You may have heard that if you want to give books for the holidays, you should order them immediately. Or even, honestly, yesterday. Point is, thanks to the supply chain, booksellers are slammed, so you have a great excuse to start ordering the best books to give as gifts in 2021 early (AKA right now, as soon as you finish reading my list).
A lot of these bookish gifting lists focus on the big bestsellers of the year, the buzzy seem-to-be-everywhere books. And that’s a great strategy, for many people. But the thing is, if you’re here, you’re trying to give a book to a reader. And that’s a problem, because as any friend-of-a-bookworm knows, it’s impossible to buy us something to read, because you’re never sure what we have or haven’t read. And there is a high likelihood that we’ve already read, or ruled out, those buzzy books.
As a result, I find that I only get books as gifts if I ask for them. A lot of people don’t dare buy me books, and will tell me as much. But that’s just unacceptable. Your bookworm friends want books from you! (Frankly, even when I have received duplicate books, it’s always special because someone chose it off a shelf for me.) What a horrifying paradox of nature it is, to love books so much that people shy away from giving you books as gifts.
So I want you to buy your bookworm friends books this holiday season. What I’ve done here is gathered some amazing books from this year that are the ideal gift, that are fantastic without being so plastered on the local billboards that there’s no way your reader friend hasn’t already read it. Without further ado, here are the best books to give as gifts this holiday season.
Books to Escape Into
How Do You Live? by Genzaburo Yoshino, Translated by Bruno Navasky
This novel has been inspiring readers for decades in Japan (since its publication in 1937), and Hayao Miyazaki has described it as his favorite childhood book — it is in the process of being his final directorial film with Studio Ghibli. But it’s only now that we’re getting this vivid story available in English translation. After Copper’s father passes away, he struggles with the immense change. As he deals with his day-to-day problems around bullying, friendship, and fairness, his uncle writes to him in a journal, giving him the guidance and life lessons that he hopes will help Copper find his place in the world. Fans of Miyazaki will be thrilled to discover one of his strongest influences, and to get a sneak peek at his final project. The translation was published with a foreword by fantasy great Neil Gaiman.
Light from Uncommon Stars by Ryka Aoki
A violin teacher makes a deal with the devil: she, Shizuka Satomi, will get seven other violin superstars to deliver their souls to hell, and if she succeeds, she’ll escape damnation — and her music will be available once again to the world. She’s excited to find Katrina Nguyen, a young transgender girl who has been thrown out of her home, a girl with an incredible, untrained talent that is unmistakable. Meanwhile, a group of interstellar refugees are hiding out nearby, trying to fix their spaceship while pretending to run a donut shop. This is a wild, absurd, emotional, and extremely queer novel. The pages fly by. It’s the perfect choice for fans of YA SFF, music lovers, and anyone seeking warm queer stories that are escapist without avoiding real-life issues.
What You Can See From Here by Mariana Leky, Translated by Tess Lewis
This novel was one of my favorites of the year, a witty story that will, at turns, make readers laugh and then cry. When the novel opens, Selma, young Luisa’s grandmother, has dreamt of an okapi, and everyone in town knows what that means: someone is going to die. In the swirl of events that follow, townspeople gather superstitions, consider spilling their secrets, or admitting their crushes. The book centers around Luisa and her coming of age, but it’s really about the town, this group of fantastic and often absurd characters that really stick to your heart. It’s a bittersweet novel about life, grief, and the impossible stubbornness of love that was a bestseller in Europe before it finally became available in the U.S. this year. It will appeal to a wide range of readers.
After the Dragons by Cynthia Zhang
This book is a quiet, beautiful soft fantasy about how we care for one another. A jaded college student recently diagnosed with shaolong, or “burnt lung,” a mysterious disease taking over Beijing, wanders the city looking for abandoned dragons that he can nurse back to health. Meanwhile, a medical student from the U.S. has come back to the city, grieving over the loss of his grandmother and trying to help find a cure for shaolong. When the two meet, their soft romance begins to blossom, and they’re forced to learn new things about how we should care for one another. Lovers of soft fantasy and climate fiction will enjoy this one — it’s an easy book to lose yourself in.
She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan
It’s 1345 in China, and our protagonist, the young daughter, is given a fate of nothingness, while her brother is given the fate of greatness. Except then, in the midst of famine and violence, Zhu Chongba dies. Determined to survive, to escape her own destiny, the girl takes on her brother’s name and identity, and enters a monastery as a novice. While at first she just wants to avoid death, she soon finds that she is capable, ambitious, and intelligent, and as war breaks out, Zhu starts to consider whether greatness could be her destiny after all. Pitched as Mulan meets The Song of Achilles, this is a queer reimagining of the rise of the Ming dynasty that will appeal to fans of high fantasy and epic fantasy novels full of political machinations, epic twists, and cunning.
