As winter begins to settle in for its four-month stay, most people have begun to seek out what little warmth they can find. Toques, parkas, and holiday Starbucks drinks are flooding the city streets while stores are beginning to air out their musty artificial Christmas trees and cranking up the holiday music. Most people are starting to feel the premature pull towards the holiday season, tacky sweaters and all. But for the rest of you–those that like to take a little chill with your Eggnog latte or a bit of sinister to your Santa Claus–we have put together a booklist to add a little shiver to your holidays.
1. The Dinner by Herman Koch
Tolstoy once said that “all happy families resemble each other, [but] each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”. Translated from the original Dutch, this international best-seller is sure to both affirm and destroy this viewpoint one course at a time. Set at a high-stakes dinner table, the novel follows a seemingly normal family as they make their way through their meal. But with every course the flashbacks and revelations become more and more shocking until your ideas of a warm, holiday family meal are demolished. Unreliant on a fast paced plot, The Dinner gets its darkness from character development.
Paul and Claire Lohman seem to be your typical European couple. They are middle class, happily married, with a teenage son. Their dinner companions, Paul’s brother Serge and his wife, are pedantic, haughty, and successful. The circumstances that brought their family together for dinner are sinister, and their family as they know it may not survive the meal.
Unlike most novels that center around a likeable or, if not, at least redeemable character, Koch makes a point of giving us vibrant, realistic characters. Because let’s admit it; likable doesn’t always mean interesting.
2. Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn
While most people know Flynn from her bestseller-turned-blockbuster Gone Girl, her debut novel puts the terror of her later works to shame. Filled with a pulsing plot and plummeting twists and turns, Sharp Objects is an adrenaline junkie’s dream with enough intricacy and subtlety to satisfy the most literary of readers.
Camille Preaker is a small-time journalist living in Chicago, but when a series of murders come to her hometown of Wind Gap, Missouri, she heads home. With all the suspense of a great murder mystery, Sharp Objects follows Camille as she tries to solve the crime. But even more terrifying than a murderer on the loose is the home and the life that Camille moved to Chicago to escape. With a mentally disturbed mother and two sisters–one a sexualized, tyrannical preteen and the other long dead–Camille’s family terrorizes her. Her body is covered in words that she has carved into her own skin, a self-harm addiction for which she has been hospitalized. As the story builds, the murder investigation and Camille’s family struggles become inextricably intertwined until the book becomes impossible to put down.
Flynn is a masterful writer who manages to capture all the greatest fears you can have about your family with the unexpected drops and turns of a classic mystery novel. A true thriller, this novel will not disappoint.
3. Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson
What makes Wintergirls so absolutely chilling is its realism. While the other books on this list sometimes toe the line between what is authentic and what is there for dramatic value, Anderson writes with all the grit and understanding of an autobiography despite this being a work of fiction.
The novel begins when Cassie, Lia’s (the protagonist) best friend, dies on a motel bathroom floor after losing a battle to bulimia. The story follows Lia’s extreme psychological struggles with anorexia and self-harm, painted out with excruciating and horrific detail. Every meal she consumes comes with a calorie count until the obsessive tracking becomes like background noise; her deepest doubts and desires are crossed out, visually showing her denial to eat and survive. What is most disturbing is the way she thinks about her illness: her constant scouring of pro-ana websites, the tricks she uses to convince her parents that she is eating, and her competition with her dead best friend to be the skinniest, the purest, are all sickening and morbidly fascinating. As a reader, the story feels eerily visceral, and Anderson writes in a way that you too are a part of this family that is slowly, painfully being ripped apart.
This is the type of book that facilitates discussion about this disease and empathy for its sufferers. By the end of this book, you will realize why people who suffer this disease can’t just “get over it” and “eat a hamburger”. For those who like a meaningful chill, this book is definitely worth the read.
Think there are more books that deserve to make this list? Feel free to comment below or email firstname.lastname@example.org with your suggestions.