December 4, 2018
As NextReads bibliographers, we’ve read hundreds of books – all of them different combinations of the various story elements that exist. And yet, we’ve barely made a dent in the mind-blowing array of options! If you find that what’s out there is overwhelming (even in a good way), let us help you narrow down your choices. Below, the five of us have collected some of our favorites to suggest as gifts to give to that special reader in your life. Our reading interests are unique, so you can expect our recommendations to match. Happy holidays—and happy reading!
To find reviews of these books in NoveList, use the unique identifier (UI) -- basically a way of saying “a number unique to each book in NoveList” listed with each book. It’s as simple as copying and pasting UI 10658060!
Gift-giving season is upon us, and one thing I want to do is share books with friends and family (okay, and eat cookies). I love giving books to kids, (and my colleagues have some great ideas for younger ones), but there are always a number of amazing adult books that I want to put under the Christmas tree, too. Here’s a few of them.
Masters of Modern Soccer: How the World's Best Play the Twenty-First-Century Game by Grant Wahl (nonfiction/sports writing) UI: 10658060
After the month-long fun of World Cup 2018, you may know people who are curious about soccer/football/fútbol and how it’s evolved. Sports Illustrated journalist Grant Wahl’s accessible book expertly explores the modern game via interviews with seven professionals who know it well, including teenage American phenom Christian Pulisic, Mexican striker Javier “Chicharito” Hernández, and Roberto Martínez, manager of Belgium’s national team. With the Women’s World Cup coming up next summer, this book will also get readers better prepared for France 2019!
The Widows of Malabar Hill: A Mystery of 1920s Bombay by Sujata Massey (historical mystery) UI: 10597593
Set in a vividly drawn 1920s Bombay, India, and introducing Perveen Mistry, a young female lawyer from a well-to-do Zoroastrian family, The Widows of Malabar Hill is a well-plotted historical mystery for crime readers looking for a breath of fresh air. Dual storylines -- the troubled time before Perveen left home to study at Oxford and her latest case helping the three devout wives with the estate of their recently deceased Muslim husband -- converge nicely to create this fascinating first in a new series and one of my favorite mystery novels of 2018.
The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative by Florence Williams (nonfiction/nature writing) UI: 10550939
Have an outdoorsy person or science lover on your gift list? Pick up this eye-opening examination of the power of nature as journalist Florence Williams travels the globe visiting with researchers. Readers may be thunderstruck by the cool things scientists are discovering that prove the beneficial effects of the natural world on humans. Covering “forest-bathing” (i.e. walking in a forest) in South Korea and Japan, treating PTSD in military veterans with river rafting trips, the amazing power of evergreen scents, the benefits of nature activities for those with ADHD, and more. This well-researched, keenly observed book is one I think about weekly, even though I read it months ago
Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century by Jessica Bruder (nonfiction/society and culture) UI: 10574449
After the 2008 U.S. economic downturn, some older people who lost their homes and retirement funds became itinerant workers crisscrossing the country in old RVs and vans. In this compelling book of immersive reporting, Jessica Bruder visits, camps, and works (at a freezing North Dakota beet field and a massive Amazon warehouse in Texas, among other places) with these “workampers” multiple times over the course of several years, and tells some of their stories, focusing on good-natured 64-year-old Linda May. Putting faces to those who’ve hit hard times and kept going, Nomadland is a beautifully written, insightful book for anyone interested in wanderers, workamper subculture, and life on the road, as well as those curious about what retirement can look like when you lose it all.
Most of my picks here seem nostalgia-based (or future-wary), and I had an absolute blast reading them all. Hopefully, your friends and loved ones will too.
Paperback Crush by Gabrielle Moss (nonfiction/pop culture) UI: 10740067
For the Babysitters Club or Sweet Valley High fan in your life, look no further than this chatty survey of the “Golden Age” (1980s-1990s) of tween and teen paperbacks that delves into the historical context behind the genre’s themes and trends. It’s snarky and affectionate, with an ironic reverence for its subject matter and a bright visual palette to match. Interspersed throughout are full-cover renderings of paperback covers, interviews with cover artists and models, and profiles of notable authors and editors. Reading Paperback Crush is like eating comfort food -- give this to Gen Xers or Millennials who long for the days of simpler pleasures.
