Hello dear readers! It may not feel much like it but the holidays are almost upon us. This year, it’s important to #shoplocal and support independent bookstores like Strand and McNally Jackson. They’ve lost most of their revenue to Amazon with closures due to COVID and reduced foot traffic causing them to lose business.
As book lovers, we believe the best present to give to anyone is a book. There’s something for everyone, even non-readers (cookbooks, coloring books, puzzle books). Or, if you’re a non-reader yourself looking for something to get your reader friend, you’ve come to the right place.
As we do every year, we put together a handy guide of our favorite new releases and under-appreciated books from years past. Our goal in making this list was to avoid best sellers and gather some hidden gems that your gift recipient is almost sure not to already have. We tried to hit a wide range so that there’s something for everyone.
We’ll be adding to this list over the next week so check back! If you have any specific types of books you’re looking for or people you’re looking to shop for that you don’t see represented in this list, let us know in the comments! Also, check out our 2017 gift list, 2018 list, and 2019 list for even more ideas.
François Vigneault’s TITAN is a slim volume, a quick but impactful read. Far in the future, humans have genetically engineered a race of super-strong, super-big people called Titans. When MNGR João da Silva arrives on the planet Titan, things are already tenuous. The relationship between Titans and “Terrans,” what they call humans from Earth, is hostile – one Titan snaps that she’d “rather scrub dreg out the line with my tongue” than work directly with a Terran. The planet is a powder keg, about to explode. That’s when Phoebe, a fiery red-haired Titan, arrives, pulling João deeper into a conflict he can’t escape.
Titan’s art is simple but effective. It’s monochromatic, completely done in white, pink, grey and black. There’s minimal line work, but every line is put to good use- the wrinkles lining MNGR da Silva’s face, the cartoonish bubbles indicating tipsiness when the MNGR and Phoebe share a bottle of alcohol. The art balances well between sci-fi realism and classic, simple comic book art. Continue reading
Review by Tess Tabak
Peng Shepherd’s Book of M is a tour de force, a grim-yet-hopeful speculative fiction novel with many parallels for the current coronavirus pandemic. The characters in the book grapple with their own mysterious pandemic: a wave of people throughout the globe suddenly begin losing their shadows, and no one understands why. With the loss of a shadow inevitably comes total memory loss.
The book covers vast material in its 485 pages – the book takes place over the course of about two years – but it centers on a relatively small cast of characters. The central figures include a couple, Max and Ory, who have been living in hiding together at a resort since the start of the pandemic. There is also an amnesiac, who suffered complete retrograde amnesia shortly before the pandemic struck, and who may be key to finding a cure.
More than just losing their memory, something far stranger happens to the victims of the Forgetting. They become imbued with magical powers. If they forget something, whatever they imagine in its place becomes reality. A wife who forgets her husband may cause him to disappear, for example. Shepherd deliberately keeps the scope of the supernatural powers vague throughout the course of the book. While there is some amount of internal logic, the “rules” of the magic is not the focus here. Rather we’re intimately following the aftermath for our characters, the pain and emotional anguish of watching their loved ones forget who they are, or knowing that you’re being stripped of everything that makes you who you are. Continue reading
Review by Tess Tabak
You know how sometimes, you can tell a book is written by someone fresh out of an MFA program? The writing is promising, but the plot is not quite there yet (for a story about a young girl struggling to fit in at school, there is much over-dramatization). The descriptions are sharp, but often overblown (almost every single item named gets three adjectives or descriptors, or sometimes random bursts of alliteration – “the professor had spent the entire hour enigmatically pushing peripheral points she hadn’t studied well.” The central character is a young misunderstood girl with a flowery name (in this case, Laurelie).
I was really with The Bobcat up until the last 50 pages or so. I rolled my eyes occasionally at the MFA program trappings, but it’s a short read and the simple thread of a girl overcoming trauma by pursuing a mysterious man was compelling enough to keep me turning pages.
Unless this book is supposed to take place decades ago, a lot of the twee harkenings back to old-timey things just don’t make sense – and if it is supposed to take place decades ago, there’s really no hint besides the way the characters are acting, and the lack of cell phones or technology mentioned. For example, Laurelie is postured as morally purer than all the fancy city girls at her college who read like one dimensional ‘mean girls’ because instead of wearing designer garbs, she makes her own clothing – even though nowadays, anyone who makes their own clothing probably cares way more about their appearance than not, since it’s much more difficult to make than to just buy something cheap at Old Navy or a thrift store.
