Holiday Reads: Fiction Edition
Here we go, here we go, here we go again…some more holiday reads to add to your wish list (or to-read list, as it were). Today I’m looking at the top fic picks – that is, the fiction that’s got everyone buzzing this year. Again, I advise you to check out my mid-year must-reads for more sensational ideas, but here’s the latest and very greatest. For a fun spin, I’ve also tried my best to reference some other titles that might steer you in the right direction for whoever you’re shopping for.
If you liked Justin Cronin’s The Passage, you’ll love: The Twelve by Justin Cronin – $32.95 list / $21.74 online
One of my very favourite books of the last few years was Justin Cronin’s quite literal monster tome The Passage. I say monstrous because it was quite long – over 700 pages – and starred a species of vampire-esque creatures that had run the world into a kind of apocalypse. That story ended with a band of survivors – one of which with a new arsenal of supernatural powers – being given a pretty clear directive: kill the other twelve of the original creatures infected with the bloodsucking disease that brought the world to its knees. The second installment in the literary series sees our not-so-merry band of survivors attempt to infiltrate the nests of each of ‘the twelve’…with two major hitches. One – what is Amy really all about? And two – who’s side is Alicia really on? Like Cronin’s first book, the rambling to some, sweeping to others, style of storytelling might not be your cup of tea…but if you can really dig in and get into this book, the reward is well worth it – aside from the fact we now have to wait another two years for the third and final book!
If you liked Touch by Alexi Zentner, you’ll love: The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey – $16.50 list / $12.54 online
I have a soft spot for modern day literary fiction that borrows its themes and plots from classic folklore. Such is the case with this fairy tale-inspired story of a drifting apart couple that’s quite literally buried in the wilds of Alaska. Just as they reach their breaking point, a child appears – one that may have been born from their despair and also their dreams. Of course, you can’t always trust what the heart wants, especially not when you’re in isolation from anyone else witnessing your miracles. Fair warning about this book on two levels. One, it is absolutely beautifully written – you’ll be hard-pressed not to feel the claustrophobic quiet of the Alaskan homestead that serves as the novel’s eerie setting. For another, it is absolutely devastatingly sad…and no, that’s not a spoiler. Just be prepared to start getting misty as early as 45 pages in.
If you liked David Abrams’ Fobbit, you’ll love: The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers – $27.99 list / $18.47 online
Poignantly released on September 11th, this Iraq-set story follows the lives-at-risk of two young soldiers; 21-year-old Private Bartle and 18-year-old Private Murphy, as they attempt to take the city of Al Tafar. The author himself is an Iraqi war veteran, leading some to suspect this is actually a roman a clef about his own experiences – told through fragmented shards of story, as though experiencing the thing fully would be too painful and difficult for the reader and writer alike. The writing itself is surprisingly poetic – Powers apparently has a MFA in poetry of all things – but still lends graphic truth to the horrible, horrible realities of a war no one really wants to fight anymore.
If you liked Alice Munro’s Dear Life, you’ll love: Whirl Away by Russell Wangersky – $21.95 list / $16.68 online
Yay Canada! Admittedly my counterpoint to this novel – Munro’s newest short story collection – should also earn a spot on this list, but I thought it might be fun to introduce you to a slightly lesser known but no less talented writer. After all, Russell Wangersky’s collection of short stories DID nab a spot on the Giller Prize finalist list. The theme of his theme park-covered book is about what happens to use when we reach that point of losing control; whether of our own volition, due to extenuating circumstances, or perhaps we’re pushed there by someone else (whether by force or by absence). Some of the stories have truly shocking endings – I loved Echo in particular – and altogether, the familiarity of some of their general themes is offset by some beautiful writing.
If you liked Lori Lansens’ The Wife’s Tale, you’ll love: The Middlesteins by Jami Attenberg – $27.99 list / $18.47 online
The crinkled McDonald’s-inspired wrapper of this book’s jacket should give you a big hint as to what it’s about: food. Namely, Edie Middlestein’s preoccupation with it, a hunger so deep it causes her husband to jump ship, her health to reach near-fatal depths, and the rest of Edie’s family scrambling to both help her while keeping on top of their own perpetually busy lives. Although I compared this to a lighthearted Lori Lansen book, it could just a easily masquerade as a companion to more serious fare like This Is Where I Leave You by Jonathan Tropper or even The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen. At their hearts, all of these stories are about families. Specifically, families and the way the individuals that make them up are shaped by our culture. The big difference here is Attenberg’s style really is bright and funny. Despite the depressing and frustrating circumstances for many of the characters, you’ll still find yourself smiling or catch yourself nodding in agreement at her observations.