The Best of World Sci Fi: Volume 1 Edited by Lavie Tidhar
Not sure what to get for the sci-fi fan that seems to have everything? How about a new, fantastic, big ol’ hardback that gathers short stories from around the world to form a brilliant collection of international sci fi? This book has tales from 23 countries and spans seven languages including Hebrew, Japanese, Spanish, Icelandic, Chinese, and more. The stories are inventive, and they bring global science fiction, which is too often neglected and not translated or re-published, into the spotlight for everyday SFF readers. It covers fantasy, cyberpunk, time travel, space opera, and just about everything in between.
A Master of Djinn by P. Djèlí Clark
I had an absolute blast reading this book, a funny steampunk-fantasy-mystery novel that takes place in an alternative 1912 Cairo where magical creatures have been incorporated into everyday life. The well-dressed, bold Fatma el-Sha’arawi, the youngest woman in the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities, finds herself on a mysterious case. A mask-wearing man is slowly amassing followers as he claims to be al-Jahiz, the man who opened up the veil between magical and mundane realms years ago, and he’s being held responsible for the murder of a secret brotherhood. Clark is one of the best fantasy authors working today, and SFF fans will love the rich world-building, vivid queer characters, and suspenseful mystery plot.
Books to Thrill
Velvet Was the Night by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Equal parts noir, crime novel, and historical fiction — plus it benefits from having one of the most striking book covers of 2021 — Velvet Was the Night is the perfect book for your favorite bookworm to unwrap this holiday season. Maite is a young, naive woman in 1970s Mexico who lives for romance comics and petty theft. When her neighbor disappears, she starts looking into it because she’s tired of cat-sitting without getting paid. Soon she finds herself in the midst of a thrilling plot rooted in the dark realities of the Guerra sucia, in which the Mexican government (supported by the U.S.) violently repressed demonstrations and disappeared students in the name of suppressing communism. It’s a riveting crime novel soaked in old-school rock — check out the accompanying playlist on Spotify for the perfect soundtrack to listen to as you read.
The Turnout by Megan Abbott
Who doesn’t love a good ballet-themed thriller? In this book, Dara and Marie Durant run a dance school inherited from their parents, each teaching a section of the students, while Charlie, their mother’s former star student, runs the back office. When a suspicious accident rocks the upcoming annual performance of The Nutcracker, the dance school is thrown into a whirl of anxiety and fear, and the arrival of contractor Derek starts a slow burn that refuses to let up. What could be better as a holiday gift for the thriller and mystery lovers in your life than a ballet book about dark teenage girls and their trauma that takes place in the midst of the holiday season?
The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave
In 1617, a freak storm wiped out nearly all the men in isolated Vardø, Norway. The women were forced to step up, overcoming restricted gender roles and learning to hunt, row, fish, and more. But this made them a target for men determined to root out heresy and stamp out the customs of the indigenous Sámi people. In this novel by Hargrave that’s based on those actual historical events, subversive women Maren and Ursa are compelling protagonists, and the building tension in the town as residents choose sides is eerie and suspenseful. This thriller-esque historical fiction novel paints an unfortunately realistic tale about power and patriarchy, and most of all about rebellious women and the price they’ve paid throughout history for their subversiveness.
In the late ’80s and early ’90s, a forgettable, inconspicuous man could be found enjoying a scotch, often hanging out near the piano at the Townhouse Bar. He was there even as the gossip spread: there was a man stabbing drunk gay men. No one knew who, but bodies had been surfacing. Unfortunately, because of the marginalization of the gay community, the AIDS epidemic, and the already high NYC murder rates at the time, the run of the “Last Call Killer” largely went uncovered and unnoticed. In this book perfect for lovers of all things true crime, Green tells the story of the serial killer and the struggle to identify him, while giving tribute to the victims and the larger prejudices and issues that left their deaths forgotten for so long.
William Gibson wrote a screenplay for a direct sequel to the iconic film Alien — but it was never used. Now, the “Queen of Cyberpunk,” author Pat Cadigan, has taken the first draft by Gibson and adapted it into a novel format. Ripley, Newt, Corporal Hicks, and Bishop are returning from LV-426 when the Sulaco is boarded by the “Union of Progressive Peoples,” a group engaged in a cold war, and the ship ends up in the control of the military’s Weapons Division. While Ripley remains comatose, Hicks is awakened — and begins to hear rumors that the military is experimenting with cloning and genetic modification of Xenomorphs. Which is a very, very bad idea. The novel is exciting and a perfect, unexpected gift for fans of the Alien franchise.
