Holiday Reads 2015 – Fiction
Everyone loves reading hot fiction books these days, which is such lovely news, truly. Whether it’s cause you want to get ahead of the inevitable movie adaptation or you want to trade theories around the water cooler or you simply love the promise of a deserving read, here are 10 worthwhile reads this holiday season and beyond.
Shopaholic to the Rescue by Sophie Kinsella – $33
Believe it or not, Sophie Kinsella’s bestselling Shopaholic series has been running for over a decade. Usually Kinsella publishes a book in the series every two years or so, but last year after dropping a Hollywood-themed installation that dragged her perpetual shopaholic Becky Bloomwood through the mud a bit and left readers with an insane cliffhanger, Kinsella changed things up by releasing another book hot on its heels. Without spoiling too much, at the end of the last book, Becky had reason to be concerned for both her father, Graham, and her best friend Suze’s husband, Tarquin. Becky and an extended crew of family, friends, and not-so-friendly faces, end up on a road trip across America, from a stint in Las Vegas to a visit to a backwoods state fair to spa country in Arizona.
It’s part road trip romp, part mystery tale, part Ocean’s 11 magic – but most importantly, Kinsella takes the time to rebuild Becky’s character. After reading Shopaholic to the Stars last year I had to give Kinsella credit for taking a relatively one-dimensional character and seriously evolving her from the start of the series, something she continues to do here. It’s a far cry from how the Shopaholic series started all those years ago, but maybe that’s not such a bad thing.
Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff – $33.50
This is one of those books that gets under your skin well past the day you finish it. It’s the story of a marriage (the result of a rushed elopement) over the course of twenty-odd years, told at first through the eyes of Lotto; perpetual charmer, big dreamer, playwright, would-be heir that never quite lives up to his full potential. His wife is Mathilde; strikingly beautiful, ever calm and polite, the quiet bedrock to Lotto’s creative life. We follow Lotto and Mathilde through their ups and downs, until we learn a rather surprising fact about Mathilde. Then the story flips and we revisit their romance through Mathilde’s eyes – as well as discover increasingly shocking realities about her pre-Lotto life – putting a new light on everything we’ve read.
This simple twist is a stunning slight of hand, one that reminds us that we don’t entirely know the person waking up beside us most mornings (those of us whom are married of course). I don’t want to say too much beyond that other than to comment on the Gone Girl comparisons this book has drawn. It’s definitely much less thriller, much more literary fiction, loaded with all kinds of classical mythology and flowery writing…but there is a similarity in terms of not knowing what someone you love is capable of. For me, it went from an interesting study of marriage to unsettling across the board. A good read for anyone that likes twists – and lots of ’em!
City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg – $39.95
Big. Sweeping. New York City. This is an epic novel that has earned quite a bit of hype this year for its complex narrative and fine attention to lifelike detail in bringing to life NYC in 1977, culminating in the major blackout that swept the city. The lynchpin or starting point is the murder of a teenage girl on New Year’s Eve, at which point the novel crawls toward its blackout set piece, but the mystery is only loosely threaded into the story and not exactly the focus. Trying to summarize the plot beyond that is…a challenge…to put it mildly, because the book jumps perspectives very frequently, connecting characters together in a (pardon the non-literary parallel) Love Actually style. What’s particularly cool and successful though, are the jumps – you get such diverse points of view from a whole host of characters; rich, poor, young, old, black, white, free spirits, corporate drones, hard-nosed criminals, eternal dreamers, you name it.
There are a couple of novels on this list that I’d call ‘bricks’, in that they’re not only big in terms of page count, but sheer depth of story. I’d advise a bit of patience in getting into this one; it’s a long stretch and there were a few points where I felt like we could have trimmed things down by a paragraph or a page. But overall, the connectivity of the stories is quite rewarding for the reader, as is the generally study of New York City during this particular era, especially for those who have lived in the Big Apple at some point in their lives. It’s a monster read, but one that has been (mostly) praised by critics to date (and keep in mind, author Hallberg nabbed a pretty spiffy multi-million dollar advance for this debut).
