Give the gift of intrigue this holiday season with a celebrity memoir that captures all the grisly details of glitz, glamour and fame.
Give the gift of intrigue this holiday season with a celebrity memoir that captures all the grisly details of glitz, glamour and fame.
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The Double Agent

The problem with being a double agent is that if you put a foot wrong, there is always someone ready—even eager—to kill you. In the case of Alexsi Ivanovich Smirnoff, the situationally heroic hero of William Christie’s The Double Agent, there are not two but three agencies poised to be either his savior or his executioner, depending on their mood and the day of the week: the Brits, the Germans and the Russians. It’s 1943, and the slippery spy has been captured in Iran by the British, who promptly recruit him to infiltrate the German forces in Italy. His exploits amid the Vatican and members of the Italian aristocracy are particularly dicey and well rendered, and as Alexsi makes his way across the European theater of the war, he becomes entangled in and surreptitiously shapes real-life events, such as the assassination attempt on Winston Churchill. Alexsi is an engaging character despite being self-serving to the max; in his defense, if he wasn’t so consistently out for number one, he would have been summarily executed ages ago. Although it is not strictly necessary to read Christie’s first novel starring Alexsi (2017’s A Single Spy), after reading The Double Agent, you will surely want to. I would suggest tackling them in chronological order for optimal reading enjoyment.

How to Survive Everything

The first line of Ewan Morrison’s How to Survive Everything grabs readers by the throat: “I’m still alive, and if you’re reading this then that means you’re still alive, too. That’s something.” The Scottish writer’s thriller is set in the not-too-distant future, where rumors abound of a new disease that far outstrips COVID-19. Narrator Haley Cooper Crowe is an outspoken and plucky 16-year-old girl. (“Hold on . . . If you’re reading this, it’s also possible I’m dead. . . . If you found me lying there dead, I hope I wasn’t too gross.”) Haley’s family is a microcosm of modern-day political discord vis-a-vis pandemics. Her father, Ed, is a survivalist, a gun-toting libertarian determined to protect his family; her mother is a pandemic denier who accuses Ed of being an alarmist who’s ready to jump on any bandwagon that promises impending apocalypse. Long story short, Ed, convinced another pandemic is about to begin, kidnaps Haley and her younger brother, Ben—and then the troubles really begin. Morrison seamlessly channels the voice and attitude of a teenage girl: Haley is by turns insightful, hilarious, cynical and, like many teens, wise beyond the perceptions of those who surround her. How to Survive Everything is a spot-on fable for the pandemic era. Or, perhaps, it would be more accurate to regard it as a textbook.

A World of Curiosities

Reviewing Louise Penny gets more difficult with each new installment of her Chief Inspector Gamache mysteries, because each of her books improves upon the body of work that precedes it. One can advance that opinion a limited number of ways before it becomes severely repetitive. Nonetheless, the latest case of Armand Gamache, A World of Curiosities, is another superb achievement. The title refers to “The Paston Treasure,” a real-life painting by an anonymous Flemish artist that shows off the eclectic collecting habits of the Paston family in 17th-century England. The painting is housed in Norfolk, England, so it is something of a surprise when a full-scale replica of it turns up in a walled-in room in Gamache’s quiet Three Pines village in Quebec. And it’s even more of a surprise when the replica appears slightly different from the original, featuring collectibles that had not even been conceived of at the time the artwork was created. And then the murders begin, with the key question being what connection they could possibly have to the recently discovered painting. The reappearance in town of a young man and woman whose mother was brutally murdered a decade before complicates matters further. Penny weaves together all these narratives—the series of modern-day killings, the decade-old bludgeoning murder and the haunting artwork that has remained shrouded in mystery across the centuries—with a master’s deft hand.

