'Good stories' for my Mum this Christmas
November 18, 2017 3:50 AM   Subscribe

My Mum has asked for some books (novels) for Christmas. She does not want me to just buy her a Amazon or Waterstone's voucher (I checked). What a nightmare.

The problem is that I am a bit of a literary snob whose preferred type of fiction is the experimental stuff that doesn't always bother much with narrative.

Mum wants 'good stories'.

While I know that buying gifts for loved ones isn't all about me, I'm loathe to just buy her a load of romances or thrillers or anything that might contain dodgy gender/racial politics.

So, what novels shall I get for my Mum for Christmas this year, which will carry her off in a 'good story', might make her consider a different, better world, and won't make my skin crawl when I hand over the money?

I'm in the UK btw.
posted by churlishmeg to Society & Culture (53 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
Do you know any books that she’s read and liked recently? How about movies or TV shows? When I worked in a bookstore, I found that those were usually good starting places for recommendations.

You really need to get over yourself, for what it’s worth. Experimental fiction isn’t morally superior to good stories. You’re confusing your taste for virtue.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 3:58 AM on November 18, 2017 [27 favorites]

Essex Serpent?
posted by stillmoving at 4:03 AM on November 18, 2017 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Ha, yes, very true re getting over myself.

I guess she likes historical fiction generally. Which is really where some of my concern has come from in the past. These books tend to have women in the mother/whore/virgin roles, or don't handle the politics of war overseas very well. I'm probably worrying about nothing...
posted by churlishmeg at 4:05 AM on November 18, 2017

Respectfully, I think you're worrying about nothing. Your mother is a grown adult who reads novels for a bit of escapism, and there's nothing wrong with that. Presumably she hasn't reached the age she is without an awareness of the unfair and often terrible nature of the world, and if she hasn't, it seems unlikely that a novel that you're giving her on the recommendation of the internet is going to open her eyes.

That said, I'll toss Connie Willis's name your way, specifically Doomsday Book, or Blackout and All Clear, the latter two of which are one novel in two books. It's historical fiction in a science fiction framing (the protagonists are near-future time travelers studying [time period], so the gender politics and social views are informed by modern thinking) and the stories are fantastic. Doomsday Book is more straightforward and is set in the Middle Ages; Blackout and All Clear both have a more complex, non-chronological narrative set in WWII. I've given them to about a dozen people, and they're pretty universally well received, and may match what both you and your mother are looking for.
posted by mishafletch at 4:20 AM on November 18, 2017 [10 favorites]

Depends on your mom's level of irreverence, but she may like Lamb.
posted by emkelley at 4:49 AM on November 18, 2017

Hild by Nicola Griffith - speculative historical fiction about the woman who became St. Hild of Whitby

To quote from one of the reviews on that page:

"Historical fiction (but is it?) about a lonely, violent, spookily-intuitive, pagan (tho’ converted), lesbian (Griffith says she’s actually bi) saint-to-be and her manipulative, astonishing mother, written as though it was speculative fiction. "

On preview, Connie Willis is also good.
posted by siskin at 4:52 AM on November 18, 2017 [5 favorites]

Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan Novels might be a good choice, if she hasn't read them already.
posted by saladin at 4:54 AM on November 18, 2017 [7 favorites]

"The Christmas Train" by David Baldacci
(not your typical Baldacci story, no way!)
posted by james33 at 4:58 AM on November 18, 2017

I'm getting my mum The Hare With Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance. Our mums are similar, and I know mine will love this book.
posted by mumimor at 5:00 AM on November 18, 2017 [1 favorite]

Get her the complete set of Chocolat novels.
posted by flabdablet at 5:00 AM on November 18, 2017 [1 favorite]

Has your mum read Wolf Hall? Because it's brilliant and the women are strong.
posted by teststrip at 5:27 AM on November 18, 2017 [7 favorites]

Many of the old WWII era D.E. Stevenson books are back in print. I find them delightful and very escapist. Miss Buncle's Book is good, as is Music in the Hills.
posted by Malla at 5:43 AM on November 18, 2017 [1 favorite]

Barbara Kingsolver.
posted by metasarah at 5:46 AM on November 18, 2017 [2 favorites]

I think she might like London in Chains, by Gillian Bradshaw. Set in the Civil War, woman working in publishing, fulfils good story requirement.

Also The Course of Honour, by Lindsey Davies.

