"Skippy Dies," by Paul Murray (Faber & Faber $30)
Modern fans of Evelyn Waugh ("Vile Bodies," "Brideshead Revisited") will delight in the black humor at the heart of this Irish boarding school farce in which Skippy does, in point of fact, die. Young stuff in their 20s who cut their teeth on the Harry Potters of this world a decade hence will drown in the sybaritic pleasures of Dublin's venerable Seabrook College, especially if they've got a bit of the cynic about them. Master gift-giver alert: The most highly coveted edition of this corpulent novel is published by Faber & Faber, pleasingly split into three colorful paperbacks and corralled into a merry box.
"The Imperfectionists," by Tom Rachman (The Dial Press, $25)
Rome sizzles in this literary round-robin by an exciting newcomer effortlessly evoking both post-war Europe and, later, the tragedies of Berlusconi-era Italy. At the heart of the novel is a fictional English-language newspaper (surely based on the International Herald Tribune), and each chapter is a linked story focusing on one person within the ranks of the vast newspaper "family," a bawdy, dysfunctional lot. There's the aging stringer in Paris falsifying stories, a desolate obits writer with mortality issues of his own and enough other angsty folks to create a narrative rolled as tight as a newsprint bundle of nerves, all with a quirky humor that will appeal to citizen of the world types with a penchant for the Eternal City.
"Super Sad True Love Story," by Gary Shteyngart (Random House, $26)
Oh, how you will laugh! There isn't anything truly super-sad in this gorgeously fabulist approach to fiction, as Shteyngart's word-herding hilarity follows Lenny Abramov while he woos his dream girl, Eunice Park, in this brilliant farce set several years into the future. Theirs is a world in which people don't "verbal" anymore; instead, they use an apparatus allowing them to instantly gather personal statistics. Easy-to-love Lenny is so much of a Luddite his younger girlfriend constantly teases him about the books ("non-streaming media") he refuses to part with. This is the perfect gift for your most imaginative friend. And if you're super-careful with the book's dotty dust jacket, you can read it yourself before you wrap it!
"Shadow Tag," by Louise Erdrich (Harper $25.99)
Anais Nin famously threw her husband off the scent of her literary love affair with novelist Henry Miller by planting a "decoy" diary in place of a "real" one, a tiring, if highly entertaining bit of duplicity Erdrich replicates in her hauntingly beautiful story of an unraveling, abusive marriage. Rich with all of Erdrich's now-familiar touchstones of American Indian artistry and the pain of assimilation, this trenchant story must take pride of place in the stockings of true Minnesota writer loyalists for both its haunting pain and the stark beauty of her phrasing.
"A Visit From the Goon Squad," by Jennifer Egan (Alfred A. Knopf, $25.95)
What is a perfect novel, really, if not a collection of truly perfect sentences, strung all together in harmony? Egan's latest is as perfect as it gets, especially for mature music lovers who lean in the direction of the Dead Kennedys and Elvis Costello. While not everyone may admire the medley of miscreants who populate this cynically whip-smart novel chronicling fleeting fame, it's hard not to feel a voyeur's pessimistic delight reading about the rarefied world of old school punk-rock and the music industry itself before it was ruined by sameness. No one will ever accuse the brilliant, ball-juggling Egan of being ordinary.
"The Peculiar Sadness of Lemon Cake," by Aimee Bender (Doubleday $25.95)
Not for pregnant women or parents with a sentimental bent, this sad but nonetheless gripping novel will stir memories for those who dreamed of possessing supernatural powers as a child, if not for fun, at the very least to decode the mystifying adult world around them. Bender's captivating heroine is young Rose, a girl who can "read" her mother's feelings through the food she cooks, a gift that proves more of a curse than a blessing. Readers in the final stages of a post-teenage rebellion will sleep better with this book on their nightstands to remind them how good they have it.
"Selected Stories of William Trevor," by William Trevor (Viking, $35)
Handing a person a volume of the Irish author's best stories is like saying, "Here is all you will ever need to know about great writing." As a gift, this tome is large and luscious, sending the message to its recipient that not only are you intelligent, but you're pretty sure they are, too. Win, win. Entire stand-alone worlds exist within the hard and fast walls of each story, and even if they're not always pretty, they are surely welcoming. Come on inside and sit for a moment, won't you? Wouldn't you like a bit of tea?
"I Thought You Were Dead," by Pete Nelson (Algonquin Books, $23.95)
Yes, a talking dog story has made it onto the Top 10. We don't apologize, as this feel-good pet story, set mainly in the Twin Cities, is the intellectual answer to books like "Marley & Me." Anti-hero Paul, the story's main human, gets a second chance to bond with his aging father in this cozy tear-fest perfect for dog lovers on winter's blackest nights. What's more? Paul's dog, Stella, the novel's most erudite character is best in show, getting all of the novel's best dialogue. We are here to remind you that it can be a "rough" life, so take your pleasures where you will.
"Where the God of Love Hangs Out," by Amy Bloom (Random House $25)
Dear, cunning Amy Bloom! This book is a dream for those on your list both wise and weary, a balm to the downtrodden and underappreciated. (And who among us doesn't feel a tad underappreciated?) Bloom, who teaches writing at Yale, banishes every cliché, burnishes every hidden gem and ravishes readers with an unexpected cast of characters to root for. Far more important, perhaps, Bloom's latest creates that out-of-body reading experience everyone secretly longs for, especially at the holidays.