The Most Wonderful Time

Welcome back, everybody! I hope your Thanksgiving (or, if you’re not American, your Thursday) was full of family, friends, and lots of food. Now, it’s back to business. Like last year, I thought the best way to greet the “official” Christmas season was to remind everyone that books make the best gifts. Here are some of my top picks, all buzzworthy and published in 2010, that might inspire your shopping list:

Room by Emma Donoghue. The hype around this book was built all year, and when it was finally released this past fall, the book definitely lived up to it. In it, five-year-old, Jack, and his mother are confined to a tiny room, greeted only by the disturbing “Old Nick.” Their room is simultaneously thought of as Jack’s entire world and his mother’s torturous prison.

A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan. Another young narrator. Another fantastically told story. Pretty much anything by Jennifer Egan is guaranteed to be great.

Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk by David Sedaris. Fans of Sedaris’ nonfiction already own this, but if you have a short story lover on your shopping list, this is a nice gateway into Sedaris’ pitch perfect essays. Plus, it’s cute and quirky, and has that trademark cynicism we all know and love.

Also, obligatory shout-out to J. Franz’s Freedom. I know we’re all sick of it and him, but it really is quite good. It’ll make a perfect gift for the literary snob or MFA student in your family.

You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto by Jaron Lanier. I bought this book earlier this year because I am one of those people who have embraced technology, yet slightly fear that we’re headed toward a science fiction dystopia because of it. This book helps to create a balance and teaches you not to fear or criticize technology because you’ll only get left behind. But, don’t let technology control you either. Moral: remain human.

The Autobiography of Mark Twain: Vol. 1. We’ve waited 100 years for this. It’s certainly on my Christmas list, and if you have anyone to buy for who also loves satire, literary icons, cultural relevance, and general curmudgeon-ry, this is the perfect gift for them too.

Life by Keith Richards and Just Kids by Patti Smith are also top nonfiction picks for the music fan on your list.

Sci-Fi and/or Fantasy:
The Fall by Guillermo Del Toro and Chuck Hogan. This is Book 2 of The Strain trilogy. I’m currently reading it and it is just as scary and exciting as the first. The Strain is a lot like the other major grown-up vampire novel this year, The Passage, but to me, The Passage just couldn’t hold my attention enough for this type of novel. Del Toro and Hogan have similar “viral” vampires and a diverse cast of characters, but, to me, they just get the genre in a way that makes their series work better.

Mockingjay and/or a Hunger Games boxed set by Suzanne Collins. That’s right. I took this out of the YA recommendations. 

Faithful Place by Tana French. I know I recommended her other two books last year, but she came out with a new one in 2010, so I must continue my personal mission of making everyone in the world a Tana French fan. She is simply fantastic and takes the mystery genre to a place that reaches far beyond that aisle in the supermarket.

** Curtis Brown promo alert ** Rock Paper Tiger by Lisa Brackman, who was formerly repped by our dearly departed Nathan Bransford, but still a proud member of the CB family. Rock Paper Tiger has a kickass heroine, an exotic setting, and a pace that’s head-spinningly fast (in a good way).

Young Adult:
The Duff by Kody Keplinger. Kody is a friend-o’-blog, but even if she wasn’t, The Duff is still one of the most refreshing pieces of realistic YA to come out in a while. Bianca, the main character, is the “duff” of her friends (designated ugly fat friend) and through that label, she becomes one of the strongest female characters to hit the YA shelves this year.

And for the fan of the paranormal:
Matched by Ally Condie. Get ready, this book comes out tomorrow! Much-hyped and even featured in Entertainment Weekly, who always give YA the respect it deserves, Matched is being compared to 1984, The Giver, and Never Let Me Go. Set in a “perfect” society, Cassia begins to think for herself and questions the nature of her world.

** Curtis Brown promo alert ** Shade by Jeri Smith-Ready. I recommended her two adult novels last year, but Jeri published her first YA this year and it is just plain fantastic. Aura is a teenager who can see and speak to ghosts, which isn’t exactly weird since everyone else her age and younger can too. When her boyfriend, Logan, dies, and she meets the hot! new boy, Zach, she’s trapped in a love triangle with the ghost she loves and the living boy who can help her unlock the secret of her generation’s abilities.

