When it comes to personal reading during the school year, let’s be honest, who has the time? Sure, you say you’ve read the latest award-winning release, but, in all likelihood, it’s sitting dusty and sad next to your ever-growing pile of textbooks. If you’re planning on using the holiday break for some much-needed pleasure reading, we’ve read and reviewed our top choices. And hey, if you’re planning on going into a long and fulfilling Netflix-coma, they also make for great gifts.

Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn

As someone who stays far away from scary stories of any kind, I really should not have started reading this book (alone, at night) in a basement. Classified as a psychological thriller, Gone Girl is sharp, clever, and terrifying. It will leave you questioning what’s really in those dusty corners of people’s minds for days.

The story, told from the alternating perspectives of two twisted characters, centres around the disappearance of Amy Dunne, and her husband Nick’s involvement in the incident. Although Gone Girl is unlike the books that I typically enjoy, I found myself captivated by the story’s brilliance and I finished it in two days.

Gone Girl is Gillian Flynn’s third novel and was published in June 2012, rising rapidly in popularity and acclaim. It is superbly written with very deliberate diction — every word connotes imminent menace. Flynn’s style is easy to follow and immerse yourself in. Once the action starts, the mystery builds very quickly, leaving the reader guessing at every turn. The novel relies on unreliable narration that creates suspense until the very end.

In addition to its fast-paced, sinister plot, Gone Girl also offers some interesting insights on dishonesty in marriage, the media’s construction of news, and on the negative effects of a dire economy. A large part of the novel’s mystery revolves around the true nature of Nick and Amy’s relationship. Flynn stated in an interview with Publisher’s Weekly that a concept she wished to explore with Gone Girl was dishonesty in long-term relationships, saying, “marriage is sort of like a long con, because you put on display your very best self during courtship, yet at the same time the person you marry is supposed to love you, warts and all. But your spouse never sees those warts really until you get deeper into the marriage and let yourself unwind a bit.”

Gone Girl raises many intriguing questions and is sure to have you hooked. If there’s one book you read for pleasure this holiday season, this is a great choice — do yourself a favour and read it before you go see the movie.

Us Conductors, Sean Michaels

If I’m being entirely honest, the surface plotline of Us Conductors did not initially pique my interest. Author Sean Michaels writes a fictitious account of the life of real engineer and physicist Leon (Lev) Termen. Termen was a twentieth century Soviet inventor known for the creation of the theremin, a strangely eclectic sounding instrument. For those unfamiliar with the theremin’s unique sound, Sheldon plays it in an episode of The Big Bang Theory, apparently trying to replicate the Star Trek theme song.

While the novel is admittedly fictional, it is based largely around real people and life events. It quickly becomes clear that Lev Termen’s life in Us Conductors is anything but dull. Through scenes depicting war, murder, Kung-fu, espionage, the decadent life of a famous scientist in 1920’s New York and the brutality of Russian gulag camps during the Second World War, Michaels shows his readers Termen’s life through the most captivating highs of the human experience and the lowest moments of physical and mental despair. The two worlds are captured through lyrical prose that stays compelling from beginning to end.

At the centre of the novel lies a story of unrequited love, which journeys with Termen from the USSR into the United States. Readers quickly come to realize that the book is written in the form of a letter meant for a younger woman named Clara Rockmore — in reality, one of the most accomplished theremin players in the world.

It’s hard to believe that this is the first novel written by Michaels. His debut Scotiabank Giller Prize-winning work offers something for everyone. It is an eloquent mixture of science, history, politics, love, and suspense, all seamlessly interwoven into a story of one real man presented as a fictitious character. I would recommend this book to almost anyone because of its numerous and hugely diverse elements, opening up the mostly unknown yet fascinating world of an instrument and its inventor.

The Orenda, Joseph Boyden

Full disclosure: this is what I’m getting my dad for Christmas. (Sorry dad if you’re reading this — I think this is where the ‘it’s the thought that counts’ platitude comes into play). He’s notoriously hard to shop for, so I usually pick out a book for him around Thanksgiving and spend November sneakily making sure he doesn’t read it before the holidays.

To be clear, I’m not saying that Joseph Boyden’s third novel falls under the ominous category of “dad book” so often applied to historical fiction and action-adventure novels during the holiday season. It is a compelling look into Canada’s past that manages to succeed in the often-elusive combination of education and entertainment.

Quill & Quire referred to the novel as a “beast”, and it’s an apt description, coming in at just over 500 pages The Orenda is not a light read, nor should it be. The engrossing novel tells the tale of three distinct characters in the 17th century making their way through the wilderness of what was to become Canada. Jesuit missionary Christophe, young teenage Iroquois girl Snow Falls, and Haudenosaunee warrior Bird. The reader follows the characters to the climax of the novel, a gruesome battle pitting the Huron and the Jesuits against the Haudenosaunee.

By telling his story through three separate view points, Boyden paints a tragic but moving picture of murder and destruction, wherein where each side believes themselves to be in the right even when enacting the worst of atrocities.

The Orenda was the winner of CBC’s 2014 “Canada Reads” contest, and it’s a deserved win. It’s worth your time as an engaging historical novel of Canada’s past, but Boyden’s largest success arguably comes from his ability to connect us with figures who would have lived hundreds of years ago and to a part of our nation’s history that is too often overlooked.