Book reviews: 40 new books for holiday gifts in 2020
Perfect for social distancing yet conducive of shared experiences, books are keeping some of us sane during the long pandemic.
But if you’re thinking of giving a few as gifts this holiday season, the professionals recommend buying early. “November is the new December,” an American Booksellers Association marketing slogan declares. Capacity issues at major book-printing companies have delayed reprinting of many titles that have taken off.
For your gift-giving and self-gifting pleasure, here is a varied selection of 40 books to choose from, including a subset of choices for children and teens. In general, I picked books published since June. In each case, I’ve either read the book already or browsed it, or been impressed by a previous work from the same author, or had the new book recommended by a trusted source of information.
Thanks to colleague Chris Foran for some of the pop-culture book selections.
“African American Poetry: 250 Years of Struggle & Song” (Library of America), edited by Kevin Young. The giants are well represented in this enormous collection, including Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks, Lucille Clifton, Rita Dove and Natasha Tretheway. But so are more than 200 other poets worthy of wider recognition.
“And in the End: The Last Days of the Beatles” (Thomas Dunne Books) by Ken McNab. In 1969, the Beatles made two albums (“Abbey Road” and “Let It Be”), got married (John Lennon and Paul McCartney, not to each other), held bed-in protests (John), refuted rumors of their death (Paul), started recording solo records (all four of them) - and broke up for good. In this entertaining chronology, McNab reconstructs the Fab Four’s less-than-fab year, revealing the agony amid the artistry.
“Big Girl, Small Town” (Algonquin) by Michelle Gallen. Majella, 27, works in a chip shop in a Northern Ireland border town in the aftermath of The Troubles. She’s bright, earthy and funny - and also on the autism spectrum, though that word is never mentioned in this brilliant comic novel. Publishes Dec. 1.
“Black Sun” (Saga) by Rebecca Roanhorse. A powerful epic fantasy of magic and warring matriarchies, inspired by indigenous North and Central American civilizations. Roanhorse previously won both the Hugo and Nebula Awards for her story “Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience™.”
“Cary Grant: A Brilliant Disguise” (Simon & Schuster) by Scott Eyman. This exhaustively researched and engagingly written biography crafts a revealing portrait of the Hollywood legend, showing how he painstakingly invented himself and worked hard, and charmingly, to cover his tracks.
“Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents” (Random House) by Isabel Wilkerson. In this wide-ranging book, the author of “The Warmth of Other Suns” describes how people were (and are) slotted into social and racial hierarchies in the U.S., India and Nazi Germany - and punished or killed for trying to disrupt those hierarchies.
“Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey” (Penguin) by Kathleen Rooney. A carrier pigeon and a gay American Army officer, both based on real beings, alternate in describing the horrors of fighting in World War I. Respect for animals and their experiences is a powerful thread throughout the novel.
“Fauci” (Pushkin Industries) by Michael Specter. An audiobook-only biography of Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, whose effort to curb the COVID-19 pandemic often includes working around President Donald Trump. New Yorker writer Specter, who narrates, combines new interviews and archival audio in reminding us of Fauci’s earlier public role in the AIDS crisis.
“Guerrilla Girls: The Art of Behaving Badly” (Chronicle Books). A visual history of the brilliant activists who have challenged the white male hegemony of the art world since 1985.
“Homeland Elegies” (Little, Brown) by Ayad Akhtar. A hard-hitting, semi-autobiographical novel from the Brookfield Central grad and Pulitzer Prize winner, about the unease of being a brown Muslim in the U.S. after Sept. 11, and about the destructive power of unfettered capitalism.
“How to Write One Song” (Dutton) by Jeff Tweedy. The leader of the band Wilco gives friendly advice and encouragement to people who want to write songs. “Each song and each act of creativity, indeed, is an act of defiance in a world that often feels determined to destroy itself,” Tweedy writes.
“Is This Anything?” (Simon & Schuster) by Jerry Seinfeld. Instead of laying out his five-decade career in comedy, Seinfeld shares 50 years of his jokes, showing how his humor has and hasn’t changed over time.