Most of the rest of the ones I can think of are mysteries rather than historical novels. For example, the Nell Bray series by Gillian Linscott - the protagonist is a suffragette. Alan Bradley's Flavia de Luce series - set in the 1950s, protagonist is an independent-minded young girl. Jacqueline Winspear's Maisie Dobbs series, set in the 1920s - protagonist is a psychologist. Barbara Cleverly's Laetitia Talbot series - protagonist is an archaeologist in the 1920s.

On preview, although I've enjoyed a lot of DE Stevenson, I think some of them might make your skin crawl - women's roles tend to be a bit limited and there is classism and some racism.
posted by paduasoy at 5:52 AM on November 18, 2017 [4 favorites]

Life After Life and A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson.
posted by ALeaflikeStructure at 5:58 AM on November 18, 2017 [7 favorites]

If you have a local library nearby ask the staff what's currently popular in fiction with your Mum's age group - or bookstores should know this info too. I asked a local alternative bookstore this when searching for books for my nieces and it was helpful.
posted by biggreenplant at 6:17 AM on November 18, 2017 [1 favorite]

What about Anita Shreve novels?
posted by stray at 6:18 AM on November 18, 2017

I'm putting Jeanette Winterson's Christmas Days into everyone's holiday packages. Not a novel-- it's a series of shorter writings-- but so yummy in the presentation and the content. Not the Winterson I thought I knew, but then again, yes. From her website:

"Read these stories by the fire, in the snow, travelling home for the holidays. Give them to friends, wrap them up for someone you love, read them aloud, read them alone, read them together. Enjoy the season of peace and goodwill, mystery, and a little bit of magic.

There are ghosts here and jovial spirits. Chances at love and tricks with time.

There is frost and icicles, mistletoe and sledges. There’s a cat and a dog and a solid silver frog. There’s a Christmas cracker with a surprising gift inside..."
posted by BibiRose at 6:37 AM on November 18, 2017 [2 favorites]

Anything and everything by Rainbow Rowell. All of her books are very good and she has both Young Adult and, um, normal adult? fiction that tend to have strong women characters in them and the stories are excellent.
posted by jillithd at 6:45 AM on November 18, 2017 [1 favorite]

The Invisible Bridge? Not my kind of fiction (because I am super-not over myself). However, I began it on a friend's recommendation and found it well-written and readable.
posted by dreamphone at 6:48 AM on November 18, 2017 [1 favorite]

Has she read the Dorothy Dunnett Lymond Chronicles? Historical, lots of 'em, engaging. Gender politics constrained by 16th century setting, of course, but many strong and brilliant and funny women characters.
posted by little cow make small moo at 7:14 AM on November 18, 2017 [5 favorites]

Upon ten minutes' further thought though I would point out that terrible terrible things happen to women (and everyone actually) in the Dunnett books; they aren't necessarily... light, fun stories. They have funny parts but also are totally over-the-top with ridiculous drama.
posted by little cow make small moo at 7:21 AM on November 18, 2017

I’m also a literary snob, but when I was undergoing chemo and needed something light, the Number One Ladies Detective Agency series was perfect. Those definitely fall into the “good stories” category.
posted by FencingGal at 7:28 AM on November 18, 2017 [3 favorites]

Dodie Smith - I Capture the Castle
Colm Toibin - Brooklyn
Chimamanda Adichie - Half of a Yellow Sun
Amy Tan - The Joy Luck Club
Georgette Heyer - Cotillion
Anthony Doerr - All the Light We Cannot See
Charles Frazier - Cold Mountain
George Eliot - Middlemarch
Zora Neale Hurston - Their Eyes Were Watching God
posted by phonebia at 7:40 AM on November 18, 2017 [4 favorites]

Seconding Wolf Hall and it's follow-up, Bringing Up the Bodies.

I really enjoyed Grave Mercy and it's two follow-ups for escapist historical fiction. I think they might be technically YA novels, but they're not dumbed down.

The most engrossing thing I have read in the past year is the Southern Reach trilogy by Jeff Vandermeer. Not historical fiction at all, but a really compelling story told in three very different books.
posted by jeoc at 7:53 AM on November 18, 2017

If she's OK with mysteries, you could do a lot worse than a few of the Christmas books Anne Perry comes out with annually.
posted by BibiRose at 8:04 AM on November 18, 2017

Philippa Gregory is a favourite of some people I know. Historical Tudor stuff, mainly focused on the noblewomen of the time.