The Royal We by Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan – $29
Onto something lighter again! When I heard the bloggers behind Go Fug Yourself were going to be releasing an actual novel, I was so excited! Witty and sharp-tongued in a non-harmful way, these ladies are truly talented, and their fiction debut further proves that. In this lighthearted romance roman a clef, Rebecca Porter (Bex), is an American girl attending Oxford, living down the hallway from Prince Nicholas, future monarch. Sound familiar (minus the American bit)? While Cocks and Morgan certainly pay homage to Kate and Wills seemingly glamorous romance in this sweet book, they also take a hard look at what exactly Kate (and in turn, their fictional Bex) had to give up to become Duchess of Cambridge and wife of the future King of England. The life Bex planned for herself at the get go is quickly upended; now Bex’s private life is served up on a platter, and she has to deal with heaps of baggage from her husband-to-be’s past and the royal family’s own closet full of skeletons. It makes a girl wonder, is any guy really worth it?
Obviously ‘insidery’ books like this – even ones that just largely take guesses or build a story based off of media reports – are always good, dishy fun to read. And Cocks and Morgan spin a good yarn in the same vein as a Sophie Kinsella novel. But like with their blog, they manage to balance heart with wit, romance with reality, pain with chaos. The ending is unexpected and a little out there, which you’ll either love or hate, but in general I appreciated this twist on a classic romance story: it’s not about whether the couple will get together…it’s that pertinent of question of should they stay together?
The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood – $34
I try to read a Margaret Atwood novel every year, and every time I do I’m blown away. Even the ones I don’t *love* quite as much, I still adore. Atwood is one of the best writers of our age and one I’m sure will be celebrated for many, many years to come. In her latest (a rewritten version of a series of novellas Atwood released on Byliner), Atwood delves into her dystopian side again, but with a slightly more lighthearted (yet cynical) twist. Stan and Charmaine are devastated after a global economic collapse, living out of their car, when they see an ad to sign up for a social experiment called the Positron Project. The deal? They get to live in a suburban paradise for one month, then they have to live in a prison for another month, and then back again. At first all is grand, but Stan and Charmaine begin to branch out; Charmaine embarks on an affair with an ‘alternate’ (aka the people who live in her house when she’s in prison) and we begin to learn more about how the prison works.
It’s funny (and raunchy!) yes, but it’s also…eerie. It’s a satire, but it’s got plenty of graphic scenes, a crazy blackmail plot worthy of a Cohen brothers movie, and uh…chicken rape? To be honest, the book is a bit of a mixed bag, but it’s also Atwood so it’s still amazing. It’s a sharp turn from the other Atwood books I’ve read, and if you’re a diehard fan I could see you maybe being a bit put off by the almost frenetic, slapstick style of the book by the end, but I actually enjoyed it! It kept me interested from start to finish, if only for the sheer crazy shock factor. Were we all to have such crazy imaginations…
The Girl in the Spider’s Web by David Lagercrantz – $34
Did you know it’s been almost a decade since the last original entry into Steig Larsson’s bestselling Millennium series was released? Since then, Larsson’s estate has been hotly disputed between his family members and girlfriend at the time of his death, but at long last, another author has taken up Larsson’s mantle and added a new book to the mix. Some people may skip it because it’s not by Larsson, but if you’re a fan of the original series’ roiling, twisty mysteries with a side of social justice, then you’ll probably still enjoy the thrills packed into this one. In a nutshell, a computer scientist has uncovered a crazy conspiracy and is now fearing for his life. Mikael Blomkvist, our male protagonist and editor at Millennium magazine (although that’s up for debate in his near future), is contacted by the computer scientist who wants to give Blomkvist the scoop – but before they can meet up, he’s murdered, leaving his autistic savant son (a witness to the crime) in severe jeopardy. Lisbeth Salander, meanwhile, has uncovered the same conspiracy – but she’s hitting a roadblock. Lisbeth ends up with the scientist’s son but is also trying to protect them both from those who want him dead, while Blomkvist is still trying to uncover the conspiracy. There’s obviously much more to it than that – but the characters are racing against the clock and trying to right social wrongs!