We Sold Our Souls by Grady Hendrix (horror) UI: 10722704
If you know someone who’s always on the hunt for a kick-butt Final Girl (and they’re, ahem, not a villain in a slasher film), she can be found in all her beleaguered glory in this Faustian heavy metal horror novel. Erstwhile guitarist Kris embarks on a road trip to save the world from an apocalyptic concert, and that’s really all I can say without giving too much away. We Sold Our Souls is suspenseful and electrifying, and Kris is a heroine worth rooting for, because “a girl with a guitar never has to apologize for anything.”
Everything’s Trash, But It’s Okay by Phoebe Robinson (nonfiction/humor/essays) UI: 10732724
In her second essay collection (following her bestselling debut You Can’t Touch My Hair), multi-hyphenate pop culture dynamo Phoebe Robinson is living her best life “being a trash person in a trash world,” hilariously exploring topics ranging from celebrity encounters and body image to dating and credit card debt. Never one to shy away from a terrible pun, a rambling footnote, or a questionable abbreviation, Robinson’s work is great for readers who appreciate storytelling that’s confident and digressive -- but never boring. And its rare serious moments (including Robinson’s musings on the current political climate) offer welcome perspective.
My Lady’s Choosing by Kitty Curran and Larissa Zageris (choose-your-own adventure historical romance) UI: 10639691
This Regency romance offers a tongue-in-cheek twist: it’s a loving parody of the popular choose-your-own adventure novels of the 1980s, complete with winks, nudges, and nods to romance novels’ popular tropes. My Lady’s Choosing is the perfect read for romance fans who crave more self-aware heroines and narratives. And with no shortage of possible suitors (both male and female), this upbeat romp is just pure fun, featuring everything from encounters with werewolves to globetrotting adventures. Stuck with a not-so-happily-ever-after? Simply start over…and choose wisely.
It was a great year of reading for me, and I hope you can benefit from the fact that the books below exist!
Meet Me at the Museum by Anne Youngson (epistolary/general fiction) UI: 10685229
I loved this short, sweet story of a friendship that evolves through letters. The characters became real to me as they shared their very different lives – initially, the only thing they have in common is their interest in a well-preserved body from the Iron Age. Give it to people who want something to combat a bad day, as long as they like relationship-driven stories (or epistolary fiction like The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society), as it’s is the sort of book that people refer to as a “gem.” It’s also the literary equivalent of a mug of hot tea and a warm blanket on a rainy day.
The Hunger by Alma Katsu (historical, tinge of horror) UI: 10624036
A fictionalized take on the ill-fated Donner Party with subtle hints of the supernatural? It may not be the first thing you think of when you consider purchasing a gift for a loved one, but for certain readers, it’s a perfect choice. Atmospheric, creepy, and surprisingly claustrophobic for a book that mostly takes place on the great expanse of the Western frontier, The Hunger is an absorbing read that will appeal to readers of historical fiction, horror, and even people like me, who might not generally reach for either genre, but love the intensifying suspense and brooding atmosphere generated in this book. People who liked Dan Simmons’ The Terror will also want to read this one – and it’s shorter!
The Night Ocean by La Farge (literary, sorta mystery)UI: 10554477
This story of an obsessed man who disappeared while researching the life of HP Lovecraft would be unfairly pigeonholed if it were only given to fans of Lovecraft himself. While no doubt readers familiar with his body of work will find much to enjoy here, even those with no background at all will find themselves caught up in the intricate details and the many layers of the story. It’s the literary equivalent of a shell game, or maybe a Russian nesting doll – a woman researches the disappearance of her semi-estranged husband, which leads to his all-consuming research project, which leads to the story of HP Lovecraft and his supposed affair with Robert Barlow -- and the book that purportedly proclaims the truth. For readers who enjoy complex puzzles, historical mysteries, or novels about real people, or who are curious about the golden age of weird fiction, love hoaxes, or want a challenge – The Night Ocean will provide it all.