Are you familiar with The Book People? It's a UK website that sells heavily discounted bundles of mainstream books. Right now for example they have:

- Six books by Philippa Gregory for £5.99 (that's the whole "Cousins War" series).
- Ten books by Ian Rankin for £12.99 (Rebus)
- Three books by CJ Sansom for £6.99 (Shardlake series, 16th century historical)
- Ten books by Ruth Rendell for £10.99 (Inspector Wexford)
- Seven books by Ngaio Marsh for £5.99 (Inspector Alleyn)
- Five books by Patricia Highsmith for £5.99
- Three books by Jo Walton for £4.99 (the "Small Change" trilogy, WW2 historical)
- Lots of others under different sections.

I think the ones I linked are not woefully problematic, although I certainly haven't read all of them. If you're not sure what to go for, cheap and plentiful might not be the worst strategy.
posted by rollick at 8:05 AM on November 18, 2017 [2 favorites]

If she hasn't already read the works of Edith Pargeter (aka Ellis Peters) or Barbara Mertz (aka Elizabeth Peters/Barbara Michaels), there is a treasure trove of engaging historical fiction stories there.

Elizabeth Peters’s Amelia Peabody novels, featuring an intrepid, well educated, assertive, female Egyptologist in the early 20th century, who solves mysteries aided by her adoring and handsome husband, appeal particularly to many female readers.

Problem is, these books have been out there a few decades, so there's a decent chance she may have already read at least some of them.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 9:07 AM on November 18, 2017

One of the best gifts I ever got was a combo of two books - a fiction and a non-fiction - on the Spanish Civil War: For Whom the Bell Tolls by Hemingway and A Moment of War, a memoir by Laurie Lee. People who like historical fiction commonly read the notes on the fiction in depth, wondering “how much of this was true?”

So if you were to get you Mom the book Hild, referenced above by siskin, you could pair it with something like this non-fiction on St. Hild.
posted by mulcahy at 9:31 AM on November 18, 2017

I think the winning suggestion is probably Elena Ferrante, if she somehow hasn't read those yet.

Some other ideas:
The Blood of Flowers: Anita Amirrezvani (historical fiction set in Iran. Note: quite a lot of learning to have to good sex)
Code Name Verity: Elizabeth Wein (YA book about female spies during WWII. Very gripping story.)
Station Eleven: Emily St. John Mandel (apocalytic novel but a good story)
Year of Wonders or People of the Book: Geraldine Brooks (both good historical fiction stories with good female characters)
Remarkable Creatures: Tracy Chevalier (historical fiction about two eccentric women discovering fossils)
Homegoing: Yaa Gyasi (historical fiction, good story but definitely quite sad)
Home Fire: Kamila Shamsie (contemporary novel about a British Muslim family, not for those looking for a happy ending)
Euphoria: Lily King (historical fiction set in New Guinea inspired by the life of anthropologist Margaret Mead)

I loved all of Wolf Hall, Dorothy Dunnett and Hild but I found all of those had a bit more complicated writing style where you had to really pay attention while reading.
posted by carolr at 9:51 AM on November 18, 2017 [3 favorites]

Maybe this is obvious, and I've never read any myself, but how about Jean Plaidy?

The tel3mum used to love them and she read every last one.

The tel3mum has good taste, so I would take seriously any book she enjoyed, including some that are often considered "trash". A lot of popular historical fiction, especially that written by women, is much more than it's reputed to be.
posted by tel3path at 9:51 AM on November 18, 2017 [2 favorites]

If your mother is into historical fiction, there’s a good chance she’s already read Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. You might consider some of Mantel’s earlier work. A Place of Greater Safety is about the French Revolution and is also a wonderful, massive tome you can lose yourself in. The Giant O’Brien is a historical novel about the so-called Irish Giant, who lived in the eighteenth century. Both are excellent.
posted by FencingGal at 9:54 AM on November 18, 2017

One of the best historical novels I've read is Margaret Atwood's Alias Grace. It is compelling feminist literature, but definitely a "good story" too.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 10:00 AM on November 18, 2017 [3 favorites]

If your mother is into escapist historical romance you should know that a lot of contemporary writers have gone far beyond what you describe as "women in the mother/whore/virgin roles." Many of them write about strong adventurous intelligent women. Mary Balogh, Grace Burrowes, Denise Domning, Susan Wiggs come to mind.
posted by mareli at 10:17 AM on November 18, 2017 [2 favorites]

Came back to say Susanna Kearsley. Some of her books are straight historical novels and some move between now and the past. I liked The Shadowy Horses (Roman archaeology / ghosts). The Winter Sea is one of the time slippage ones. Mariana is good.
posted by paduasoy at 10:40 AM on November 18, 2017 [3 favorites]

Jo Baker's Longbourn. Lots of Gillian Bradshaw, if she hasn't read them -- I especially like Island of Ghosts.
posted by clew at 11:01 AM on November 18, 2017

Caroline, Little House Revisted is very good storytelling. I'm not remotely a Little House on the Prairie fangirl (I barely remember the books and don't give a shit about Manifest Destiny and the American push to take over the continent) but it was an engaging read.