In reading this book, you may find yourself asking, “What would Steig Larsson have done?” Lagercrantz tries valiantly, but doesn’t quite measure up to the Swedish author’s original verve. Reading it as a standalone, it’s actually still a pretty intriguing game of cat and mouse (or cats and mice, really), but one of the things that really set Larsson apart was his character development of Lisbeth and Mikael – and I couldn’t help but wonder what he actually had in mind for them, despite the catchy, twisty tale Lagercrantz spins. The best comparison I can give you is the last few seasons of the TV series Homeland. The first few seasons were really about the dance between Carrie and Brody – but once he was gone, the show had to reboot itself to be more about a ‘crime of the season’. It’s a great show still, especially as it has more narrative room to work with, but you do miss that rich character development from the first few seasons, and I’d levy a similar review of this book. Fans of the original trilogy will still enjoy it, as long as they go in knowing it’s understandably not quite the same as before.
Purity by Jonathan Franzen – $35
My second ‘brick’ book in this roundup – although Purity is decidedly slimmer than some of Franzen’s past works in terms of page count, if not in depth. It’s been posited as Franzen’s most accessible novel yet and I don’t disagree with that. Part of that declaration comes from the fact one of our main protagonists is in the form of a disaffected youth name Pip (aka Purity), a typical American twenty-something that is saddled with an obscene amount of student debt and no concrete plan for how to get out of it. That is, until Pip gets a job with The Sunlight Project, which helps her crawl out of her hole of debt, only to cross paths with the man behind the organization, a former German spy named Andreas Wolf. There are two other characters in the mix as well, a journalist named Leila, and her lover Tom, who owns the publication Leila works for. Like several other novels on this list, the story is about teasing out the connections between this group, which takes some time to happen but is no less intriguing as it does.
It’s similar in some ways to City on Fire, in that it’s a bit of a slow burn, one that an impatient reader may not be willing to hang tight for. But as the secrets pile on top of themselves, the story only becomes more engrossing, and honestly, more contemporary than anything else Franzen has written to date. And for those Franzen fans that are coming for another taste of the author’s powerful literary prowess, you won’t be disappointed! His trademark character development and turns of phrase are on full display here for you to enjoy.
After You by Jojo Moyes – $32.50
Another sequel! A few years ago, Jojo Moyes captured the attention of readers everywhere with her intelligent and heart-wrenching approach to women’s fiction with Me Before You. Now she’s back with a sequel to that directly corresponds to the earlier book…now, Moyes has a note in the book that she specifically doesn’t want to ruin the first book for those that haven’t read it, which makes writing a review about the second book extremely difficult. So let me instead focus a bit on the first one, as it’s impossible to read one without the other. The original book followed the story of Will and Lou; both unsatisfied with their lives (Will moreso than Lou) but feeling something…unexpected? better? hopeful? upon crossing paths. It’s been called the romance novel or the ‘chick lit’ novel for people who didn’t know they would like chick lit and it’s an apt description. You’ll laugh, cry, swoon, and cry some more.
And surprisingly, Moyes manages to do it all over again with her second entry into the series. Ugh. I really can’t say much more beyond that. I can’t summarize the plot. I can’t explain the emotions you’ll feel. You’ll just have to trust me – the two-pack of books makes a GREAT gift for any reader friends in your circle, and I’m quite certain anyone on your list that’s been dying for a sequel to the original will certainly have it at the top of their wish lists. So get it for them, bring them a cup of tea, and don’t expect to see them again till they’re done.