In Extremis by Lindsey Hilsum (bio of female war reporter) UI:10738749.
Ok, in all honesty, I have not yet read this and am basing this suggestion on reviews alone. Marie Colvin was a bold, fearless, globe-trotting British war correspondent who was killed while reporting on the Syrian civil war in 2012. Her biography – which was written by a fellow journalist with experience reporting from war zones -- is based very heavily on her own journals, reporting notes, and other material. It will appeal to those interested in long-form journalism, international affairs, and stories of courageous individuals who risk (and sacrifice) their lives to bring attention to global conflicts. (There’s also a film with Rosamund Pike in the title role, in theaters in mid-November.)
My tastes are a bit eclectic, but maybe one of these books will make a good gift for someone on your list. Or even for yourself; I certainly won’t tell on you.
Two of Swords: Volume One by K.J. Parker (fantasy fiction) UI: 10575857
It's pretty much required to compare a fantasy series to Game of Thrones these days, and that goes double for any that's as full of family dysfunction and political maneuvering as Two of Swords is. But this series also has one definite advantage on Game of Thrones: it's finished. K.J. Parker (a Tom Holt pseudonym) originally released this "trilogy" in a monthly series of novella-length installments, which are now collected in three (complete!) volumes. Told from multiple perspectives, it's the story of two militarily gifted brothers on the opposite sides of an apocalyptic war but also of the everyday people who get caught up in it. Perfect for the fantasy fan in your life…and Parker has an extensive backlog of other novels and stories if they decide they want more.
The Cooking Gene by Michael Twitty (food writing, history writing) UI: 10573634
One of the most striking things about reading this book was how much it felt like the author was inviting you into the kitchen. Not just the historical kitchens where slaves originated many of the foods we now view as quintessentially Southern, but into a proverbial kitchen, an intimate space where family lore and recipes are passed down. But just like your real-life relatives might make you chop, peel, or stir while you listen, Michael Twitty isn’t afraid to put readers to work either, forcing us to reckon with the realities of slavery and the parts of its legacy that still haunt us. That said, fans of history, food writing, cultural studies, and anyone else who reads this book will also be rewarded with some killer recipes at the end of each chapter, not to mention a whole lot of food for thought.
Prairie Fires by Caroline Fraser (biography) UI: 10600544
This biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder is not just her own biography, but that of her family, and of the remarkable (and often violent) changes that took place in the American West leading up to and immediately following her life. If that sounds overwhelming, it can be at times, but the book Caroline Fraser has put together is its own argument for why there’s no better way to tell the extraordinary (and quintessentially American) story of how one prairie housewife's memories became one of the most beloved series of children's stories of all time.
Everyone's a Aliebn When Ur a Aliebn Too by Jomny Sun (graphic novel) UI: 10574185
Charming artwork and important questions about the human condition meet in this graphic novel of a lonely alien sent far from home to learn everything he can about humanity. But why talk to humans when instead you can get to know a group of much more engaging woodland creatures, including an actual tree? My favorite part of this was how much it felt like reading a children's book written for grownups. Yes, there are cute animals, but they're dealing with some big issues – like life, love, and existence itself.
She Would Be King by Wayetu Moore (historical fiction) UI: 10692405
If this was just a historical novel set during the foundation of Liberia it would be noteworthy enough, but the beautifully rendered world and healthy dose of magical realism give She Would Be King an almost mythological feel. The characters too are remarkable, complex and flawed as they are. An escaped slave from Virginia with unusual physical strength, a mixed-race Jamaican man who can appear and disappear, a girl banished from her village as a witch because she keeps surviving things that are usually fatal; not to mention the wind itself, which brings all three together to the fledgling country’s capital Monrovia where their paths finally cross.
I read a lot and my tastes range widely. If there's someone in your life who has “read everything” and is up for anything, perhaps one of these books would make a good gift.