I also enjoyed Mistress of the Art of Death, historical crime story about a 12th-centurywoman medical examiner and winner of an award from the British Crime Writers' Association.

The Book of Madness and Cures, also a mystery with a woman doctor protagonist (16th century this time), has been on my list for a while, but I've not yet read it.

Tell the Wolves I'm Home
, a beautiful story about a young teenager negotiating her relationship with an older sister and their mother when her beloved uncle has died of AIDS at the beginning of the AIDS crisis is now, basically, historical fiction, and one of the best novels I've read in years.
posted by crush at 1:52 PM on November 18, 2017

Is the reference to romance in your post related to your mum's reading preferences? If so, and if she's open to a little bit of fantasy with some historical fiction / romance, she may enjoy the Glamourist series by Mary Robinette Kowal. Shades of Milk and Honey begins the series and is a bit like Jane Austen in a slightly fantastical English Regency setting.
posted by apcmwh at 2:32 PM on November 18, 2017

Try Poldark. There is a series of books that the PBS show is based on.
Some of the language is quite beautiful and the story is great.
It may satisfy her without just being a throwaway novel.
posted by SLC Mom at 3:12 PM on November 18, 2017

Seconding Georgette Heyer. My favorites are The Grand Sophy and Bath Tangle.
posted by peacheater at 3:29 PM on November 18, 2017 [1 favorite]

Mary Stewart wrote a series of romantic suspense novels that are pure escapist and so much fun to read. My favorites are Airs Above the Ground and The Ivy Tree.
posted by theBigRedKittyPurrs at 6:12 PM on November 18, 2017 [2 favorites]

A great book for your mum is The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Pie Society.

It was a great read for me, and I'm not a fan of that genre. It takes place just after WWII, with 2 characters writing letters between France and Britain. It's utterly charming, sweet, and eventually, romantic. It might even win you over.
posted by hydra77 at 8:12 PM on November 18, 2017 [2 favorites]

Colm Toibin - Brooklyn

Ugh, this is a spectacular book, so beautiful I cannot even express and must use the word "ugh" because it is so great.

(Grave Mercy is also great fun and I really liked them!)

We had a historical fiction book club over at FanFare -- your mom might like:

The Many Lives and Secret Sorrows of Josephine B, and its two -- sequels, about Empress Josephine (Napoleon's wife) and it is AWESOME. Everyone I know who's started the first one was raced through it in a couple days and demanded the next two immediately.

Forever Amber, "a 900-page romp through the Restoration that was both the best-selling and most-banned novel of the 1940s in the US. The Australian government banned the book with the claim that, “The Almighty did not give people eyes to read that rubbish.” Massachusetts helpfully listed its reasons for banning the novel as pornography: “70 references to sexual intercourse, 39 illegitimate pregnancies, 7 abortions, and 10 descriptions of women undressing in front of men.” Don't let the length put you off! It's a fast and compelling read." IT'S GLORIOUS.

The Signature of All Things, "the rich, highly satisfying story of scholar Alma Whittaker. ... Gilbert, in supreme command of her material, effortlessly invokes the questing spirit of the nineteenth century, when amateur explorers, naturalists, and enthusiasts were making major contributions to progress."

Not historical fiction, but a charming little love story I recommend to people all the time -- Major Pettigrew's Last Stand.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:46 PM on November 18, 2017 [1 favorite]

If she likes historical romance, then look at The Brothers Sinister series by Courtney Milan. These stories are delightful, with progressive main characters and more diversity than in most romances. Main characters include a botanist, an astronomer, a suffragette, and a chess champion.
posted by puddledork at 8:18 AM on November 19, 2017

I recently read and loved The Anchoress, by Robyn Cadwallader. I finished it, recommended it to everyone I could, and then was very disappointed to find it was her only book (so far) so I couldn't immediately devour everything else she'd written.
posted by lemniskate at 9:58 AM on November 19, 2017

Look, I am a post-modern experimental fiction aficionado, too, but we all need a change of pace sometimes. What your mum is looking for is 100% my oeuvre in these troubled times.