After the Crash by Michel Bussi – $28.99
Interestingly, this is a book that has been compared by some to Steig Larsson, which is notable only because author Michel Bussi may have out-Larssoned the guy who wrote the sequel to his series. The plot is seemingly simple. A plane crashes on the Franco-Swiss border in the 80s. The only survivor is a three-month-old baby, who is claimed by two different families (one rich, one poor). 18 years after the crash, and a private investigator named Credule Grand-Duc still hasn’t figured out the case. Or has he? As he plans to take his own life, he gives the case one last review and reveals something shocking which pushes pause on his suicide plans. The baby in question, now a girl studying a university is left with Credule Grand-Duc’s journal, which causes her to see her own life through a new lens, one that is increasingly thrilling and shocking as the story winds its screws tighter.
This is one of those ‘sophisticated’ thrillers that is more of a psychological mind game (can you figure out the big reveal? or the one after it?) than a typical ‘mass market’ style thriller. It’s incredibly intricate, with even the smallest details weaving their way back into the plot by the end. Michel Bussi is indeed a talent to be watched, and setting his novel in Paris makes for a particularly poignant read at the moment. If you want to delve into the writing of a fresh author in the thriller scene, than Bussi is for sure worth taking a look at.
Career of Evil by Robert Galbraith – $34
I could sum up this review quite simply by saying – if you’ve liked Robert Galbraith’s (AKA JK Rowling’s) previous two books, you’ll enjoy this one too. That may be oversimplifying things, but the series to date has been a good ol’ fashioned collection of potboiler murder mysteries that follow a predictable frame – murder, clues, investigations, discovery – but are anything but boring. Once again, we are pulled into the lives of Detective Cormoran Strike and his assistant Robin, and once again their personal lives dovetail wonderfully with the crime at hand. The story kicks off with a parcel being delivered to Robin, which contains a severed women’s leg (ew). The police dive into Cormoran’s history to try and identify who might do it, but the grizzled detective disagrees with their choice of key suspect, leaving him and Robin to pursue other, more dangerous leads.
Again, Rowling isn’t exactly reinventing the mystery wheel with this more gruesome entry into her series, but that’s not to say this isn’t a lot of fun. Fans of the first two books will be pleased to know that Robin takes a much more central role in this one, with plenty of back story and present day elements feeding into the core mystery plotline. I think the second book may be the strongest in the series to date (which incidentally, all signs to it not being a trilogy as Rowling has indicated she loves writing the books), but this third one is definitely riveting, particularly as you get to the final third and race toward a crazy ending. Whether you’re a Galbraith fan, a Rowling fan, or simply look for a good mystery yarn, this one is for you.
Once again I am so excited to announce I’m giving away every book I wrote about in this post! If you want to nab 10 amazing fiction reads for yourself, here’s how to enter:
1) First & foremost: you must be a subscriber to the Canadian Gift Guide to enter this giveaway. It’s as simple as finding ‘The Gift of Gab’ box in the righthand column and dropping in your email or clicking follow. Then leave me a comment below by December 20, 2015 telling me your top two (or more) reads 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 December 21, 2015 to select the winners, 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 for this promotion.
4) Bonus Entries: If you’re interested in staying in the loop on the publishers that worked with me on this post, all you have to do is sign up for their social media, and while you’re at it, earn bonus entries into this fun giveaway! Just be sure to leave separate comments with links back to earn your bonus entries.
Penguin Random House of Canada – Is the publisher of The Heart Goes Last, Purity, The Girl in the Spider’s Web, Fates & Furies, Shopaholic to the Rescue, After You and City on Fire. Follow both Penguin and Random House on Twitter and Tweet about this giveaway tagging me, them, and linking back to this post. And yes, this counts for two entries!
Hachette Book Group – Is the publisher of The Royal We, After The Crash and Career of Evil. Follow them on Twitter and Tweet about this giveaway tagging me, them, and linking back to this post.