Books to Make You Feel
The Archer by Shruti Swamy
This novel is a poetic, gorgeous debut novel about a young girl named Vidya in 1960s Bombay who falls in love with Kathak, a dance form of discipline and story-telling. All she wants is to dance, but the gendered world around her prescribes something different: a pressure to marry, have children, and abandon her passion. She has to confront the fact that independence can be lonely and difficult. Swamy’s writing is evocative and beautiful, bringing the dancing to life, and the novel is full of repressed love, queerness, ringing bells, and a harried rhythm. It’s a coming-of-age story full of life, joy, and grief.
A Ghost in the Throat by Doireann Ní Ghríofa
This book is a strange mash-up of genres, part autofiction, part memoir, part translation. A struggling young mother becomes obsessed with a 1700s Irish poet who, after discovering her husband had been killed, drank his blood and then wrote an epic, grief-filled lament. The mother finds herself mapping the poet’s life against her own. When I say that this is a genre-bender, I mean it — the book won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for biography but was also longlisted for the 2021 Desmond Elliott Prize for debut fiction. Fans of unusual, lyrical books like Carmen Maria Machado’s In the Dream House and Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous will find themselves tearing through this book.
The Mirror Season by Anna-Marie McLemore
Ciela can tell with a glance what each visitor to her family’s pastelería needs. But when she is sexually assaulted at a party, her gift fades; flowers begin to turn to mirror glass around her, crumbling, a sliver lodging in her eye. Her magic only returns when she first reaches out to help the boy, Lock, who was assaulted at the same party, who she helped get to the hospital afterwards, who remembers little of what happened that night. This magical realist novel is impossible to put down, a story about trauma and survival, about rape culture and the poisonous ways that people think they own certain bodies. With inspiration drawn from Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale The Snow Queen, this story of sugar, glass shards, and queerness is one of the must-reads of 2021.
Seeing Ghosts: A Memoir by Kat Chow
As a kid, Kat Chow was always preoccupied by the idea of death, worrying constantly about her parents dying. When she’s nine, her mother jokes that when she dies, she wants to be stuffed and displayed in Kat’s future apartment, so she can keep watching over her. And when Kat is 13, her mother dies unexpectedly from cancer. In this coming-of-age story and memoir, Kat writes about her grief, digging into her family’s losses over three generations, the stories that haunted them from China and Hong Kong to the U.S. and Cuba. It is a memoir that is not only personal and heartbreakingly honest, but that digs into the very nature of grief and what it means to want to preserve those we’ve lost.
How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House by Cherie Jones
In this intense, dark, emotional novel set in Barbados, an inter-generational story of violence unfolds. Mira grew up on the island, but married an English tourist and now lives in Wimbledon; after she discovers he’s having an affair, they return to their Barbados villa to try and heal. Lala is a woman who makes money braiding the hair of the rich ex-pats who live in local mansions; she lives on Baxter Beach with her husband Adan, a criminal who attempts to steal from Mira’s villa. After an unfortunate mix-up and a series of coincidences, chaos unfolds among the characters, and tragedy strikes. This debut novel digs deep into class difference and poverty, into the harsh cycles of violence and abuse.
The Book of Mac: Remembering Mac Miller by Donna-Claire Chesman
When rapper Mac Miller passed away in 2018, Chesman started writing an entire year’s worth of articles about his music, his legacy, his lyrics, and his impact. Those articles have been gathered and recasted into this book, the perfect gift for fans of Miller’s music, as well as just a great oral history of an artist that all fans of music writing and hip hop will enjoy. The book includes Chesman’s own essays about the impact of Miller on her own life and analysis of his lyrics, his inspirations, and his approach, as well as interviews with Miller’s collaborators, friends, and producers, from Kehlani to Wiz Khalifa and more. The book as a whole creates a portrait of a musical talent lost much too soon.
The Ex Talk by Rachel Lynn Solomon
Is your bookworm also a big NPR fan? If so, this enemies-to-lovers romance novel might be just the thing. Shay Goldstein is an ambitious producer at her Seattle public radio station who proposes a show called The Ex Talk, where two exes will give relationship advice live on air. Unfortunately, her boss decides that Dominic Yun, a journalism master’s graduate who thinks he knows everything, should be her co-host, despite them not being exes at all. As their show grows — and their deception deepens — the plot thickens, and, naturally, they find themselves maybe developing a tiny bit of feelings for each other, a twist that could throw the entire station into chaos.