Picture Book:
OK, you got me. I’m not a fan of picture books. Or rather, I don’t have the appropriate expertise in knowing good vs. bad picture books. But, buying Of Thee I Sing, Barack Obama’s picture book for his daughters, just might stimulate the economy.

There were a ton of great books published this year and it’s impossible for me to list them all. Hopefully these remind you of what’s been celebrated (with good reason!) this year and lead you in the right direction.

Happy shopping season! And – your annual reminder – books make great gifts, but they make even better gifts when they’re bought at your local indie bookstore. Or at a Borders, which is basically an indie at this point. Sigh.

Black Monday

Now that Thanksgiving is over, it is time to think about Christmas shopping. I know some blogs (like Moonrat’s) have already started their gift-giving guides, but I just couldn’t bring myself to think about such things pre-Thanksgiving. Obviously, the best gifts you can give someone are not those from fancy department stores or even those you make yourself out of the kindness of your hearts. They are BOOKS!

In case you are at a loss of what to buy, here are some suggestions by genre that I hope will help/influence:

Nonfiction: Eating the Dinosaur by Chuck Klosterman. Klosterman is best known for his spot-on commentary on pop culture. Last year he ventured into fiction territory with Downtown Owl, but now he’s back with a new collection of essays that makes me very excited. If you like debating whether Barack Obama is the best spokesperson this country has ever seen, or how ABBA and AC/DC really aren’t all that different, then this book might make you excited too.

Literary Fiction: Juliet, Naked by Nick Hornby. In true Hornby style, this book has musical obsessions, mid-life crises, and emotionally stunted characters. I admit I wasn’t a huge fan of Hornby’s past couple novels, but this book is definitely back in the same league as High Fidelity and About a Boy. I also want to give a shout out to Sag Harbor by Colson Whitehead, which has been on my “I know I will love this!” list all year.

Sci-Fi/Fantasy: Wicked Game and Bad to the Bone by Jeri Smith-Ready (for your vampire needs, and for your VAMPIRE DEEJAY needs!) OK, I know. We’re all vamped out. But these vamps are not sparkly, nor do these books feature a mousy damsel just waiting for a purpose when suddenly a brooding, sexy vampire walks into her life. Smith-Ready’s heroine is a con artist who runs a radio station and her deejays are vampires who only play music that was popular when they “turned.” Let’s face it: vampires are, and always will be, awesome. And these books are a welcome change in the my-boyfriend-is-a-high-school-[insert something supernatural here] trend that won’t go away.

Mystery/Thriller: In the Woods and The Likeness by Tana French, and The Sookie Stackhouse Mysteries (yes, more vampires) by Charlaine Harris. French and Harris write mysteries in that their books open with crimes and end with culprits. But what happens in between isn’t just a set of clues routinely found by some down-and-out cop or young, handsome detective. They create wonderfully complex and interesting characters, strong female leads, and plots that keep you hooked.

Children/YA: Lips Touch Three Times by Laini Taylor. This book for young teens features three fairy tale novellas, each dealing with the simultaneous excitement, pain, beauty, and consequences of a first kiss. For those less fantasy-inclined, Love, Aubrey by Suzanne LaFleur is heartbreakingly real. In it, eleven-year-old, Aubrey, copes with the deaths of her father and sister, and the absence of her mentally unstable mother, in this novel written in a series of letters.

Cookbook: The Pleasures of Cooking for One by Judith Jones. This book was written for people like me who, when left to my own devices, think nothing of microwaving some popcorn or licking a spoon clean of peanut butter and calling it dinner. I love the title and its subtle empowerment for single people. It could also be a great gift for couples. What’s sexier than competing over who prepares their single serving first? Loser does the dishes.

Comics: OK, I’ll admit I’m not that into comics or graphic novels (I only support those written by or associated with Joss Whedon), so I may not be the best person to take gift suggestions from. However, one webcomic that I read daily is Dinosaur Comics, which to me is what greatness looks like. Lo and behold, its creator, Ryan North, put out a tangible “best of” collection, appropriately titled, The Best of Dinosaur Comics: 2003-2005 A.D. Amazon’s author bio simply reads: “Ryan North is awesome, all the time.” So true.

If I’ve missed any genres, it means I probably don’t read them enough to have real suggestions, and therefore don’t want to mislead you. However, Publisher’s Weekly has a pretty comprehensive list if you’re so inclined.

So Happy Shopping everyone! And remember – buying books says you love, but buying books from your local independent bookstore says you care.