12/18/2012 05:30 pm ET Updated Feb 17, 2013

Dream Books: Holiday Lit Picks

If you're looking for "dream by the fire" escapist reading this holiday season, look no further than the following two books:

Jane: The Woman Who Loved Tarzan by Robin Maxwell

Tarzan has never been so satisfying, and so yummy, as he is now in Robin Maxwell's stunningly good new novel, Jane: The Woman Who Loved Tarzan. The Edgar Rice Burroughs' estate, notoriously guarded and careful about copyright issues, granted Ms. Maxwell permission -- and their blessings -- to finally tell the Tarzan story from Jane's point of view. Wow! An obvious idea, right? Not really. The Tarzan epic from faithful Jane's point of view was, excuse the expression, a novel idea that had not been thought of before. Not only that, "Jane" is the only book in the century-spanning Tarzan pantheon written by a woman. Auspiciously, Maxwell's idea to tell Jane's story was just in time to coincide with the 100th anniversary of Tarzan's swinging into popular culture in 1912.

Although I'm a friend of the author, I would never plug a book if I didn't love it. Indeed, I have so many author friends it's often scary to read a friend's work. What if it sucks? Big sigh of relief: not only did Jane not suck, it pleased and delighted me, page after page. In the most cliché line about a book ever, I couldn't put it down. Really. Everything works: the characters are iconic, yet drawn with such love and care you could be completely ignorant of the classic Jane and Tarzan story and still fall in love with these two. Plus, the period details are spot-on. The timeframe is the transition between the Victorian and Edwardian eras, where women in England and the United States were pressing for the vote and equal access to education. Jane Porter is the emblematic young woman who is striving to be educated at the same level as a young man of her station.

Maxwell is an established and well-loved author of historical fiction focused on fascinating and influential women: Queen Elizabeth the 1st, the Pirate O'Malley, Da Vinci's mother... characters and subjects that provide a vein of under-explored and unexcavated literary and historical gold. Her research is always deep and rich, giving readers the experience of what it must have been like to walk in the shoes of our historical foremothers.

Imagine then the challenge of researching Jane Porter, Tarzan's Jane, as if she were an actual person. Maxwell did a sublime job of giving the reader a glimpse into a highly structured English society that did not openly smile upon "uppity" women. However, as is often the case with determined and driven girls and women, there's a strong man behind them. In this case, that man is Archie, Jane's father, who propels both Jane and the story.

I rarely re-read contemporary novels. But Jane, like a sumptuous meal, is so satisfying on so many levels -- story, characters, history and a view of women's role in society -- that I have gladly gone back for seconds. I can't recommend Jane highly enough. This is a must-read and must-buy for any and all book lovers this season.

The Spy Lover by Kiana Davenport
I have to admit that, when I first received a review copy of The Spy Lover, I was put off: The title and cover suggest a bodice-ripping, muscle-bound, torrid romance novel. Hey, I like trashy novels as much as the next person but I was not in the mood. Nonetheless, I picked it up and was swept away by such a great story told with such beautiful prose I am now hoping that The Spy Lover will be picked up by either Ang Lee or Steven Spielberg.

Author Kiana Davenport is a brilliant writer and researcher. Basing The Spy Lover on her ancestors from the American South and global East, the story is a mash-up of cultures and values that are mind-boggling in their complexity. For instance, the protagonist, Johnny Tom, is a desperately poor Chinese immigrant who manages to escape the cruel and inhumane peasant conditions of mid-19th century China, only to encounter a different type of cruelty and inhumanity in the United States during the Civil War.

The Spy Lover takes the incredibly difficult and generalized topics of race, gender, slavery and war and artfully weaves them into a specific story: the personal heartbreak in Johnny Tom's search for his wife and daughter. His daughter, Era -- a character who could have had her own novel -- is Chinese from her father, and Native American from her mother. Kidnapped and thrust into the war, she is a nurse in Confederate hospitals working undercover for the Union where she falls in love with a Confederate officer, Warren Petticomb.

Davenport is genius at capturing complex times and complications of the heart. It's been a long time since I cried reading a novel, and that happened several times while reading The Spy Lover. How I longed for Johnny to find his family. How I rooted for Era to get out of the war and away with her beloved "enemy" officer. As in any complex work of fiction, I couldn't wait to finish the story but grieved when it ended. That's exactly how I felt when I finished reading Gone With the Wind so many years ago.

If you need a holiday escape from overbearing relatives this season, or just want to spend time in a different world, read Jane and The Spy Lover!