I'll echo Wolf Hall. I'll also give you 8 Months on Ghazzah Street, because my love for Hilary Mantel is well documented on this site already.

I also echo Connie Willis, especially To Say Nothing Of The Dog, which is also about time travel but is also a love story and a stand-alone story; and her short story collection, Winds of Marble Arch, plus Blackout + Doomsday as mentioned above.

Jo Walton's Small Change trilogy is an alternate history where the Nazis (sort of) won the war, is LGBT positive, and is heart-breaking.

Naomi Novik's Uprooted is a fantastic story with a great female lead.

Finally, I've literally just finished reading Dorothy Sayer's Peter Wimsey books, which are heavily referenced in Connie Willis's work and I had expected to hate. I was pleasantly surprised, especially by Gaudy Night, which is essentially an exploration of feminist identity in 1930s Oxford whilst also being a ripping good yarn with a bit of Latin-quoting romance for good measure. Start with Strong Poison for the romance. Great thing about these is, they are probably all over charity shops and they're a bit more intellectual than Agatha Christies.
posted by citands at 12:49 PM on November 19, 2017 [1 favorite]

The Madonnas of Leningrad
posted by Grandysaur at 4:59 PM on November 19, 2017

Seconding Euphoria, by Lily King. I listened to the audiobook version, and loved it.
posted by merejane at 6:34 PM on November 19, 2017

I recently read and really enjoyed Hannah Kent's The Good People, which is very engaging story (although a bit depressing) set in nineteenth century Ireland - "a literary novel with the pace and tension of a thriller that takes us on a frightening journey towards an unspeakable tragedy" says the blurb.
posted by fever-trees at 7:37 PM on November 19, 2017

She has read Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, right? That would be the obvious classic good story, easily available in gorgeous hardback somewhere as it's an eternal crowdpleaser. If she has and liked it, Dickens produced a good number of follow-ups, of which The Boy At Mugby Station is supposed to be good, and The Cricket On The Hearth alright, but i can't speak for either.

The Errant Hours by Kate Innes she definitely won't have heard of or read, because almost nobody in Britain has, but if she can read historical fiction, it's absolutely brilliant and gripping. The first half is chase and the second half is love story, so warn her there's a sudden drop in pace halfway through, but it's good throughout.

Toby Clements' first two books of the Kingmaker four-book series are another obvious gripping choice but she's probably heard of them. Well, if she hasn't heard of Mantel's Wolf Hall she'd probably love that. If you prefer luurve, or the more recent past, Elizabeth Taylor [not the film star] is good (i know she's 'literature' but she's also easy reading) and not as well-known, try Angel or short stories. A short easy-reading yet strangely obscure novelette i recommend to everyone and everyone likes is Cees' Nooteboom's The Following Story. It's not dry like his other stuff and it's not lurve or war, more memories but plenty happens fast. She has read Daphne du Maurier, right?
posted by maiamaia at 6:17 AM on November 21, 2017

they say it's literature but it's absolutely gripping: Vasily Grossman's 'life and fate'. A better portrait of a marriage breaking down hasn't been written. The bits in prison camps are a bit unconvincing (they really fantasise about politics not food?) the war bits are great. The woman he falls for is bad (she just exists to sympathise with him and has no other thoughts) everything else is 100%
posted by maiamaia at 6:21 AM on November 21, 2017

Katherine Heiny standard deviation: special needs family, remarried man's regrets about his divorce, surreal comedy, constant change of tone, the annoyances of having unwanted guests, child-raising: the contents of mass-market, the style of literature. Also found Rachel Cusk's Outline very easy-reading, but that's more divorce, creativity and feminism and doesn't have a plot. Beatty's The Sellout is hilarious if she hasn't read it yet.

Olivia Manning's The Balkan Trilogy is absolutely gripping and huge and incredibly well-written and hardly anyone's heard of it and it's huge so it'll keep her quiet for ages. But does require some interest in WW2 - just enough to not mind learning what order the nazis invaded some southern countries in.

Isabel Wilkerson's the warmth of other suns she's probably either read or doesn't want to given how famous it is in america, but is stories: the real-life stories of three or four people, in depth. It repeats itself constantly which takes some getting used to, but that's its only flaw and it's a fascinating must-read. It's stories of people's lives.
posted by maiamaia at 6:31 AM on November 21, 2017

Sounds like she might enjoy any of Maeve Binchy's books.
posted by Lay Off The Books at 6:52 PM on November 21, 2017 [1 favorite]

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