If you liked Kim Edwards’ The Memory Keeper’s Daughter, you’ll love: Love Anthony by Lisa Genova – $29.99 list / $19.79 online
Is it totally accurate of me to compare this to The Memory Keeper’s Daughter? Not exactly. But it was the only book I could think of that really stirred emotions based on how children born inherently ‘different’ impact the adults around them. In this story, Olivia and Beth are two women who meet by accident and begin a surprising friendship sprung from their own personal tragedies – Olivia’s autistic son has recently died, and Beth, a mother of three, is coming to terms with her husband’s long-term affair. As solace, Beth begins to write…and finds her words may possibly be channeling the late Anthony. While the book itself is emotional and touching in all the right ways (bittersweet one may say), it’s also a solid glimpse into life as an autistic person, and the people around them – and Genova would know. She’s a scientist that has definitely done her research to make this book’s portrayal of autism simply leap off the page.
If you liked The Great Gatsby, you’ll love: In Sunlight and in Shadow by Mark Helprin – $32.95 list / $21.74 online
Is it fair for ANY author to be compared to Fitzgerald? Probably not, but Helprin’s sweeping romance based on a chance encounter certainly follows in the footsteps of the legendary Gatsby story. You know the tale: boy meets girl and instantly falls in love, boy and girl perform an elaborate yet ofttimes separate mating dance across New York and across time, peppered by endless back stories that only serve to strengthen the plot. Many people have called Helprin one of the great writers of our time, and this book is pure proof of why – the foreseeable ending will stick with you for days after devouring the book, as will the loving, tender, detailed descriptions of the Big Apple setting.
If you liked White Oleander, you’ll love: Y by Marjorie Celona – $30 list / $19.80 online
Left on the steps of the YMCA as an infant, our name-changing heroine (ultimately Shannon) is shuttled through the foster care system in this first-person story about how under-prepared the world is for children in need. The book follows her from home to home, bad situation to worse situation, until she ends up in an interminable form of peace – a family that is willing to take her in, at the price of a very jealous foster sibling. As Shannon grows up, she begins to question why she was left, who her real family is, and what’s facing her once she hits that debatable golden age of 18. Luckily for the reader, we get an inside glimpse in the form of a third-person side narrative that reveals the truths of her mother Yula, and the equally miserable circumstances that led to Shannon’s own unhappy life. Is this the most cheerful read on this list? Certainly not. But the Canadian setting and great writing make this author’s debut novel a work worth reading…and remembering.
If you like any classic fairy tale, you’ll love: Fairy Tales From The Brothers Grimm by Philip Pullman – $29.50 list / $19.47 online
If anyone knows a thing about fantasy and fairy tales, it’s Philip Pullman – author of the bestselling series His Dark Materials. He’s gone back through the countless variations of some incredibly well-known (like Little Red Riding Hood and Rapunzel) and not-so-well-known stories from the oddly twisted minds of the legendary Brothers Grimm, refurbished them a bit for modern reading, and provided some insightful commentary at the end of each story in terms of changes he’d make, origins, variations, and general thoughts about each plot. The resulting book is a treasure to read to young ones that are experiencing these morality fables for the first time (mind you, a few probably require pre-screening for their strangely grown-up content), or for adults to simply re-encounter these famed tales for themselves.
If you liked Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, you’ll love: Bring Up The Bodies by Hilary Mantel – $24.99 list / $16.49 online
If you pay attention to literary awards then you’ll already know that Mantel’s book won this year’s Man Booker Prize. What’s interesting to me is the fact a sequel won said prize – it’s the equivalent to the Godfather II winning Best Picture. While not a grievance by any means, it is a rarity – even moreso because both books won the prize. Anyway the gist of the books surrounds the rise & fall of the legendary Anne Boleyn. It’s certainly a headier look at the Tudor era than say, Philippa Gregory’s brand of historical fiction, but truth be told the stuff writes itself. When you’ve got murder, espionage, affairs, betrayals, and gossip haunting your aristocratic cast, there’s bound to be interest.
If you liked E.O. Wilson’s Anthill, you’ll love: Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver – $31.99 list / $21.11 online
Author Barbara Kingsolver is perhaps best known for two things: her explorations of religion in her work, and the way her stories often have strong ties to the earth (including her well-received nonfiction book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle). This semi-parable accomplishes both. Set in Appalachia, where Kingsolver herself is from, the story begins with a discontent woman named Dellarobia who has taken solace in an affair. One day on her trek to meet her lover, she encounters a miraculous sight – a forest that appears to be filled with a silent fire. Of course, the fire turns out to have a much more grounded explanation (sort of – hint: it involves something that flies), but a further exploration of it begins to pique the minds of both the quiet country folk of the small town where the book is set and the big city journalists and scientists that come to explore the phenomenon for themselves – and what it might mean in terms of climate change. Part literary fiction, part cautionary tale, this is one of the smartest ways I can think of to have a real, serious message really hit home.