Secrets Typed in Blood

Some of the giddiest delights experienced by mid-20th-century suspense aficionados were summoned forth by author Rex Stout in his mysteries starring grumpy armchair detective Nero Wolfe and his smart-alecky assistant/biographer, Archie Goodwin. Stout died in 1975, and with the exception of tributes in print and on screen, Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin passed away with their creator—until 2020, when Stephen Spotswood’s Fortune Favors the Dead introduced readers to brilliant sleuth Lillian Pentecost and her stalwart assistant, Willowjean “Will” Parker. While not an intentional homage to the Nero Wolfe mysteries, the Pentecost & Parker series will thrill fans of Stout’s iconic characters. They share a 1940s New York City setting, and the dynamic between the central characters is very similar; the biggest change is simply that Spotswood’s duo is composed of two women, with one of them, Will, being gay. In the latest installment, Secrets Typed in Blood, the canny pair takes the case of Holly Quick, a pulp magazine writer who thinks that someone is committing real-life murders that mimic her stories, down to the smallest detail. The tension ratchets up dramatically when the latest killing mirrors a story that Holly has not even published yet, thus shrinking the suspect pool considerably. I was a huge fan of the Nero Wolfe series and am on my way to becoming as big an admirer of the Pentecost & Parker mysteries.

Inspector Gamache is back, and author Louise Penny has crafted a truly haunting case for him to solve. Read our review in this month’s Whodunit column!

In this trio of suspense novels, a seasoned spy, a clever reward-seeker and a thief extraordinaire take on complicated, dangerous assignments as they race against time and attempt to elude their equally determined enemies. 

JUDAS 62

At just under 500 pages, Charles Cumming’s JUDAS 62 is a commitment, but those who love immersive espionage thrillers will consider it time well spent.

Fans were first introduced to Lachlan Kite in the 2022 series-opener BOX 88, named for the spy agency to which Kite has been loyal since his college days. As the second book begins, Kite is chagrined to hear that former Russian general Saul Kaszeta, a BOX 88 resource for many years, has been killed at his home in Connecticut. To make matters worse, Kite learns of the existence of the JUDAS list, a log of Russia’s enemies who are targets for assassination. Kaszeta was on that list, and thanks to a mission he completed in 1993, so is Kite. Also on the chopping block? Yuri Aranov, the bioweapons scientist Kite exfiltrated all those years ago. 

Emotionally vivid flashbacks to that mission offer insight into a pivotal time in Kite’s life, when he was transitioning from a newbie uncomfortable with lying to his friends into an accomplished, silver-tongued agent on the rise. It’s a treat to be in on Kite’s elaborate planning, social machinations and on-the-fly pivots as roadblocks literal and figurative pop up in his path, including a violent Russian intelligence agent named Mikhail Gromik.

In the present day, there’s plenty of nail-biting action, too: Kite’s got to keep himself and Aranov from being crossed off the JUDAS list and, to truly ensure their safety, take Gromik off the map. Kite and his team jet off to Dubai, “a playground for spying,” to bring those goals to fruition, and Cumming puts his characters in a variety of creatively precarious situations, layering in paranoia and suspense galore. He also underscores the inner conflict that bedevils his spies both novice and expert, what a young Kite called being “suspended between the two worlds in which he lived.” JUDAS 62 offers an engrossing, highly detailed excursion into spy life that crackles with tension, life-or-death problem-solving and plenty of international intrigue.

Hunting Time

As his millions of fans know, Jeffery Deaver likes a twist, especially in his Colter Shaw series. The rugged reward-seeker (he finds people who have gone missing and collects the reward money) relies on two rules emphasized by his uber-survivalist late father: “never be without a means of escape, and never be without access to a weapon.” 

In his fourth adventure, Hunting Time, Shaw puts those rules to the test on a new sort of project, foiling the theft of a nuclear device called the Pocket Sun. The client is Marty Harmon, the founder of Midwestern startup Harmon Energy Products. Shaw likes the cut of Harmon’s jib, so he agrees when the CEO implores him to do yet another job just days later. The brilliant Allison Parker, Harmon’s best engineer and inventor of the Pocket Sun, and her teenage daughter, Hannah, have gone on the run because Allison’s abusive ex-husband, former police detective Jon Merritt, was released early from prison. Harmon wants Allison and Hannah found, protected and returned, but Allison refuses to resurface until Jon is back behind bars.  

Deaver deftly alternates perspectives throughout Shaw’s suspenseful three-day chase over rough terrain, immersing the reader in Jon’s growing rage, Allison’s efforts to strategize an escape while keeping the argumentative Hannah calm, and the demented determination of two hit men who are, alas, also chasing Allison. As time ticks by and the various players converge, Deaver keeps the anxiety high with short chapters and multiple twists that cast the characters’ motivations in surprising new lights. The vagaries of city politics and complicated family dynamics add depth and context to this timely and tension-filled thriller.

