December 1, 2017
As NextReads bibliographers, it's our job to know about a lot of different books; as readers, we come to love specific ones. Below, the four of us have collected some of our favorites to give as gifts. Got a mystery lover, a fan of Japanese horror films, or a female software engineer on your list? We've got something for each of them -- and for a whole lot of other readers, too. Happy holidays -- and happy reading!
There are so many great books out there that it's hard to narrow things down, but here are four books that have stood out for me this year (yes, two of the four are mysteries….I'm clearly a fan!).
The Bright Hour by Nina Riggs
You might be thinking “Wait, you want me to give, as a gift, a memoir written by someone dying of cancer?” Yes, and here's why: though it's bittersweet at times, it's also lyrical (author Nina Riggs was a poet), thought-provoking, charming, and even funny. I mean, what's not to like (other than the final outcome)? Riggs quotes both philosopher Michel de Montaigne and her famous great-great-great-grandfather Ralph Waldo Emerson while pondering mortality and everyday life with a beloved husband and two elementary-age boys. Fans of Paul Kalanithi's When Breath Becomes Air will appreciate The Bright Hour, but it's also a beautiful book for anyone who enjoys witty, insightful reads that make you laugh and cry.
The Zig Zag Girl by Elly Griffiths
Need a “magical” story this holiday season? Pick up this charming mystery novel featuring a cop and a stage magician. Set in an exquisitely drawn 1950s Brighton, England, The Zig Zag Girl follows police detective Edgar Stephens and magician Max Mephisto -- who served together during the war as part of a special military unit called the Magic Men -- as they try to solve a complex case with ties to an old trick invented by Max. If you've got a classic mystery fan on your list who'd like a clever historical whodunit about entertainers, you might want to pick up this 1st in series by award-winning author Elly Griffiths.
IQ by Joe Ide
If the mystery reader you're buying for likes the denizens of Baker Street, and is open to fresh, gritty takes on Sherlock Holmes, I have an edgy new detective for you. Isaiah Quintabe, aka IQ, lives in a tough South Central L.A. neighborhood, where he solves problems for friends and neighbors (though he may or may not get monetary payment). When an old friend offers IQ big money to help figure out who wants a rap star dead, this debut novel takes off. I'm not the only one who loves this 1st in a new series: it has won Anthony, Macavity, and Shamus Awards. Need to give two books? Righteous, the 2nd in the series, was released in October.
The Not-Quite States of America by Doug Mack
When people think about what makes up the United States, they probably think of the 50 states -- but beyond them, there are other parts of the country that are often forgotten (if people know about them at all). Tracing Doug Mack's visits to some far-flung U.S. territories, including the U.S. Virgin Islands, American Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Northern Mariana Islands, this informative, amusing book provides a fascinating look at each place, its role in history, the people who live there, and their ideas about statehood. If you have a history fan on your list, this book should be an eye-opening read for them.
In 2017, I decided to stop reading psychological suspense in favor of exploring new genres. This tactic worked extremely well -- so while it's an eclectic mix of books I've suggested below, they're each sure to please at least one of your friends or family members.
Bird Box by Josh Malerman
I am not much of a horror or apocalyptic fiction fan, but this book captured my attention from the very beginning. The vibe is totally claustrophobic and unceasingly tense, weirdly realistic, and with just enough unanswered questions that I felt utterly compelled to keep reading. Give this to friends who claim they don't like horror but who do enjoy unsettling reads in genres like psychological suspense. Horror fans drawn more to Japanese horror films than to splatter/gore will also enjoy it.
The Garden of Small Beginnings by Abbi Waxman
Now this is just a delightful book, equal parts heart-wrenching and warmly funny, about a young widow with two small kids who is finally forcing herself to move on, even though she doesn't really think she's ready. Honest and tender, bittersweet and laugh-out-loud funny, The Garden of Small Beginnings is for fans of women's fiction, sure -- but also for people looking to feel uplifted by what they read, even if the topics covered are serious.
All Our Wrong Todays Elan Mastai
Yes, this is science fiction. It's also a love story. And yes, it's set in a world recognizable from The Jetsons -- but it's also set in the modern day. And it will appeal to a whole host of readers: the author himself referred to it as “…if Kurt Vonnegut had decided to tell a story like The Time Traveler's Wife with the narrative voice of Jonathan Tropper.” And he's not far wrong -- the way SF is used to tell a story about humanity, the instances of absurdity, the family problems and romance, the time travel, and the humor all combine to create a truly entertaining novel.
Tales of Two Americas (edited by John Freeman)
True confession: I have not actually finished this book. But I picked it up because I'm interested in the many divisions in American society, and because the writers whose essays and stories are collected here are ones I seek out or have always “meant to” read – Roxane Gay, Ann Patchett, Rebecca Solnit, Edwidge Danticat, and more. The short pieces collected here are a great way to introduce some truly complex issues, whether systemic injustice, the war on drugs, or immigration policies. Give this to people who want faces to go with what we hear about on the news, or to those looking for a grounded perspective on America's many woes.