The Dinosaur Artist by Paige Williams (Science/True Crime) UI:10692285
At first glance, The Dinosaur Artist is a straightforward journalistic account of fossil hunter Eric Prokopi's ill-fated quest to sell a dinosaur skeleton from Mongolia (which prohibits fossil-trafficking). Scratch the surface, however, and you’ll discover the strange subculture of fossil hunters and the extreme lengths to which they’ll go to obtain specimens. While you’re almost guaranteed to pester everyone around you with "Did you knows" (e.g. fewer than 1 percent of all species on earth have become fossils!), you’re also likely to ponder the book’s bigger questions: Why do fossils inspire such devotion (and even obsession)? Who, if anyone, “owns” our natural history? An engaging blend of science and true crime whose colorful characters steal the spotlight at every turn, The Dinosaur Artist should appeal to fans of Susan Orlean's The Orchid Thief or Kirk Johnson's The Feather Thief.
Foundryside by Robert Bennett Jackson (Fantasy) UI:10685138
This action-packed series opener introduces a heroine to root for in the form of thief Sancia Grado, whose theft of an unusual artifact makes her a high-profile fugitive. However, the real star of the novel may be the intricate world-building: an inventive magical system (known as "scriving") and a layered setting (the city-state of Tevanne, whose four merchant houses utilize this force to consolidate their power). This won’t surprise readers who enjoyed the author’s Divine Cities trilogy, yet Sancia's quick thinking in tight spots and general “look out for number one” attitude may also appeal to fans of Scott Lynch's The Lies of Locke Lamora.
The Lost Queen by Signe Pike (Historical Fiction/Fantasy) UI:10692413
If you know someone who loved Marion Zimmer Bradley's The Mists of Avalon but feels conflicted about their fandom (due to posthumous revelations about the author's personal life), offer The Lost Queen as a replacement. Set in early medieval Britain, it's the story of Languoreth, a young woman who longs to be a Wisdom Keeper (druid) like her twin brother, Lailoken. Unfortunately, as a chieftain's daughter, she is expected to marry a highborn man and produce heirs – and make no mistake, dynastic marriages and political alliances are more important than ever now that Christianity is displacing the old ways. Both Languoreth and Lailoken are historical figures -- the latter is associated with Myrddin Wyllt, considered to be the inspiration for the Merlin of Arthurian Legend – and in addition to a heady brew of Celtic mysticism and feminist Arthurian fantasy, it also offers readers a glimpse into the history of Britain.
The Smithsonian History of Space Exploration by Roger D. Launius (Science) UI:10736969
The perfect gift for the space enthusiast in your life, this lavishly illustrated history tells the story of space exploration from ancient times to the present -- while offering tantalizing glimpses of what the future might hold. The stunning photographs will draw readers in, but it's the "chart porn" -- information-rich diagrams, graphics, explanatory sidebars, and timelines -- that will keep them immersed for hours. Author Roger D. Launius is a curator at the Smithsonian and served as NASA's chief historian for decades, which makes this book the next best thing to actually going to space.
Ambiguity Machines by Vandana Singh (Short Stories/Science Fiction) UI:10622450
I have been waiting years for this short story collection by Indian science fiction writer Vandana Singh, a consummate stylist who includes Ray Bradbury and Ursula K. LeGuin among her influences. While Singh, a physicist, has the chops to write ultra-technical hard SF, her work uses science as a foundation for exploring the human condition. SF buffs will certainly enjoy this book (if they haven't already), but stories such as "With Fate Conspire" about a slum-dwelling woman with the ability to look through time (and the scientists who exploit this talent), or “Oblivion: A Journey,” in which a vengeance quest becomes a meditation on mortality, may appeal to readers of literary fiction. Hand this one to fans of Ted Chiang's Stories of Your Life and Others.
Shauna Griffin is a Content Strategy Manager for NoveList. She leads the team behind NextReads newsletters and NoveList’s collection development efforts, as well as providing oversight for our outreach (including the NoveList Book Squad!). Sign up for Shauna’s Book Squad email updates.