book on this year’s to-read list. And what a stunner! Think Stephen King’s The Stand crossed with “The Walking Dead” a terrifying dystopian vision of the future when infected humans become bat-like “virals,” and humanity is reduced to a fading minority. The key to the dilemma seems to be Amy, a teenage girl who is somehow a century old, and who can somehow control the virals. But what exactly is the ageless and mysterious Amy? Expect this doorstopper of a book, and its equally brick-like sequel The Twelve, to devour a good month of your life, minimum.
2. “Light,” by Michael Grant
Speaking of dystopian fantasies, I can’t wait for the final installment of the Gone series. This isn’t quite the end of the world, like The Passage, but possibly it’s the end of the mysterious dome which isolated a group of teenagers from the rest of the adult population five books ago. This is YA, but it’s not Twilight or even The Hunger Games–it’s more like Lord of the Flies, and these kids are far too busy surviving to care about love triangles. I’m crossing my fingers that Grant will finish this hair-raising saga with his signature style–swaggering heroes you love and slimy villains you love to hate, all wrapped in a ball of non-stop action.
3. “War and Peace,” by Leo Tolstoy
I’ve read and adored Anna Karenina, but somehow never got around to Tolstoy’s companion classic. Time to find out if the story of Natasha, Prince Andrei, et al fascinates me as it has so many others across the centuries.
4. “The Painted Girls,” by Cathy Marie Buchanon
I love ballet, I love French Impressionist art, and I love books about painters (Girl With A Pearl Earring! The Swan Thieves!) and dancers (Russian Winter! A Company of Swans!) So what could be more promising than this just-released tale of two sisters, one a former dancer entering the Parisian demi-monde, and the other Degas’s inspiration for his famous “Little Dancer” sculpture? Highly anticipated.
5. “The Bronze Horseman,” by Paullina Simons
One of those books with a large, persistent, and vocal group of fans. Over and over I’ve heard readers swoon about the star-crossed lovers! The pulse-pounding war drama! The Russian setting! Time to see what all the fuss is about. War-torn Russia is a fascinating setting in and of itself, so I’m anticipating good things from this one.
6. “The Fiery Heart,” by Richelle Mead
First the Vampire Academy series, and now the Bloodlines series–Mead’s fast and funny YA vampire books are my delicious guilty pleasure. These are written for teenage girls in the best sense of the word, because Mead’s heroines are never palely loitering Mary Sues with not a thought in their pretty little heads outside their love lives. Her VA heroine was an ass-kicker in the Buffy style; the gal who stars in the Bloodlines series is more brains than brawn, but just as resourceful in a crisis. The Fiery Heart is fourth in the series, and November can’t come soon enough.
7. “Daughters of the Nile,” by Stephanie Dray
Talk about girl power–Cleopatra’s daughter Selene has it in spades. This is the third and final installment in Dray’s delicious romp through ancient Roman politics and Isis magic. I had the privilege of a sneak peek at the book’s early draft (privileges of being friends with the author) and I know how much tweaking and polishing has been done since then, so I can’t wait to read the final product. This I predict without Isis’s help: Selene will be queenly and occasionally terrifying in her goal to rule her kingdom and found a dynasty; her husband Juba will be appealing and occasionally maddening in his efforts to win his queen’s love; and Emperor Augustus will continue to raise the hairs on my neck every time he walks (slides, slithers) onto the page.
8. “The Tudor Conspiracy,” by C.W. Gortner
Gortner takes a refreshing spin on oft-tread ground with his Tudor Spymaster series, sending his fictional hero Brendan on an exhilarating scramble through political snakepits rife with real historical figures like the young Princess Elizabeth. This second installment in the series has Brendon scheming to save Elizabeth from her vengeful sister Queen Mary. God knows how he’ll do it, but I can’t wait to find out.
9. “The Forsyte Saga,” by John Galsworthy
Big multi-generational family epics, plus that same lush period of English history that spawned all my favorite Edith Wharton novels. Let the family drama, the big hats, the high teas, the looming social change, and the seething dialogue begin!
10. “Of Human Bondage,” by Somerset Maugham
Yet another of the big classics I haven’t gotten around to yet, though I adore Somerset Maugham and have read most of his other work. Plus, this is my mother’s favorite book of all time. ‘Nuff said; it’s going on the list.
And on that note, happy reading!
Two things hold true at the end of each year: all book bloggers must, by federal mandate, post a “Top Ten Books of the Year!” list on their blogs, and all of us whether book bloggers or not still have holiday shopping to do. So why not combine the two? Here are the top eleven books I read this year (why eleven? I’m bored with ten), and the Christmas stockings you should consider filling with these titles!
1. Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, by Ransom Riggs. One of those rare smartly-written kid books so creative and quirky that adults die for it too. Eerie real-life photographs weave seamlessly into this story of a boy who discovers a mysterious time-loop full of children with astonishing powers–not to mention the creatures who hunt them. Buy for: that whip-smart kid in your life, be it the young son with his nose in the book or the little girl with the quirky imagination you used to baby-sit for. The one you someday suspect might develop the ability to read minds or walk through walls.