I read a lot and my tastes are pretty eclectic. 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 Half-Drowned King by Linnea Hartsuyker
In 9th-century Norway, headstrong young warrior Ragnvald Eysteinsson fights to reclaim his stolen birthright from his treacherous stepfather, while his bold sister Swanhild forges her own path in a society that affords women few choices in life. At first glance, The Half-Drowned King is an old-fashioned Viking saga of sea-kings and blood feuds. However, it's also a thoughtful meditation on the meaning of honor and loyalty, especially as it examines what these qualities look like in a world that's not nearly as heroic as the one depicted in epic poetry.
An Extraordinary Union by Alyssa Cole
This exciting debut follows two undercover spies during the American Civil War: Elle Burns, a free black woman working for the pro-Union Loyalty League, and Malcolm McCall, the white Pinkerton Detective who disguises himself as a Confederate soldier to gather intelligence. An uneasy alliance grows into mutual love and respect, yet a long-term relationship seems impossible, given the many obstacles in their path. With its rich historical detail, authentic characters, and steamy blend of espionage and forbidden love, I'd recommend this series opener to readers who enjoyed Beverly Jenkins' House of Le Veq romances and Joanna Bourne's Spymaster series.
Life in Code: A Personal History of Technology by Ellen Ullman
I was first introduced to Ellen Ullman's work through her novel The Bug, Which explored the insidious- yet-profound psychological effects of digital technologies on the human beings who create them. However, Ullman is probably best known for her acclaimed 1997 memoir Close to the Machine, in which she traced her evolution from English major to software engineer, giving readers an insider's perspective on the emerging tech industry at the dawn of the digital age. Life in Code revisits some of these issues, reflecting on how technology has shaped our society while recounting her experiences as a (self-taught) woman in a male-dominated field. Life in Code's blend of historical perspective and contemporary concerns make it a good bet for fans of AMC's Halt and Catch Fire.
An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon
Born into slavery on the lower decks of the generational starship Matilda, talented healer Aster Grey -- brown-skinned, neuro-atypical, and non-binary -- struggles to survive in a rigidly stratified society ruled by the elite inhabitants of the upper decks. However, something is wrong with the ship, setting the stage for dramatic transformation -- both personal and political. This ambitious debut tackles weighty topics -- race, class, gender, sexuality, disability, and religion, to name just a few -- in a manner that fans of Octavia Butler may appreciate. Its complex characters and immersive world-building also make it a great gift for readers who enjoy the work of Ursula K. Le Guin and N.K. Jemisin.
As I was reading these volumes, I found different things to like in each one. If you enjoy giving books, consider choosing from this list, which includes a variety of biography, horror, and historical fiction.
Jane Crow: The Life of Pauli Murray by Rosalind Rosenberg
In this comprehensive and accessible biography of 20th-century lawyer and African American activist Pauli Murray, we receive a detailed chronicle of her life and achievements, along with a history of the civil rights and feminist movements -- in addition to early views of intersectionality. Murray was always somewhat ahead of the curve, so she got into trouble for trying things that most other people didn't get around to for years. Eventually, people recognized her talents and began to work with her instead of against her. For more, check out the Pauli Murray Project website.
Writing to Save a Life: The Louis Till Files by John Edgar Wideman
Writing to Save a Life can be read as the author's memoir, a biographical study of Emmett Till's father, or a history of American racial disparities. When author John Edgar Wideman learned that Emmett's father Louis had been executed by the Army for rape and murder in 1945, he was struck by the similarities between the father's and son's deaths. Through research into Louis Till's case, he developed a new narrative, combined with his own reflections on race and justice in America. This book offers a moving and thought-provoking meditation on the subject.
Meddling Kids by Edgar Cantero
In Meddling Kids, Catalonian author Edgar Cantero portrays a reunion of old friends who decide to complete some unfinished business in the resort town where they spent their summers as kids. While pitting good against evil, Cantero pays homage to H.P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu mythos, the bumbling but resourceful gang in Scooby-Doo (yes, there are four kids and a dog), and a full range of road trip, haunted house, and reclusive wizard tropes. Give this to your horror-reading friends who enjoy gripping, scary escapades involving sympathetic, well-drawn characters and a touch of humor.
Maggie Bright: A Novel of Dunkirk by Tracy Groot
The 1940 Dunkirk evacuation provides the setting and storyline for this Christian historical novel. As the overwhelmed British Expeditionary Force hastily retreats to France's northern coast, the cry goes out for civilian boats to help rescue the troops, and the Maggie Bright, a 52-foot yacht, answers the call. The plot alternates accounts of soldiers stuck in France with that of Maggie's female owner and other sympathetic characters who pitch in to help with the rescue. Whether or not your friends ordinarily enjoy Christian fiction, they'll likely enjoy this exciting and moving story.
Mikhail and Margarita by Julie Lekstrom Himes
Starring Mikhail Bulgakov, the author of the Russian novel The Master and Margarita, this historical novel provides a tense and absorbing tale of the Stalinist era during the 1930s. Bringing Bulgakov and his associates (including poet Osip Mandelstam) to life, Mikhail and Margarita imagines the woman called Margarita, portrayed in Bulgakov's novel, as a real person with whom Bulgakov falls in love. With vivid details of Russia during the period, complex characters, and a twisting plot, this story will captivate even those who are unfamiliar with Bulgakov's work.