Three-Edged Sword

Incorrigible master thief Riley Wolfe is back for a third escapade in Three-Edged Sword by Jeff Lindsay, author of the Dexter series (and creator of the hit TV adaption). 

The story picks up right after 2020’s Fool Me Twice, and Riley is doing the last thing readers would expect: sitting still. Or at least trying to, as he waits for Monique—master art forger, occasional heist partner, the woman for whom he has unresolved romantic feelings—to emerge from a coma. Riley’s mother has been in a coma for some time, and with the only two people he cares about ill and inaccessible, he’s suffering the kind of antsiness that makes him “really want to . . . light [his] hair on fire and run screaming into the night.”  

He doesn’t do that, but he does take risks that land him in the clutches of Chase Prescott, a rogue CIA agent who decides to force Riley into doing a job for him. He’s to sneak onto a remote island in Lithuania owned by former Soviet intelligence agent Ivo Balodis, who lives in an underground bunker connected to a decommissioned missile silo. Once there, he must steal a flash drive from the (heavily guarded and booby-trapped) silo; as payment, he can swipe a rare Russian icon from Balodis’ prized collection. 

Riley is infuriated to learn that Prescott has kidnapped his mother and Monique to ensure compliance. Can he rescue them from Prescott’s goons while coming up with a way to breach Balodis’ missile silo without coming to great harm, or even death? Readers will be transfixed by Riley’s every move as he engages in astonishing transformations and clever ruses in pursuit of his seemingly impossible goals in this audacious and action-packed thriller.

A seasoned spy, a clever reward-seeker and a thief extraordinaire race against time and attempt to elude their equally determined enemies.
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Love stories set during the holidays are almost always good-natured, but this year’s standouts take good cheer and good will to another level. Personal transformations and turning points abound in these empathetic and festive happily ever afters.    

So This Is Christmas

Author Jenny Holiday takes readers on a third trip to the fictional country of Eldovia in So This Is Christmas. Management consultant Cara Delaney arrives in the small Alpine country to modernize the operations of a luxury watch company partly owned by the royal family. Matteo Benz, equerry of the king (think executive assistant), has been tasked with helping Cara but gives her a cold welcome. A traditionalist, he’s concerned her proposed changes might adversely affect his beloved country and its citizens. They parry, they clash, they kiss and find themselves consumed with thoughts of each other even as they investigate problems at the company. There’s time for hot chocolate and admiring the snowy beauty of Eldovia, but can two high-powered professionals from different countries admit to love and find a way to be together? This delightful charmer is the ultimate holiday escape. 

Kiss Her Once for Me

Comics artist Ellie Oliver is at a low point in her life when she agrees to marry Andrew, a near-stranger, in Kiss Her Once for Me by Alison Cochrun. He needs a wife to secure his inheritance, and she desperately needs the money he offers her to become that wife. What could go wrong? Only that Andrew’s sister, Jack, is none other than the woman Ellie fell in love with over one magical night the year before—and now they have to spend the holidays together. To make matters even worse, Ellie and Jack’s fling didn’t end well and Ellie has promised Andrew she’ll pretend they’re marrying for love. From there, Cochrun piles on the rom-com fun: stranded at a snowy cabin with a single bed, the obligatory admiring of wood-chopping prowess, the “we better get out of these wet clothes” gambit. It’s not all holly jolly, however. Ellie’s vulnerable first-person voice gives readers intimate insight into a mind and heart prone to second-guessing, and the family drama that occurs during the merriest season is a reminder that Christmas rarely proceeds as planned. It’s a satisfying romance with a few tears to balance its fresh-baked sweetness.

A Merry Little Meet Cute

A plus-size adult film actor stars in a Christmas TV movie in A Merry Little Meet Cute by Julie Murphy and Sierra Simone. Bee Hobbes (aka Bianca Von Honey) hopes to keep her sexy alter ego secret from everyone at the decidedly PG-rated Hope Channel, including her co-star, former boy band wild child Nolan Shaw, who is trying to take his personal brand in a more straight-laced direction. Nolan was Bee’s biggest teenage crush, and unbeknownst to her, he is one of Bianca Von Honey’s biggest fans. They keep those truths from each other for a short while, but soon their mutual attraction is burning up the set. What happens next is as predictable as it is enjoyable: multiple fiery love scenes and hilarious attempts to fool their co-workers. Bee and Nolan are energetic, self-deprecating and honest narrators, and a fab cast of supporting characters add more sparkle to this spicy holiday fare.