2. The Edwardians, by Vita Sackville-West. A delicious high-tea-and-big-hats read about a handsome young Duke and his bohemian sister as they struggle to find love and happiness in pre-WWI England. Buy for: your madly Anglophile mum. This should see her through till Season 3 of Downton Abbey begins.
3. The Sister Queens, by Sophie Perinot. A warm and perceptive study of two beautiful heiresses who respectively marry the Kings of France and England–think a high-Medieval version of the Middleton sisters. If you like your historical sister drama real and not reduced to the hissing-spitting-catfighting variety of The Other Boleyn Girl, then this book is for you.
Buy for: your sister, duh. Book a long lunch afterward for the inevitable argument, “So, you’re totally Queen Marguerite, and I’m Queen Eleanor.” “No way, I’m the younger sister so I’m Eleanor . . .” Bonus: if you have more than one sister, stuff their stockings with Sherry Jones’s Four Sisters, All Queens, which tackles the younger pair of sisters in the family too.
4. Code Name Verity, by Elizabeth Wein. A riveting edge-of-your-seat World War II thriller about a young female spy weaving a tapestry of lies when she is caught by the Gestapo, and the courageous little pilot who must finish her friend’s mission on her own. This is true girl-power; a tale of female friendship and female courage that will knock your socks off. Buy for: that teenage niece you’re desperately trying to wean off Twilight. Expect her next text to read “OMG, I would SO TOTALLY join the French Resistance!!!” rather than “Team Jacob 4-Ever!!!”
5. Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn. A seemingly perfect marriage reveals itself as a nest of horrors when a beautiful wife goes missing on her anniversary. Twists, turns, and riveting characters galore.
Buy for: your uncle who just divorced that psycho ex-wife. He’ll be cheered by the thought that no wife is as psycho as the one in this book.
6. The Queen’s Vow, by C.W. Gortner. Isabella of Castile is commonly vilified as fanatic and bigot: Her Catholic Majesty who expelled the Jews from Spain and unleashed the Inquisition on her people. But Gortner gently humanizes this daunting figure as the beleagured princess grimly clinging to her faith and her future in a world that wants to kill her.
Buy for: your historical fiction-addict BFF who complains there’s nothing in the genre anymore but Tudor stuff. The setting here is Renaissance Spain in all its bloody, complex glory.
7. The Invisible Bridge, by Julie Orringer. The gorgeous saga of a Hungarian Jewish family on the brink of WWII. Not just another harrowing Holocaust tale; this fabulous read is a paean to life, love, family, humor, tragedy, and everything in between.
Buy for: your grandma recovering from her knee surgery. She may comment, as my grandma did, “It sure puts things into perspective. My knee may hurt like hell, but at least I’m not being loaded into a cattle car.”
8. The Flower Reader, by Elizabeth Loupas. Mercurial queens, secret societies of assassins, a heroine who can read the future in flowers, and a hero with eyeliner–not many authors could assemble a story so fun, so poignant, and so satisfying out of such disparate elements, but Elizabeth Loupas sure can. This is her second novel, proving she has dodged the sophomore slump and is on the historical fiction scene to stay, and as a major talent.
Buy for: your aunt who just got back from that walking tour of Scotland. She’ll swoon for the heroine’s castle by the sea, let alone her hero in his plaids.
9. Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance, by Lois McMaster Bujold. The latest space-opera romp in Bujold’s breezy, humorous, and sometimes harrowing Vorkosigan Saga. This one focuses on the hero’s charming playboy cousin Ivan, who surrenders his bachelor status to help a damsel in distress–kind of like a Regency Romance but with bounty hunters and space-ships thrown in with the crusty dowagers and arranged marriages. Pure fun, like all Bujold’s books, setting her a cut above in what can be a deadly-serious genre.
Buy for: the office nerd you drew for Secret Santa. This’ll hook him on the Vorkosigan series, and you’ll never have to hear another word about Star Trek.
10. 11/22/63, by Stephen King. A doorstopper of a book that narrows a tense and terrifying lens on the immortal question “Who killed Kennedy?” A 21st century schoolteacher finds a mysterious portal back in time, and decides to stop the Kennedy assassination . . . but what if he succeeds?
Buy for: your dad, who not only remembers the Kennedy assassination, but has his own set of conspiracy theories about whodunit.
11. The Art of Fielding, by Chad Harbach. A quirky and beautiful tale of small-town college life, focusing around a baseball team gunning for a championship, a star shortstop with a crisis of confidence, a college president blindsided by an unexpected romance, and his daughter trying to re-align her life after a disastrous marriage.
Buy for: your sports-addicted husband who claims he doesn’t like to read. He’ll eat up the baseball in this book before he realizes he’s also getting a coming of age story, a poignant romance, and a gorgeous drama.