Every December, Icelanders celebrate the holidays—and their love of books—with a “book flood.” This year, we’re bringing Jólabókaflóð to American living rooms with our favorite literary gifts!
Who’s excited about estimating their older sister’s sweater size, or playing the odds on whether or not their little brother will decide to start wearing ties this year? Nobody? Yeah, we thought so. For every family gift that seems like a home run, there’s another that will go straight to the back of the closet until you visit. (Real talk: They’re often the same thing.) Skip the mall and put a bow on something that’s a perfect fit for your sib’s brain. Our recommended books for siblings will make you the star this holiday season. Trust us, your brother or sister have already figured out clothes and knickknacks for themselves.
- Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie
In Sophocles’ ancient tragedy, Antigone dooms herself by defying her father’s royal decree that her brother is not to be buried or mourned. In Kamila Shamsie’s contemporary take on the tale, Antigone is Aneeka, a young Pakistani Londoner who seems to have the chance to escape her family’s bloody past. Not so fast: Aneeka’s twin brother, Parvaiz, makes the disastrous decision to join ISIS on the other side of the world, and it falls to her to get him home. She has an affair with the son of Britain’s home secretary, whose family is also of Muslim descent: Might their love, if it is love, and his powerful connections redeem both of their families? There’s black humor in Home Fire’s modern darkness: Aneeka’s older sister is interrogated in its opening scene for “GWM”—“Googling While Muslim”—and questioned on everything from suicide bombers to “The Great British Bake Off.” These characters are both allegorical and irrepressibly human, and Shamsie’s comedy and tragedy alike are unforgettable.
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- Artemis by Andy Weir
Duct-tape resourcefulness is back in Andy Weir’s follow up to The Martian, but it’s deployed rather differently this time around. For one thing, this near-future novel is set on the moon, where Artemis—the first lunar city—has a population of 2,000. (No solo potato-farming here; most people eat an algae derivative.) For another, its main character is Jazz Bashara. She’s not a plucky scientist, but a Saudi Arabian smuggler with decidedly criminal intent—life on the moon isn’t easy, alright? Going toe-to-toe with well-heeled tourists and billionaires isn’t possible unless you dabble in the occasional spectacular space heist. Rosario Dawson, who voices Jazz in the audio version of Artemis, calls her “super MacGyver,” and as to what she pieces together in pursuit of the so-called “perfect score,” well: One might say sticking around pays off.
- The Good Daughter by Karin Slaughter
Karin Slaughter spells out precisely, and painfully, how dysfunction and violence shape both perpetrators and their victims. Her latest tale hopscotches between the savage past—when small-town Georgia teenagers Charlie and Sam Quinn lost their mother in a brutal home invasion and a bullet in her brain left Sam for dead—and the present, as their defense-attorney father summons them home to help him exonerate a young client. Charlie and Sam have survived apart because their shared trauma is too terrible to revisit; is the price of going home, even for a noble cause, too high? “The sisters are like two kids fighting in the back seat of a family car well into adulthood,” as a Washington Post reviewer put it, “and it’s lovely to see the hate part of their love-hate for each other eventually erode away.” This dark, daring family reunion is unmissable.
- Half Baked Harvest Cookbook by Tieghan Gerard
When your folks seem to be taking their sweet time to feed you and your six siblings, well, you’ve got to take matters into your own hands. As a ravenous 15-year-old, Tieghan Gerard did just that (“Screw it! You guys are so annoying and I’m over it. I’m making my own freaking dinner!”). She’s grown into a food photographer, stylist, and blogger with millions of fans; today, she blends stories of her girlhood in the Colorado mountains with present-day musings from her barn-slash-test-kitchen, and tried-and-true comfort-food formulas with unexpected guest stars (French onion soup with Guinness and Irish soda? Yes, please). Her gorgeous images and personal asides welcome busy cooks to her rural home, and her recipes get dinner to the table with time to spare.
- How to Behave in a Crowd by Camille Bordas
Isidore, the youngest member of the Mazal clan, is a mortal among semi-superheroes: He hasn’t skipped any grades like his brilliant brothers and sisters, but they are blind to the practical and interpersonal nuances of the world around them. “You’re all so intolerant,” their mother complains. “You only look up from your books to criticize the rest of the world.” When Izzy’s distant father dies, Izzy is the only family member who can acknowledge their shared grief. If he can set aside his constant, cockeyed attempts to run away from home (in hindsight, attempting to reach Italy by crossing the Alps on a bicycle is ill-advised), he could be the first Mazal to figure out how to balance thinking and feeling. That talent, as it happens, is the one that can actually save the world.