Books to Make You Think
Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future by Elizabeth Kolbert
Kolbert is famous for her book The Sixth Extinction, in which she wrote about humanity’s capacity for destruction and the way we’ve altered our world in unalterable ways. In this new book, she’s looking at the scientists and people who are altering the planet further, whose interventions are helping or endangering or destabilizing. To put it simply: Kolbert is writing about how people are trying to solve problems that people created, from assisted evolution to geoengineering to gene drives, and the solutions and dangers that these interventions might present. For example, she digs into the importation of Asian Carp, and then into the efforts of people to keep the Asian Carp from taking over completely. It’s a fascinating book and a great choice for nonfiction readers.
The Disordered Cosmos: A Journey Into Dark Matter, Spacetime, and Dreams Deferred by Chanda Prescod-Weinstein
Look — I was really bad at high school physics. But this book makes me want to dig back into the subject, even if it’s only for a couple days. Theoretical physicist Prescod-Weinstein (who is agender and uses she/her pronouns) digs into particle physics, dark matter, and the possibilities of transforming our understanding of the cosmos and the night sky, making her theories accessible and fascinating. Meanwhile, she digs into the physics of melanin in skin, and draws on history and politics to call for a more just practice of science that allows for more marginalized people to be welcomed into the sciences. Prescod-Weinstein is incredible, and science geeks as well as general nonfiction readers will love this book no matter their level of expertise.
The Rock Eaters by Brenda Peynado
This debut short story collection by Dominican American author Brenda Peynado is absolutely perfect for fans of Carmen Maria Machado and Kelly Link: her stories are surreal, compelling, and thought-provoking. The first story is called “Thoughts and Prayers,” and is a story about school shootings, inaction, and performative movements. It just continues on from there, with stories that dig into society’s pain points today: from an insomniac dystopia to never-ending productivity and the incredible toll it takes on younger generations. The stories are superb throughout, and I’d like to plaster the book on every billboard I can. Readers of speculative fiction and surrealism won’t be able to get enough of Peynado.
We Had a Little Real Estate Problem: The Unheralded Story of Native Americans and Comedy by Kliph Nesteroff
In this book, comedy historical Nesteroff focuses on how Native Americans have influenced and advanced the art form of comedy despite being denied media representation. He begins in the late 1880s with wild west shows and goes on to use research and interviews to profile the life and work of both historical and contemporary Native American comedians — such as Kiowa-Apache comic Adrianne Chalepah, who founded touring group the Native Ladies of Comedy. Nesteroff’s book not only shines a light on a neglected history, but also highlights the ways that participation rebels against the stereotypes of Native Americans and the history of trying to make indigenous communities disappear and stay silent.
We Are Satellites by Sarah Pinsker
Pinsker’s first book, A Song for a New Day, eerily described an all-remote world. Her second focuses on brain implant technology, exploring the dangers of body augmentation in a capitalist society where health-care is controlled by corporations, revealing who gets left behind by such a system. The novel focuses on one family, queer parents Val and Julie and their kids David and Sophie. When David needs a Pilot to keep up with his already-augmented classmates, they are all forced to examine the consequences and possibilities of the implant. This sci-fi novel is compelling both as a contained story and as a meditation on the problems presented by a world in which private corporations are allowed free rein.
Sometimes I Trip on How Happy We Could Be by Nichole Perkins
For fans of Samantha Irby’s We Are Never Meeting in Real Life, this book is packed with both humor and prescient analysis of the way that pop culture impacts our lives. Nichole Perkins talks about leaning on Frasier, about desire and sexuality, and Prince. She digs into her sexuality, her natural hair journey, her kink, her mental illness, her Southern upbringing. Using her own life as inspiration and foundation, Perkins writes about the power of pop culture — how it damages Black women, how she’s undone some of that damage, and how she’s able to draw power from the best parts, embracing herself fully.
Never Say You Can’t Survive: How to Get Through Hard Times by Making Up Stories by Charlie Jane Anders
Need a good gift for your favorite writer bookworm that isn’t yet another notebook you aren’t sure if they’ll actually use? Charlie Jane Anders has you covered. This vivid book is full of concrete tips for writing stories, for harnessing creativity and getting started, but it’s also just full of motivation and support for picking up a pen and getting ready to tell your story. Anders writes about being motivated by anger, about how to keep working when the world is crashing down around you, about the value of escapism, and about embracing your own desires, inspirations, and inner weird.