Book Recommendations for Your Holiday Shopping

Been a while since I’ve done book reviews, and since it’s early December, seems like a good time for some gift recommendations.

If you’re looking for gift suggestions for teens (or if you like YA yourself) check out these:

The Court of Five Series by Kate Elliott

This is a three-book fantasy YA series, the first book (Court of Fives) released in 2015. The other two books are Poisoned Blade and Buried Heart, the last one released this year.

Best way I can think of to describe them: The Hunger Games meets Game of Thrones set in an ancient Egyptian-inspired fantasy world. The Fives is a game with an ever-changing obstacle course that requires competitors with both athletic strength and cunning. Jessamy is a young girl who has a “Patron” father and “Commoner” mother, who are forbidden by law to marry. She loves the Fives but her father does not approve of her competing in them. The family is torn apart when the father’s sponsor dies, leaving huge debts. This death touches off not only personal struggle within the family, but a struggle for power within the ruling class.

THESE. BOOKS. ARE. FANTASTIC. They should be way, way more popular than they are. It takes a little while for the story to get rolling in the first book (lots of world building, as is usual with most fantasy books) but when it does, it really rolls! Jess is now one of my all-time favorite heroines. She is brave and smart and motivated by love for her family. I like that the books are not too dominated by the romantic plot. The familial relationships are just as important and very complex. I also like that the magical elements don’t dominate too much.

Get these books, you will not be sorry.

Forest of a Thousand Lanterns: Rise of the Empress by Julie C. Dao

This is another fantasy book set in an East Asian-inspired fantasy world. A retelling of the Snow White fairy tale, it focuses on the stepmother/evil witch character. This first book of the planned series is subtitled “Rise of the Empress” and that’s exactly what it’s about: how a lowly peasant girl with magical abilities schemes to become Empress, which she has been told from childhood is her destiny.

The protagonist is something rather rare in both YA and adult fiction: an honest-to-gosh anti-heroine. It is easy to initially feel empathy for Xifeng, who lives with an abusive aunt who forbids her to see the man she loves. As she is consumed with ambition, her character becomes more and more ruthless.

We’re so used to the Disneyfied fairy tales nowadays that we forget the originals were actually very dark. This book taps into the darkness of the original and makes it something that feels fresh and original. Very excited to read the next book!

The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzi Lee

This YA historical fiction novel is both hilarious and an exciting adventure. A young bisexual 18th century English lord named Henry Montague is forced by his father to do on a Grand Tour of the continent. A rapscallion of the first order, he is secretly in love with his friend Percy. Also on the tour is Henry’s bluestocking sister, Felicity, who is no more comfortable with her rank in life than Henry. The three embark on an adventure that includes encounters with highwaymen, carnies, pirates, and alchemists.

This book is SO much fun! Henry is a lovable rogue you can’t help but root for even as he’s causing one disaster after another. The character’s voice is superbly rendered by Lee—I was continually cracking up at his caustic and witty observations. (If you listen to audio books, get this one on audio for sure—the narrator Christian Coulson is brilliant.) Underneath the fun are important observations about racism, ableism, and sexism.

Lee is currently working on a book with Felicity as the main character. I anticipate another clever adventure with some serious subtext.

Invictus by Ryan Graudin

I was sold on this book because it was described as a YA time-travelling version of the TV series Firefly. It mostly delivers on that description. The hero Farway Gaius McCarthy was literally born outside of time to a time-traveling mother and Roman gladiator father. Anxious to follow in his mother’s footsteps, he is crushed when he fails his final time-traveling exam and is forbidden to become a Recorder. Forced instead to work for an underworld figure who uses time travel to loot artifacts from the past, Far cobbles together a team from his friends and classmates so they can pull off heists.

This is another fun book with some serious undertones. If you like Firefly, Dr. Who, and/or Guardians of the Galaxy, you will probably enjoy the heck out of it. There are some pretty neat twists to the plot and genuine emotion to the relationships.

YES, I also read books for adults. Here are some good ones for your TBR or holiday gift list:

A Column of Fire by Ken Follett

This is the third book in Ken Follett’s Kingsbridge series of historical novels. You do not have to have read the first two books in the series; each one works just fine as a stand-alone book. (However, the other two books, Pillars of the Earth and World Without End are awesome, so you should read those, too.)

Like the previous books, it takes place mostly in the fictional English town of Kingsbridge, this time during the tumultuous period beginning with the reign of Mary Tudor (“Bloody Mary”) and ending with the close of her sister Elizabeth I’s reign. It focuses on the conflicts between the Roman Catholics and Protestants. Part of it also takes place in France, chronicling the oppression of the Protestant Huguenots.

Follett is a genius at weaving complex, compelling characters with suspense and historical fact, and this book is no exception. One thing I adore about his books is his women characters are just as important and interesting as the male characters. If you love historical fiction, I am certain you will love these books.

Departure by A.G. Riddle

This one was on sale on Audible and sold me because its premise is very similar to the TV show Lost: a plane crashes in the middle of England and the surviving passengers find nothing is as it seems.

I can’t endorse this book as strongly as the others on this list, because in spite of the great premise, the characters (several of whom get point of view chapters) are a little on the generic side.

Other than that, though, this is a mostly enjoyable tale. If you’re looking for a quick, light read you can’t go wrong here.

Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Caroline Fraser

I don’t read a lot of non-fiction, but when someone on Twitter started live-tweeting about this book as she read it, I had to get it.

First, a warning: if you are a devoted fan of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books, prepare to be a bit disillusioned.

This book strips away the myths about the Ingalls and Wilder families. The triumphant portrait of self-reliant pioneers, personified by the Ingalls family in the Little House books, is mostly false.

The first part of the book traces the Ingalls and Wilder families since their first known appearance on the North American continent. What emerges is a dark portrait of Manifest Destiny, as the Homestead Act strips land from Native Americans, with pioneers blithely moving into their existing homes while they are away hunting (yes, the Ingalls did this at one point). Farmers suffer environmental disaster after disaster, in a never-ending pattern of failure to make their farms pay. Moving from place to place, still hoping to succeed after each failure, the Ingalls and others like them never achieve their dream of self-sufficiency, having to send their young children out to work so they can survive. On top of this, misuse of the land across the American prairie touches off world-wide environmental catastrophes.

The second part of the book chronicles Wilder and her daughter Rose Wilder Lane as they collaborate (Lane was her mother’s editor) to make the dark and sometimes tragic story into something acceptable for the juvenile audience. It was Lane, one of the founders of the Libertarian movement, who helped her mother shape her childhood memories into an idealized portrait of pioneer self-reliance.

Fraser drew on manuscripts, letters, diaries, census and financial records to give a much more accurate portrayal of both the pioneers of the 19th century and Wilder herself.

One of the best biographies I have ever read. If you want to put Wilder’s books into their proper context, it’s a must-read.

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4 thoughts on “Book Recommendations for Your Holiday Shopping

  1. OMG what an awesome blog post! And here I was feeling bereft of fantasy to read. Thank you so much. I realize this is supposed to help me find books for friends as presents but I’m just going to read them myself! hahah

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