- Avedon: Something Personal by Norma Stevens and Steven M.L. Aronson
Richard Avedon’s six decades of professional lensmanship—his advertising work, his fashion photographs, and his unforgettable portraits of ‘everyone who was anyone’—made him and his camera one of the most influential duos of the twentieth century. His own life, on the other hand, was decidedly shuttered—until now. In a vast montage of personal recollections, biographical revelations, and interviews, his longtime business partner and confidante Norma Stevens and her co-author Steven M.L. Aronson focus on details of his life, including his failed marriages and hush-hush affairs, that most of us have never seen. Would the late, great photographer recoil at these intimate snapshots? Stevens recalls that Avedon encouraged her to one day tell the truth about his life; in revealing her subject’s unknown contours, she offers us a portrait he would have appreciated.
- Why We Don’t Suck by Dr. Denis Leary
On the surface, Denis Leary’s new title seems an unlikely successor to 2008’s Why We Suck; have we really evolved so far in the last decade? That’s where his tough-love subtitle—And How All of Us Need to Stop Being Such Partisan Little Bitches—comes in. His post-Trump volume takes aim at posturers on both ends of the political spectrum and introduces the Gray Lives Matter movement: In our polarized climate of Right Wing Nut Jobs versus Left Wing Snowflakes, we’ve neglected to leave room for nuanced viewpoints (which is what most of us have, when we’re not shrieking at our televisions and social-media followers). Leary also vows to Make America Laugh Again by addressing burning issues such as ‘the seemingly endless search for fame and diet vodka.’ He’s just the man to stand up and make us all smell the covfefe.
- The Far Away Brothers by Lauren Markham
El Salvadoran twins Raúl and Ernesto Flores have very different feelings about the United States: While Raul has never been tempted to go north, Ernesto is fixated on all things American. Both brothers find themselves forced to emigrate after Ernesto falls afoul of his home country’s gangs, and as unaccompanied minors, they find their way to their estranged brother’s home in Oakland. Journalist Lauren Markham has an MFA in fiction, but her characters aren’t acting out a parable: These young boys are real, and the hardships they face as they struggle to build new lives for themselves in an often-unwelcoming host country put two human faces on what our national policies mean for people who have nowhere else to go. As fellow journalist Rebecca Solnit puts it, “Anyone who wants to understand more deeply how we got here and why we need to keep going until we get someplace better should dive into this book.”
- Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
Throw Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and the Matrix trilogy into a blender, pour the resulting mashup into a video arcade, then chug a fluorescent energy drink (or four) of your choice, and you’ll be in the proper frame of mind for Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One, a dystopian sci-fi adventure that doubles as a love letter to ‘80s geekdom. (Unsurprisingly, the novel sparked an instant bidding war for film rights: Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of the story hits movie theaters in March.) Offline, Wade Watts lives in a teetering tower of trailer homes with his aunt; in OASIS, a virtual role-playing game so omnipresent that its currency is more stable than the “real” stuff, he’s on the hunt for an Easter egg the game’s late creator, James Halliday, hid in his masterpiece. Why overdose on pop culture just to master OASIS? Because the first gamer to crack Halliday’s code will inherit his fortune. For Cline’s readers, as for Wade, knowing your trivia pays off big time.
- The Woman Who Smashed Codes by Jason Fagone
Readers who pick up Jason Fagone’s Elizabeth Smith Friedman biography can be forgiven for assuming it’s a Stieg Larsson homage: Friedman’s heroic brilliance is not unlike Lisbeth Salander’s in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. The difference, of course, is that she was flesh and blood. Like the trio of female mathematicians who helped NASA launch John Glenn into space (and received long-overdue attention in Margot Lee Shetterly’s Hidden Figures), she was invaluable, and often invisible, to her country. In 1916, she was hired as a 23-year-old poet to find secret messages in Shakespeare; within the year, she had joined a wartime code-breaking team that led to her marriage to cryptologist William Friedman and sparked a remarkable career of demolishing Prohibition smuggling rings, disrupting Nazi communications in World War II, and foiling the German campaign in South America. Friedman was matter-of-fact about her expertise: “Men from the government keep showing up on my doorstep,” she said, “and the only way to solve it is to say yes and fix these puzzles.” Get ready to meet the mother of American cryptography. You won’t soon forget her.
Featured image: Elsa Jenna