Oh hey, it’s the holidays again. And in The Year of Our Lady Chaos, 2020, I hope you have something warm and comforting to look forward to. Be it a game night with your kids. A snugglefest with that puppy you adopted because pandemic. Or even just some quiet nights with a cup of hot chocolate and a great book.
If cozying up with a great book (or buying one for someone you love for the holidays) sounds good to you, here are some of my favorite reads – from this year and of all time.
(P.S. I’ve marked books with an asterisk* where the author is from a marginalized community. I hope you’ll love these books and that you’ll also love the fact that you can support authors who’ve had higher hurdles to jump over to get these books through the publishing machine.)
(P.P.S. Links below are affiliate links, which means if you purchase something, I get a small commission at no extra cost to you.)
And now, onto the list…
Gifts for tweens and young teens (and anyone with brain fog)
THE SCHOOL FOR GOOD AND EVIL*
“Sophie had waited her whole life to be kidnapped.” So begins one of the best middle grade books I’ve ever read – and one I’ve re-read almost every year since I first picked it up.
The premise: What if there was a school for heroes and villains and children were kidnapped and whisked away to become one or the other. And what if once, that school swapped the girls who believed they belonged in the villain or hero category?
THE WOLF WILDER
Feo and her mama live in Siberia, in a cabin on the edge of wilderness, and people bring them formerly-pet-wolves to re-wild and release into the great expanse. But everything changes the day soldiers show up and take Feo’s mama. Now it’s up to her and the wolves to find the only family Feo has left.
THIS IS NOT A WEREWOLF STORY
Based on a myth about humans who could transform temporarily into wolves, this story follows pre-teen Raul as he navigates a distant father, cruel boarding school, first crush, and the growing certainty that the wolf he keeps seeing in the nearby woods might be his missing mother.
THE STORY THAT CANNOT BE TOLD
What was life like in communist Romania? This beautiful middle grade book has the answers, following the story of a young girl who accidentally says too much to a man who might be an informer and must be shipped off to live in her grandparents’ small village to keep her safe.
MEOW OR NEVER*
This one won’t publish until January 5th, but you can order your copy for the holidays and delight yourself with a post-holiday arrival. Meow or Never has a particular place in my heart because it’s the first book to publish by an incredibly talented friend of mine.
The story follows Avery – a pre-teen who loves to sing…but not in front of people. When she lands the lead role in the school musical, she’ll have to face her fears, with the help of a cat and her first crush.
“I’ve heard it said that girls can’t keep secrets. That’s wrong: we’d proved it.” So opens one of the most gorgeously written fairy tale retellings I’ve ever read.
Based on the tale of the 12 dancing princesses, the story follows the second oldest daughter as she tries to keep her sisters safe in the land of the fairies and the world they come from, both of which are changing too fast.
This one feels like it would appeal to both older teens and pre-teens.
Gifts for teens and YA readers
THREE DARK CROWNS*
Three sisters. Raised apart. Forced to fight to the death to become queen. Enough said.
I’ve only just started this one, but I’ve heard such incredible things that I had to put it on this year’s list.
After losing her mother in an accident, Bree heads to a residential program for teens at a nearby university. But when she witnesses a magical attack her first night on campus, she’ll get swept up in questions about not only magic, but also her mother’s accident.
AN EMBER IN THE ASHES*
From the book description: “[In a world] inspired by ancient Rome, Laia lives with her grandparents and older brother. The family ekes out an existence in the Empire’s impoverished backstreets. They do not challenge the Empire. They’ve seen what happens to those who do.
But when Laia’s brother is arrested for treason, Laia is forced to make a decision. In exchange for help from rebels who promise to rescue her brother, she will risk her life to spy for them from within the Empire’s greatest military academy.”
Described as Ready Player One meets The Hate U Give, this story follows a teen game designer who just wants a safe space to celebrate Black culture. But when someone is murdered in real life because of the game, everything could fall apart.
This one was particularly great on audiobook.
THE RAVEN CYCLE*
I re-read these books every couple years and revel in them every time. The story of four teens on a quest to find a magical kind buried in the mountains of Virginia, it is – by turns – magical, hilarious, charming, and dark.
THE SOUND OF STARS*
I’ve only just started this book, but I ADORE the opening. If beautiful prose is your thing, this one’s for you.
The premise, according to the book description: “Can a girl who risks her life for books and an alien who loves pop music work together to save humanity?”
CALL DOWN THE HAWK*
What if you could pull real things out of your dreams? And what if it cost you something every time you did?
This is the premise of the first book in a companion series to THE RAVEN CYCLE. And it is just as gorgeous and compelling as it sounds.
Gifts for adult readers
THEY NEVER LEARN*
In this gender-swapped DEXTER, we follow a female serial killer hell-bent on taking out rapists. As the book description says: “Scarlett Clark is an exceptional English professor. But she’s even better at getting away with murder.
Every year, she searches for the worst man at Gorman University and plots his well-deserved demise. Thanks to her meticulous planning, she’s avoided drawing attention to herself—but as she’s preparing for her biggest kill yet, the school starts probing into the growing body count on campus. Determined to keep her enemies close, Scarlett insinuates herself into the investigation and charms the woman in charge, Dr. Mina Pierce. Everything’s going according to her master plan…until she loses control with her latest victim, putting her secret life at risk of exposure.”
