Dearest ones! It’s that time of year again–to FREAK THE F OUT BECAUSE YOU STILL NEED PRESENTS FOR PEOPLE ON YOUR EVER-LOVIN’ LIST! Never fear, stressed Santas. You may have heard that #BooksMakeGreatGifts, and since you no doubt do not have time to sit down and read a bunch of them right this very second, I will recommend some for you, with Cliff Notes. Also luckily, 2014 was a terrific year for reading! So many astonishingly good books by debut and esteemed authors. Put these in your sack, and if you have time, enjoy before giving (just make sure not to eat chocolate while reading. Those fingerprints will give you away every time).
1. AN UNSEEMLY WIFE by E.B. Moore. Give this debut novel to your historical fiction reader–it’s like the dark side of LITTLE HOUSE, with an Amish twist. This book is about an Amish family who leave their community for the Promised Land: Idaho. What happens to them along the route your giftee will never, ever forget.
2. WE ARE CALLED TO RISE by Laura McBride. Another fabulous debut novel that connects the dots between several seemingly disparate demographic groups in Las Vegas: a wounded soldier returning from Iraq; the mother of a local police officer who’s potentially abusing his wife; an emigrant child whose parents own an ice cream truck. How are all these people connected? In addition to common humanity, a really good story.
3. I AM HAVING SO MUCH FUN HERE WITHOUT YOU by Courtney Maum. Give this debut novel (yes, another!) to anyone who loves Paris; art; painting; effervescent writing; infidelity. Wait, what? Yes: Oh, Come, All Ye Unfaithful. This story about a feckless Englishman trying to win back his French wife after he’s cheated on her is a side-splitting delight even as it raises serious questions about what is a marriage–and what in life is important enough to last.
4. THE BOOK OF UNKNOWN AMERICANS by Cristina Henríquez. For the lover of emigrant/ multicultural fiction. This novel is a chorus of voices from Latin American countries, emigrants all living in one building complex in Delaware. Singing center stage are a young girl whose parents brought her to America seeking treatment she couldn’t get in Mexico for her brain injury–and the boy down the hall who loves her after meeting her in a Dollar Store. Super-touching and authentic.
5. MY SALINGER YEAR by Joanna Rakoff. Every once in a while I read a memoir. This year it was Joanna Rakoff’s endearing chronicle of her twenty-something stint working in a venerable literary agency that handled J.D Salinger. Did Ms. Rakoff ever actually meet “Jerry”? You’ll have to read to find out–and discover what she does about a) the thousands of forlorn Salinger letters she had to open and b) her horrid boyfriend, who was my favorite part of the book.
6. THE WIVES OF LOS ALAMOS by TaraShea Nesbit. For the scientist on your list–and the winner of the “Most Unusual Narration That Still Isn’t Annoying” Award, like a Booker Prize book that’s actually readable. This novel (also a debut!) is told from the points-of-view of the wives of the gentlemen who were creating the A-bomb: what they were told (very little); how they reacted when they found out what their husbands’ secret work was.
7. STILL LIFE WITH BREAD CRUMBS by Anna Quindlen. Give this novel to the hard-to-please reader on your list, because everyone will love it. Who doesn’t love Anna Quindlen? I read everything the woman writes, from her columns to her novels, and I was especially won over by this tale of a photographer who can no longer afford to live in her astronomically expensive NYC apartment so must rent it out and migrate to a dismal cabin upstate–and how this move opens a whole new unexpected chapter in her life. (Therefore you can also give STILL LIFE to people who believe in second chances.)
8. THE PAINTER by Peter Heller. Give this novel to anyone who loves characters like Hemingway but more charming; painters and art; incredibly beautiful writing about a gifted man doing incredibly fuckwitted stuff you can’t look away from, going wildly off the rails and somehow finding himself in the process.
9. THE POSSIBILITIES by Kaui Hart Hemmings. You may know Kaui Hart Hemmings’ name because she wrote THE DESCENDENTS, made into a movie starring George Clooney. Do you get a George Clooney action figure with this second novel? Alas, no. But you get a tender, funny, lively portrait of a Colorado TV hostess trying to put her life back together–aided by a truly motley crew of characters (her crusty dad, her baby daddy, her son’s maybe girlfriend)–after her son dies in an avalanche.
10. LIFE DRAWING by Robin Black. I loved Robin Black’s gorgeous writing in her short story collection IF I LOVED YOU, I WOULD TELL YOU THIS. So you can give that book to the short story lover on your list–and give anyone who loves a literary thriller Ms. Black’s new novel LIFE DRAWING, which is about what happens when a single woman moves in next door to two artists living in a country retreat–and how her presence widens the fault line running through their marriage. Good juicy stuff related with such elegance!, a rare combination.
11. ALL FALL DOWN by Jennifer Weiner. Give this to the people who are addicted to “Intervention” on Lifetime Movie Network. I love Jennifer Weiner’s accessible, funny novels, and this one is a little deeper: a portrait of a suburban mom and blogger who becomes addicted to prescription pain medication after a back injury. (I will leave it up to you whether to give this novel to anyone bedridden and on Oxycontin after surgery etc.)
12. OFF THE LEASH by Matthew Gilbert. A nonfiction charmer for dog-lovers, this memoir is about how Matthew Gilbert, TV columnist for the Boston Globe, was forced to interact with real people–and dogs–in his local dog park when his partner brought home a canine catalyst.
13. ACCIDENTS OF MARRIAGE by Randy Susan Meyer. This is for the domestic diva on your list. Randy Susan Meyer is so good at chronicling what happens to families under pressure, and her third novel, which explores how a husband and father’s anger explodes in his wife’s and children’s lives, is no exception.
14. THE WINTER GUEST by Pam Jenoff; THE GARDEN OF LETTERS by Alyson Richman. Okay, cheating, but you have to give both of these novels to the WW2 aficionado on your list! Pam Jenoff’s dark, authentic novel is about twin sisters trying to survive the Nazi regime in Poland; Alyson Richman’s mellifluous book features a female cellist working for the Italian Resistance, encoding messages in music to escape Nazi notice.
And No. 15. for 2015: GRAND CENTRAL by 10 bestselling female authors (including yours truly, ahem). An anthology of novellas all set in Grand Central Station on the same September day in 1945, when Americans were returning from the war; the characters appear in each other’s stories. So there, this is a good pick for the “Love Actually” lover on your list–and it’s great, and besides, my agent made me do it!