Book Recommendations for Your Holiday Shopping 2018

If you have some last-minute shopping to do for the holidays, I am happy to recommend the following books for the teens (or YA-loving adult readers) on your list:

The Belles by Dhonielle Clayton:

Set in a fantasy world based on antebellum New Orleans, young women known as Belles are blessed (cursed?) with the ability to magically modify other people’s appearances. Every Belle, especially protagonist Camellia, aspires to become the Royal Favorite. In a case of be careful of what you wish for, Camellia finds herself the Favorite—and discovering many disturbing things about the royals and the world she lives in.

This is a lush, sensual tale with many spot-on observations about the commodification of women’s bodies, the use of slave labor to maintain a ruling class, and how we learn to rationalize these things as normal and even desirable. A knock-out on every level and highly recommended.

Dread Nation by Justina Ireland:

Two days after the Battle of Gettysburg, corpses begin walking off the battlefield, bringing a quick end to the Civil War and changing the course of American History. The slaves are “freed” in the aftermath, but young ex-slaves are tapped to become “Attendants”—protectors of upper-class white women. Young Jane, the daughter of a white woman who was never technically enslaved, is nevertheless sent to combat school to become an attendant. Longing to return to her home in Kentucky, Jane is caught up in a conspiracy when some prominent members of Baltimore society go missing.

I love alternate history stories, I love fantasy. Dread Nation is a superlative mash-up of the two genres. Jane is an amazing heroine. Dread Nation has quite a bit to say about the history of race in America while being a total a kick-butt zombie tale.

The Ladies Guide to Petticoats and Piracy by Mackenzi Lee:

The follow-up book to Lee’s The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue, this book isn’t QUITE the same kind of slam-dunk as its predecessor. Focusing on the sister of the first book’s protagonist, Felicity Montague, it concerns her determination to become a doctor even though her society will do everything it can to stop her.

Although I didn’t find Felicity nearly as captivating a character as her brother Monty, the book is still an enjoyable romp, with just a touch of the supernatural to make it even more interesting. Both books would make a nice set to give as a gift.

Kingdom of the Blazing Phoenix by Julie C. Dao:

This another sequel, this one to last year’s The Forest of a Thousand Lanterns. A retelling of the Snow White tale set in an eastern Asian fantasy world, Book 2 leaves the point of view of the stepmother character, Xifeng, now a despotic Empress who keeps her power and beauty by consuming the hearts of young women. This book is her stepdaughter Jade’s story, who is pursued across the various lands of the Empire by the minions of her stepmother. Jade, who wants nothing to do with power, must nevertheless find a way to stop Xifeng and bring back justice and peace to the land.

This is a brilliant conclusion to the story started in the first book—the ways it parallels the original fairy tale are intriguing, yet it almost feels like an entirely different story at times. This is another good set to give as a gift.

Pride by Ibi Zoboi:

I love me a good Jane Austen retelling, and this is a very, very good one. The Benitez family loves their Brooklyn neighborhood, but are appalled at the creeping gentrification that threatens to push them out. Daughter Zuri resents the wealthy Darcy family that moves in across the street and especially doesn’t want to have anything to do with their son Darius.

The success/failure of Austen retellings often hinges on understanding how much of her stories are based in class and privilege. Updating Pride & Prejudice to modern-day Brooklyn is a stroke of genius by Zoboi. Brooklyn becomes a stand-in for the Bennet home Longbourn, which will be lost to the sisters because of an entailment. The Benitez girls face losing the Brooklyn they love to gentrification. Add to that snappy dialogue and a not-too-sentimental love story, and you have a worthy retelling of a classic book.

Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi:

This is set to be the first of what promises to be an exceptional fantasy series. Set in an African fantasy world, Nigerian-American writer Adeyemi creates a captivating story of lost magic and Game of Thrones-like power struggles.

One of the things that keeps me from getting into some fantasy series is the worldbuilding can be confusing and distracting. Adeyemi creates a remarkably complex world without ever missing a beat of her story.

Here are some adult books you can add to your list as well:

The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal:

An alternate history/sci-fi mash-up that has the 20th Century timeline disrupted by a devastating meteor strike during the 1950s. Causing a long, slow march to an apocalyptic outcome for humans on Earth, it accelerates the space program, with the idea of sending humans to eventually settle on Mars.

Elma York, a pilot and brilliant mathematician, works on the preliminary project to put a man on the moon, but soon begins to wonder why she and other women can’t also go into space.

This novel is actually a prequel to a novelette Kowal wrote about a lady astronaut on Mars. The book (more are planned) traces how she got there, and how she had to fight sexism and racism to get women from all walks of life included in the space program. Very enjoyable and thoughtful book.

Fire and Blood: 300 Years Before Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin:

Yes, yes, many of us are very anxious to get the final two books (not to mention the delayed final season) in the Game of Thrones/A Song of Ice and Fire series. In the meantime, you can satisfy your hunger with this book that traces the Targaryen rulers from Aegon the Conqueror on.

The book is chock full of everything we expect from this series: political power plays, wars, betrayals, despotism, well-meaning but ultimately failed heroism, and dragons.

Lots and lots of dragons.

My only quibble? The Targaryen line is so full of brother/sister or other relative/relative marriages with similar names that it can be a little difficult to sort out who is who and who is out to get who.

Other than that, another great dragon ride from Martin. Now get back to working on The Winds of Winter, sir.


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