ONCE YOU GO THIS FAR*
Per the book description: “Junior-high school nurse Rebecca Newsome was an experienced hiker—until she plummeted to her death at the bottom of a ravine in a Columbus metro park. Her daughter, Maggie, doesn’t believe it was an accident, and Rebecca’s ex-husband is her prime suspect. But he’s a well-connected ex-cop and Maggie is certain that’s the reason no one will listen to her. PI Roxane Weary quickly uncovers that the dead woman’s ex is definitely a jerk, but is he a murderer?”
In this exploration of toxic masculinity, “Victor and Eli started out as college roommates―brilliant, arrogant, lonely boys who recognized the same sharpness and ambition in each other. In their senior year, a shared research interest in adrenaline, near-death experiences, and seemingly supernatural events reveals an intriguing possibility: that under the right conditions, someone could develop extraordinary abilities. But when their thesis moves from the academic to the experimental, things go horribly wrong.
Ten years later, Victor breaks out of prison, determined to catch up to his old friend (now foe), aided by a young girl whose reserved nature obscures a stunning ability. Meanwhile, Eli is on a mission to eradicate every other super-powered person that he can find―aside from his sidekick, an enigmatic woman with an unbreakable will. Armed with terrible power on both sides, driven by the memory of betrayal and loss, the archnemeses have set a course for revenge―but who will be left alive at the end?”
THE WAR WIDOW*
If you’ve ever wished for a hard-boiled detective novel set in the 40s but with a lady detective instead of some grizzled middle-aged dude, wish granted. This book is set just after WWII in Australia, where PI Billie Walker will have to track down a missing kid.
The book comes out December 29th, and it’s well-worth pre-ordering.
I’m re-reading this one right now and loving it just as much the second time around. As the back cover says, “A woman and fallen priest haunt the prison halls–an unnamed female investigator only known as the Lady who is known for discovering information relating to soon-to-be executed inmates’ backgrounds that can be used to overturn their sentences. She is put on the case of a man named York and as she digs into his past, the experience brings up ghosts of her own and threatens to destroy everything that she has come to know about the enchanted place.”
PRETTY AS A PICTURE*
Per the back cover: “Marissa Dahl, a shy but successful film editor, travels to a small island off the coast of Delaware to work with the legendary–and legendarily demanding–director Tony Rees on a feature film with a familiar logline.
Some girl dies.
It’s not much to go on, but the specifics don’t concern Marissa. Whatever the script is, her job is the same. She’ll spend her days in the editing room, doing what she does best: turning pictures into stories.
But she soon discovers that on this set, nothing is as it’s supposed to be–or as it seems. There are rumors of accidents and indiscretions, of burgeoning scandals and perilous schemes. Half the crew has been fired. The other half wants to quit. Even the actors have figured out something is wrong. And no one seems to know what happened to the editor she was hired to replace.
Then she meets the intrepid and incorrigible teenage girls who are determined to solve the real-life murder that is the movie’s central subject, and before long, Marissa is drawn into the investigation herself.
The only problem is, the killer may still be on the loose. And he might not be finished.”
If a laugh is what you’re after, this is my go-to recommendation. The story is about a thief with OCD who only steals what he needs. A little laundry detergent here. A cup of milk there. A single earring just to see if you notice. But when he accidentally drops someone’s toothbrush in the toilet, he’ll have to decide: risk blowing his cover by replacing the soiled toiletry or leave an innocent to her fate.
When a down-on-her-luck actress finds out there’s a major reward for solving a hit and run, she’ll risk anything to figure out whodunit.
Non-fiction gift ideas
Is it still possible to fake your death in the twenty-first century? That’s the question this book asks – and answers.
LOVE WITH A CHANCE OF DROWNING
A girl with a fear of water falls for a man about to sail around the world. To be with her love, she’ll have to brave the open ocean.
EDUCATED: A MEMOIR
Per the back cover: “Born to survivalists in the mountains of Idaho, Tara Westover was seventeen the first time she set foot in a classroom. Her family was so isolated from mainstream society that there was no one to ensure the children received an education, and no one to intervene when one of Tara’s older brothers became violent. When another brother got himself into college, Tara decided to try a new kind of life. Her quest for knowledge transformed her, taking her over oceans and across continents, to Harvard and to Cambridge University. Only then would she wonder if she’d traveled too far, if there was still a way home.”
What would life be like if you grew up half in Philly and half in a baboon camp in Botswana, Africa? Keena’s memoir is funny, engrossing, and terrifying. A coming of age story and a travel memoir all mashed up together.
SAVE ME THE PLUMS
Per the back cover: “This is the story of a former Berkeley hippie entering the corporate world and worrying about losing her soul. It is the story of the moment restaurants became an important part of popular culture, a time when the rise of the farm-to-table movement changed, forever, the way we eat. Readers will meet legendary chefs like David Chang and Eric Ripert, idiosyncratic writers like David Foster Wallace, and a colorful group of editors and art directors who, under Reichl’s leadership, transformed stately Gourmet into a cutting-edge publication. This was the golden age of print media—the last spendthrift gasp before the Internet turned the magazine world upside down.”
Can we gamify wellness? The answer, according to a lot of research, might just be yes. Here the expert takes us through it.
THE RADIUM GIRLS
Per the book description: “For fans of Hidden Figures, comes the incredible true story of the women heroes who were exposed to radium in factories across the U.S. in the early 20th century, and their brave and groundbreaking battle to strengthen workers’ rights, even as the fatal poison claimed their own lives…”