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.