Just Like Magic

Sarah Hogle’s Just Like Magic is the type of book the words over the top were made for. Narrator Bettie Hughes unwittingly summons the Holiday Spirit—call him Hall—just in time for a Christmas vacation with her dysfunctional extended family. Bettie is way, way down on her luck, so she’s elated when Hall tells her that he will make all her wishes come true . . . until she’s expressing sufficient holiday cheer, of course. (Bettie mischievously supposes that accomplishing that task could take just about, oh, forever.) The plot’s frenetic pace matches Hall’s feverish ideas for how to make this Christmas the best ever; as a human for the first time, he wants to experience it all. Bettie and her relatives are insufferable at first, but as Hall’s magic takes hold, their charm begins to shine through. It’s impossible to predict where this clever romance will go next. Bettie and Hall are an unlikely pair, and their unlikely story will steal hearts. 

Season of Love

A Jewish artist gets a chance to save the family Christmas tree farm in Season of Love by Helena Greer. When her estranged but still beloved Great-Aunt Cass dies, Miriam Blum discovers that Cass named her part-owner of Carrigan’s, a tree farm and inn that caters to uber-fans of the holiday season. The other owners include Miriam’s childhood BFF and Noelle Northwood, the farm’s manager. Noelle sees Miriam as an interloper and is resolved to dislike her, no matter how sexy Noelle may find her. While determining what to do with the property, Miriam and Noelle are forced to face their pasts and end up intimately connecting over family, regrets and momentous mistakes. Told from both women’s perspectives, Season of Love is an emotionally driven holiday romance with definite heft. Miriam and Noelle both have baggage to unpack before they can risk falling for someone, and Greer shows how the season of snow and hope can also be a time of self-reflection. Readers will root for Miriam and Noelle to heal their hearts and begin to fully live—and love.

Whether you like your love stories merry or melancholy, these books will make the season bright.
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In Lauren Groff’s Matrix, 17-year-old Marie de France becomes prioress of a run-down abbey in 12th-century England. Ill-suited to a life of privation, Marie struggles in her new role, but she forms strong bonds with the women in her charge, and the abbey begins to flourish. When tensions rise between the abbey and the outside world, Marie’s work and leadership are challenged. Fans of historical fiction will savor this gripping, atmospheric novel, which poses questions related to faith and female desire that will inspire great discussion among readers.

Anthony Doerr’s ambitious, sweeping Cloud Cuckoo Land follows a group of characters across the centuries, all of whom endure transformational events and share a love for an ancient tale called “Cloud Cuckoo Land.” Doerr tells the stories of Anna and Omeir, two youngsters in Constantinople in the 1400s; Zeno, an octogenarian librarian in modern-day Idaho; and Konstance, a teenage girl traveling on a spacecraft in the 22nd century. Inventive and accomplished, Doerr’s novel is an unforgettable tribute to the power of stories and the endurance of the human spirit.

Set in the 1970s in Illinois, Jonathan Franzen’s Crossroads chronicles the lives of the Hildebrandts, a suburban family going through a period of change. Russ Hildebrandt, an associate pastor and church leader, has decided to split from his wife, Marion. Their daughter, Becky, and son Perry are dabbling in drugs and a more radical lifestyle, and Clem, the oldest son, makes a drastic choice that shocks the family. Franzen’s wonderfully detailed, emotionally intimate novel is satisfying on every level, with marriage, morality and religion among the book’s many talking points.

Ailey Pearl Garfield, a young Black woman, delves into her disturbing family history in Honorée Fanonne Jeffers’ The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois. Brought up in a family of formidable women in Georgia, Ailey takes inspiration from the great activist W.E.B. Du Bois while wrestling with her heritage and selfhood. As she learns the truth about her family tree and the impact of slavery on her forebears, Ailey draws closer to self-acceptance. Jeffers explores issues of race, history and female relationships through this luminous story of a woman coming into her own.