“The Islander: Coming of Age in the Apostle Islands” (The Echo) by Bob Dahl. Dahl grew up in a fishing family on Sand Island, one of the remote Apostles. His gentle memoir shares photos and lore of this unique environment. It includes recipes, too. “The Islander” can be ordered via theislander.store.
“Kent State: Four Dead in Ohio” (Abrams ComicArts), written and illustrated by Derf Backderf. In his visual retelling of an American tragedy, Backderf brings the four unarmed students killed by National Guardsmen back to life, while also detailing the difficult conditions the Guard was placed in.
“The King of Confidence: A Tale of Utopian Dreamers, Frontier Schemers, The Believers, False Prophets, and the Murder of an American Monarch” (Little, Brown) by Miles Harvey. Con man James Jesse Strang (1813-1856) led a breakaway Mormon group in Wisconsin before declaring himself king of a religious monarchy on Beaver Island, Mich. Just to be clear, this is nonfiction, folks.
“Lincoln Among the Badgers: Rediscovering Sites Associated with Abraham and Mary Lincoln in Wisconsin” (Sheboygan County Historical Research Center) by Steven K. Rogstad. Historian Rogstad explores the Lincolns’ trips to Wisconsin, the many monuments to the president there and the stories of Wisconsinites who had memorable interactions with him.
“Made Men: The Story of GoodFellas” (Hanover Square Press) by Glenn Kenny. There may not be a movie with a more devoted following than Martin Scorsese’s 1990 mob epic. Kenny expertly relates the tale of the making of “GoodFellas,” through interviews, archival material and his own encyclopedic study of the movie.
“Mantel Pieces: Royal Bodies and Other Writing From the London Review of Books” (Fourth Estate) by Hilary Mantel. Smart historical, literary and cultural essays by the Booker Prize-winning novelist of “Wolf Hall” and “Bring Up the Bodies,” with subjects from the early Tudors to “Britain’s Last Witch” to Kate Middleton.
“The Neil Gaiman Reader: Selected Fiction” (William Morrow). More than 50 stories and novel excerpts from the great fantasist (“American Gods,” “Anansi Boys”), including two of the best Sherlock Holmes stories not written by Arthur Conan Doyle, “A Study in Emerald” and “The Case of Death and Honey.”
“The Nolan Variations: Movies, Mysteries and Marvels of Christopher Nolan” (Knopf), by Tom Shone. This book is about as close to a Rosetta Stone to filmmaker Nolan’s work as you’re going to find. Filmmaker Nolan takes Shone on a deep dive into each of his movies, explaining the influences and intricacies of everything from his early short films to the “Dark Knight” trilogy to “Tenet.”
“One Life” (Penguin Press) by Megan Rapinoe with Emma Brockes. She’s packed a lot into 35 years: a beloved older brother in prison, World Cup soccer stardom, coming out as a lesbian, being the first high-profile white athlete to support Colin Kaepernick’s protest by kneeling on a playing field. Rapinoe talks about it all, frankly.
“The Only Good Indians” (Saga) by Stephen Graham Jones. Four friends from the Blackfeet nation are haunted by an elk-shaped demon in Jones’ literary horror novel.
“150 Glimpses of the Beatles” (FSG) by Craig Brown. Many of the glimpses are from people, famous and humble, who interacted with the Fab Four during their remarkable and chaotic life as a band.
“The Secret Lives of Church Ladies” (West Virginia University Press) by Deesha Philyaw. In this wonderful collection of short stories, Black women and teens wrestle with their desires and chafe against the ties of church and family that bind them.
“Star Trek: The Wisdom of Picard” (Adams Media/Simon & Schuster), edited by Chip Carter. Looking for a voice of reason in these troubled times? This collection of greatest quips from Jean-Luc Picard, captain of the Enterprise in the “Next Generation” universe, gives you some words to lean on.