Review by E. Kirshe
Intimate, and colorfully written, Besotted by Melissa Duclos was an absorbing read. Told from the perspective of Sasha, a member of the Shanghai expatriate community, this novel is focused on her relationship with Liz, a young woman Sasha pulls to Shanghai and maneuvers into dating her.
“‘What made you want to bring me here?’
‘You signed the letter Besottedly.’ That wasn’t really it, or that wasn’t all of it, but it was all I could give her.
Liz shrugged. ‘It means drunk.’
I shook my head. ‘It means in love.’’”
Besotted is an unpretentious story that stays grounded in its relationship woes and isolated expat community. It often reads like a slice of life even among the lyrical language and sometimes sinister machinations of our narrator. Sasha’s ability to love Liz so wholly comes from her inability to look inward at herself no matter how eloquently she can talk about her own issues (to herself and not to the therapist she seems to need).
Review by Tess Tabak
The book’s translator asked to remain anonymous for fear of safety
This haunting, evocative novel spins a finely woven tapestry out of the Iranian Revolution, djinns and mermaids, and family lore. If you’re willing to go on a meandering journey, Shokoofeh Azar takes you to unique and hauntingly strange places.
This novel truly feels like a piece woven from disparate threads to create a whole. At no point until the end did I ever have any particular idea where the book was going, but I was engaged throughout. Azar sets the tone of magical realism juxtaposed with harsh realities early on, from the very beginning, when the narrator’s mother receives enlightenment from a greengage tree: “Beeta says that Mom attained enlightenment at exactly 2:35 p.m. on August 18, 1988, atop the grove’s tallest greengage plum tree on a hill overlooking all fifty-three village houses, to the sound of the scrubbing of pots and pans, a ruckus that pulled the grove out of its lethargy every afternoon. At that very moment, blindfolded and hands tied behind his back, Sohrab was hanged.” Continue reading
Review by E. Kirshe
The Sisters Grimm is a new fantasy novel by Menna Van Praag. The entirety is told through the point of view narration of five protagonists, the four sisters; Goldie, Liyana, Scarlet and Bea, and Leo, a sort of spiritual brother to them, who must also kill one of them.
I’ll start with a few positives so the reader can make their own decisions. The characters are diverse, that’s nice. They all come from different ethnic and class backgrounds, Liyana’s relationship with her girlfriend was cute. The otherworld (spirit world? Hell?) of Everwhere was nicely described. There’s a lot of nice language.
Now for the downsides.
Translated by Pablo Strauss
Review by E. Kirshe
The Country Will Bring Us No Peace is a strange and eerie book about grief; not overcoming it, but being overtaken by it. Grief haunts the mean and dying streets of the country town our city-born protagonists move to, a move which they hoped would bring them past their own private tragedy, the grief of which is slowly taking them down as well.
The story switches back and forth, abruptly, between the husband and wife narrators Simon and Marie. We get an internal monologue from each of them either giving new information or sometimes their thoughts on the same event. The way it’s written with them switching between being in and out of sync was just one example of how this is a uniquely told tale.
The story gets more surreal as it goes on, as well as darker. It starts with merely stark narration. Continue reading
Review by E. Kirshe
The bestselling author of The Night Circus is back with something very different yet also familiar in The Starless Sea.
Erin Morgenstern had readers fall in love with her immersive fantasy world in her debut novel. Those looking to recreate that experience may be disappointed as The Starless Sea is styled very differently, however her knack for creating a fantastical and multidimensional world is all here.
“Far beneath the surface of the earth, upon the shores of the Starless Sea, there is a labyrinthine collection of tunnels and rooms filled with stories. The entryways that lead to this sanctuary are often hidden, sometimes on forest floors, sometimes in private homes, sometimes in plain sight. But those who seek will find.”
On the one side, we have a story about a man named Zachary Ezra Rawlins, who, upon finding a book in which he is part of the story discovers a much bigger world beneath his real one. Zachary and the people he meets are all part of an old story that will change the fate of this hidden world.
The big strength of The Starless Sea and the thing that had me eager to read all 500 pages was the way Morgenstern tells stories via any sense and medium- built, sculpted, written, carved, heard, tasted, etc. It’s this writing that had readers love The Night Circus and what makes this book worth reading. Continue reading