When buying a book for a friend I often worry about buying a brand new hardcover for a different reason. New books are being reviewed, recommended, and displayed prominently in stores so if I think a book is perfect for a friend, it is likely that one of their other friends will also see it and think it is perfect. The solution? Paperbacks. The title won't be in the public eye as much as when it was a new hardcover so it lessens the chance that your friend will receive duplicate copies on the same holiday.
So whether you're buying for yourself, a friend, or just to replenish your gift closet for the times you need a last minute present, here are five books available in paperback that would look perfect wrapped with a bow or on your own bookshelf:
What is more delightful than a novel that lets you peek into the high life of the upper class? When you also get to see the cracks in the facade of that world. I picked up this book when I was shopping for a friend's birthday, but the bookstore clerk's recommendation was so convincing that I couldn't bear to part with the book once I bought it. With a backdrop New York City in 1938, a strong female lead, and the author's attention to detail, this will engross any lover of historical fiction. While there are definitely some moments that will require a handful of tissues, overall this book can be read in coffee shops or on the bus without causing embarrassment. I recommend reading this on a dreary day when you are looking to get lost in someone else's life.
2. War Trash by Ha Jin
This is one of the books that I most often recommend, though as far as I know, I have not yet convinced anyone else to read it. Far from being a light and breezy read, the subject matter can be emotionally daunting but the payoff is a beautifully told story that will stay with you. This is the story of a young Chinese soldier who is sent as a "volunteer" to fight with the Communists during the Korean War. This is not your typical war story because very little takes place on the actual battlefield. Instead, the setting is the POW camp where the soldier is sent after his unit suffers an early defeat. The camp is filled with violence, but the real danger is in aligning with the wrong group and being branded (sometimes literally) as a target. From these trying circumstances comes a story about survival and the struggle to maintain one's identity and dignity during adversity. Anyone interested in military history will especially enjoy this rarely heard perspective.
3. Sailing to Sarantium and Lord of Emperors by Guy Gavriel Kay
Okay, I realize this is actually two books, but together they compose the Sarantine Mosaic series and when you finish the first book you will want to have the second close at hand so you can stay immersed in the 6th-century quasi-Byzantine world that Guy Gavriel Kay has created. Although there are some fantasy elements sprinkled throughout the books, the plot is mostly driven by the political maneuverings of the characters and features plenty of side stories which add depth and color to the main arc. The series follows a mosaicist on his journey to the heart of the empire and as he navigates the political and social currents of Sarantium, where he was commissioned to create a mosaic for the Emperor. Although a mosaicist may not seem like a controversial figure, his designs place him at the dangerous intersection of art and politics. Couple that with several claims to the throne and just as many desires for revenge bubbling under the surface of the Sarantium nobility and the unrest will keep you furiously flipping pages until you reach the end.
4. Stone Arabia by Dana Spiotta
Of all the books on the list, this is the only one I bought as a just-released hardcover. I heard a review on NPR and could not wait for it to come out. Now it is available in paperback, so if you missed it the first time around, now is your chance! We meet the main characters, two siblings, when they are middle-aged, but over the course of the novel their earlier lives are revealed. After a lost chance at pursuing his dream of being a rock star, the brother threw himself into documenting the career he wished he had and the sister became his number one fan. The brother's grip on reality may seem tenuous, but the bond between the siblings is undeniable. This novel is for anyone whose life took a different path than they had hoped or who had to watch someone they love struggle to keep their dreams alive.
5. The Ethical Assassin by David Liss
This quirky crime novel is definitely not for everyone. One character pushes veganism with a heavy hand and after the scenes at the industrial hog farm, you probably won't be able eat or even look at meat for a few days. However, the circumstances around the crime (which is witnessed early in the book and as you might guess from the title is in the form of an assassination) and the changing understanding of how all the pieces fit together make this a mystery that you want to see to the end. Still on the fence about whether this book is for you? Start with an encyclopedia salesman in Florida and add in speed traps monitored by unscrupulous cops, a profitable drug ring, and semi-militant animal rights activists to create the setting for a murder. Motives are plentiful and not everyone is who they initially seem. If you want a break from procedural, Law & Order style mysteries, this book will keep you on your toes.
I highly recommend browsing the bargain books section of your local bookstore for a great selection of paperbacks, especially if you are looking for something off the beaten path. Three of the books I have listed here (War Trash, Sailing to Sarantium, and The Ethical Assasin) were found there and my first stop at the bookstore is always to see what books have been newly remaindered by the publishers. It is a great place to find something interesting at a low price.
If you've read a great paperback recently, be sure to share your recommendations in the comments!