Tackle some of the most acclaimed blockbuster novels of recent years with your book club.
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Book jacket image for Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking by Marcella Hazan

Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking

An Italian-born friend, who is a very fine cook, once texted me a recipe for Bolognese sauce. The recipe, she explained, was by Marcella Hazan, and the meal we made from it was a gorgeous triumph. You can find that recipe on page 210 of the new edition of Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, a classic tome now outfitted in cheerful bright yellow for its 30th anniversary. Hazan, who died in 2013, is often credited as the most significant teacher of northern Italian cooking in the United States, and her guidance on fresh pasta, sauces and vegetables is without match, her objective “not to astonish, but to reassure.” Hazan’s cooking is unfussy, powered by good, fresh ingredients (which she explains in loving detail) and firmly rooted in family memories. 

Book jacket image for A Dish for All Seasons by Kathryn Pauline

A Dish for All Seasons

A Dish for All Seasons: 125+ Recipe Variations for Delicious Meals All Year Round is a collection of 26 recipe templates and suggestions for how to mix them up for each season—in other words, a brilliantly useful concept. For example, quesadillas: an easy weeknight favorite, but possibly a bit boring? Not so when stuffed with steamed root veggies in winter or grilled corn kernels in summer. Or consider pesto four ways, depending on what’s in season. Kathryn Pauline, a Saveur award-winning writer, provides a meal-making approach suitable for all levels of kitchen wizardry. Beginners can develop fluency through repeating familiar go-tos with simple twists, while those with kitchen skills will jump at the opportunity to improvise within constraints. “Use what you’ve got” is advice that never grows old, and this book puts a clever, adaptable spin on it. 

For something uniquely comforting, check out these four cookbooks perfect for browsing while you’re snug as a dormouse.

Book jacket image for I Am From Here by Vishwesh Bhatt

I Am From Here

In Vishwesh Bhatt’s cooking, the flavors and foodways of Mississippi and India converge in dishes like okra chaat, saag-style collards and succotash with garam masala. Until now, one had to visit Snackbar in Oxford, Mississippi, where Bhatt is executive chef, to experience that fare. Now, I Am From Here: Stories and Recipes From a Southern Chef showcases the inventive cuisine on which the James Beard Award-winning chef has made his name. A dinner might include grown-up stir-fried rice (based on a snack from Bhatt’s childhood in Ahmedabad, India), collard-wrapped catfish and Mom’s rice pudding. Stories of Bhatt’s mother, who kindled his early interest in food, pepper these pages. The book beautifully represents an individual immigrant’s experience through food; at the same time, it is a welcome addition to the canon of elevated Southern cooking. 

Book jacket image for Chinese-ish by Rosheen Kaul

Chinese-ish

Rosheen Kaul and Joanna Hu, the two young Asian Australians behind the delightful Chinese-ish: Home Cooking Not Quite Authentic, 100% Delicious, encompass a wealth of identities and influences between them: Kashmiri, Singaporean, Filipino, Malaysian, Indonesian and, of course, Chinese. Their collaboration, born during the COVID-19 pandemic, dances merrily through all of that territory with insouciant verve and a dash of humor. There are sections called “Chinese-ish snacks that feel kinda wrong” (including Beijing hot chicken and prawn toast) and “A few desserts we don’t hate” (such as mango pudding and pumpkin cakes). Hu’s watercolor illustrations play so nicely with the vivid photography throughout, and the recipes are remarkably accessible. Get yourself a carbon steel wok (as my husband did recently; he’s loving it), hit up the supermarket’s international aisle or your local Asian market, and you’ll be dishing up variations on fried rice, Sichuan-style noodles and chiffon omelets in no time.

Book jacket image for Bread Head by Greg Wade

Bread Head

“The bread I’m going to teach you to make is a little rough around the edges, a little louder than is polite, and stupid good.” That’s Greg Wade, head baker at Chicago’s Publican Quality Bread, in Bread Head: Baking for the Road Less Traveled. Wade’s bread is “an eff-you to the factory-farmed, industrially made versions” ubiquitous in supermarkets, as he often forges standard wheat for organic heritage whole grains such as barley, buckwheat and millet. Or how about a sorghum and rosemary ciabatta, or a rye naan? Wade’s creations pull from around the globe; for example, there’s khachapuri, a fermented dough stuffed with cheese and eggs that sounds like the stuff of my wheatiest dreams. Even if you burned out on sourdough during the pandemic, this book will make you want to try again.

Kiss the cook—but maybe buy them a present too. These five gorgeous cookbooks will wow any culinary artist worth their salt.

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