“The Stillness of Winter: Sacred Blessings of the Season” (Abingdon) by Barbara Mahany. Marquette alumna Mahany, a former pediatric oncology nurse turned spiritual writer, finds both wonder and inner sustenance in the dark, cold months. This small book is like going on retreat with her.
“The Thursday Murder Club” (Penguin) by Richard Osman. A lively and often humorous debut novel from a British television presenter, about four friends in a quiet retirement home who go from pondering cold cases to solving an actual murder. An engaging read, but also a book with enormous respect for older people.
“Transcendent Kingdom” (Knopf) by Yaa Gyasi. In this novel, a Black neuroscientist studies the brains of lab mice in the hope of understanding addiction and depression, which have ravaged her family. From the author of “Homegoing.”
“Unconquerable Sun” (Tor) by Kate Elliott. An exciting space opera that’s also a gender-switched version of the Alexander the Great story, with women as powerful warrior leaders.
“You Had Me at Hola” (Avon) by Alexa Daria. In this romantic comedy, the two stars of a new streaming telenovela are working very hard, for good reasons, not to fall in love with each other.
For children and teens
“Elevator Bird” (Knopf), written and illustrated by Sarah Williamson. Everyone who works at The Hotel is a gracious animal, from manager Mr. Rumpley (lion) to maintenance guy Raffi (giraffe) to restaurant host Ally (pink flamingo) to Elevator Bird, a little lavender fellow who takes guests up and down to their rooms. Elevator Bird lives in a cramped basement, but when his friend Mousey hears him wish for someplace airier, his friends swing into action. A sweet story with many details to look at. For ages 4-7 years old.
“The Oboe Goes Boom Boom Boom” (Greenwillow) by Colleen AF Venable, illustrated by Lian Cho. As a bandleader tries to introduce various instruments to children who have just joined, he gets a little too much help from a bass drummer in this humorous picture book. For readers 4-8 years old.
“Our Little Kitchen” (Abrams) by Jillian Tamaki. Volunteers of different colors and ages assemble in a community kitchen to make a weekly dinner for their neighbors and schmooze with each other. Recipes, too. For readers 4 years and older.
“Alone in the Woods” (Sourcebooks Young Readers) by Rebecca Behrens. Two girls in conflict on a family vacation become stranded deep in the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest with only each other to rely on in this adventure novel for readers 8 and older.
“Skunk and Badger” (Algonquin Young Readers) by Amy Timberlake, illustrated by Jon Klassen. A warmhearted odd-couple story about an unlikely pair of roommates. Kids who liked the Frog and Toad stories, for example, might enjoy this one. For readers ages 8-12.
“Class Act” (Quill Tree), written and illustrated by Jerry Craft. Newbery Medal winner Craft (“New Kid”) returns with a rich graphic novel about a pair of Black eighth-graders, Jordan and Drew, navigating life in an elite school, including friendship with a rich white classmate. For readers ages 9-14.
“Before the Ever After” (Nancy Paulsen Books) by Jacqueline Woodson. Set in the early 2000s. A Black tween and his family grapple with changes happening to Dad, a famous football player suffering with a brain injury from concussions. For readers ages 10-14.
“The Enigma Game” (Hyperion) by Elizabeth Wein. In this historical novel, three teens, one a British flight leader, connect in World War II over the discovery of an Enigma coding machine - a discovery that puts everyone in danger. For readers 12 and older.
“The Left-Handed Booksellers of London” (Katherine Tegen Books) by Garth Nix. In Nix’s witty Young Adult fantasy, punkish Susan in ‘80s London learns that booksellers secretly protect our world from evil magic, and they need her help. For readers 12 and older.
“Finding My Voice” (Soho Teen) by Marie Myung-Ok Lee. A reissue of Lee’s 1992 coming-of-age novel about Ellen, a Korean-American teen, who learns to assert herself while coping with a strict father and racism in her mostly white school. For readers 14 and older.
Contact Jim Higgins at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @jhiggy.