If you liked Stella Rimington’s At Risk, you’ll love: Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan – $29.95 list / $19.76 online
Have you ever had the pleasure of reading one of McEwan’s classic British literary fiction tomes? I have, and I can honestly say I’m a fan, particularly by the author’s signature twist-within-a-twist endings that are only mildly out of character with the genre he writes in. I was also happy to see the twist he put on this year’s release: yes it’s still historical fiction, but instead of the war-torn British countryside or Cold War era West Berlin, we’re looking at the groovy 70s, England, and a young spy named Serena; a book lover who’s recruited for operation ‘Sweet Tooth’ to fund writers who’s beliefs align with the government’s during a somewhat fraught time in English history. Naive Serena soon falls under a spell for her chosen mark – both his writing and himself – and is caught in a strange position: does she tell the man she’s fallen in love with the truth and risk blowing up her career and the mission itself? Or does she continue to deceive him and not completely and totally able to love him? This tricky conundrum is the crux of the novel. Although not as fast-paced as a true spy thriller or a war novel, the book – like the Cold War itself, which was full of mind games – is sort of a high literary look at the world of espionage intertwined with romance. Lots of twists, lots of fun, and a slightly less heavy approach than McEwan’s other works.
If you liked John Grisham’s Skipping Christmas, you’ll love: The Christmas Wedding by James Patterson – $28.99 list / $19.13 online
I normally don’t really write about (or read) mass market fiction, but this one caught my eye simply because it was a kooky, unexpected turn from master-of-suspense James Patterson. The cliffhanger chapters and out-of-nowhere twists live on, but the plot is less spies and subterfuge and more family drama and to a degree, romance. Gaby Summerhill’s husband passed away three years ago, tearing apart her heart and her children’s lives. Now she’s announced she’ll be getting married over Christmas break in an attempt to bring her family together again – with a major hook: the groom (of which there are three possible bachelors) will remain a secret until the wedding day. What’s even crazier is not only is the groom a secret to the family, but to the men themselves. Far-fetched? Sure, but who doesn’t love a fantasy tale come Christmastime?
If you liked Joseph Boyden’s Three Day Road, you’ll love: The Round House by Louise Erdrich – $29.99 list / $19.79 online
I find this one a bit of an unexpected bestseller. Not because it’s not worthy – it won the National Book Award after all – but because it’s an American-written book about a woman living on a North Dakota reservation in the late 80s that gets attacked and slips into a deep, all-encompassing depression. It’s not her husband – a tribal judge – but her son, Joe, and his band of friends that team up to seek justice for his mother’s welfare. The nifty thing about this book is it works on two levels: as a coming-of-age story for Joe, and as a page-turning crime story that seeks to put together some missing pieces. What’s even niftier is the way the two layers are coloured by the cultural setting in terms of both time and place. A genuine triumph that’s incredibly creative.
If you liked Jess Walter’s Beautiful Ruins, you’ll love: Inside by Alix Ohlin – $22.95 list / $17.44 online
Four stories are interwoven together despite being strewn apart geographically. Grace is a therapist in Montreal who develops complex feelings for a patient named Tug after he fails to kill himself. Another one of her patients, Anne (or Annie) has run away to NYC to reinvent herself as a vicious yet ambitious actress. And Grace’s ex-husband Mitch has exiled himself to Alaska, leaving behind the woman he loves in an attempt to help a child. Aside from the personal connections to which Grace is the centre, the book is unified by a big theme of ‘help’ and what that does to the helper. Ohlin’s book has received quite a bit of attention and fanfare over the last six months – some of it great (like being listed as a finalist for the Giller prize and selected as an Oprah book club read), some of it not-so-good (a vicious review in the New York Times). Read it for yourself to see where this piece of fiction lands for you.
And that’s it that’s all! Those are my top 45 recommendations across YA Fiction, Nonfiction, and Fiction as the year comes to a close. Hopefully you’ll have found tons of inspiration across these posts as to why I find books such a choice gift – the possibilities are endless and the price is totally right. To help stock up your winter reading pile, I’m giving away two prize packages to two lucky readers with copies of The Twelve, Sweet Tooth, The Middlesteins, and Flight Behavior. If you want to win one of em, here’s how to enter:
1) Leave a comment by January 1st with your favourite title from this list.
2) Entries are limited to one per person / per email address / per household (or more if you score bonus entries). A random draw will be conducted on or around January 2nd to select the winner, who will have 48 hours to respond before another winner is chosen in their place.
3) Entries are limited to Canadians that have reached the age of majority in their province. Quebec is not eligible to participate in this promotion.
4) Bonus Entry: Add as many of these books as you’d like to your GoodReads account and send me the link to your ‘to-read’ page to earn up to 15 bonus entries! Please note, your to-read list must be visible (that is, public) for your entries to be counted.