Last minute gift suggestions & 2020 favorite reads

I originally started this post at the end of November, when I foolishly thought I could write blog posts and also finish my NaNoWriMo project. One of those things happened. And then December hit, and let’s just say the last 21 days have gone by much like the rest of 2020 – in a blazing, creeping pace.

I’d started with this message about supporting independent bookstores rather than behemoth monsters:

The best way to support the economy and your neighbors is to shop local independent stores this year rather than giant corporations like Amazon. This is true every year, but this year your neighborhoods are in dire need of support due to the pandemic. Amazon is in dire need of nothing other than some employment practices reform.

I won’t start down that path. What I will do is highlight what’s on my gift-giving list this year.

And then I went on list this:

It will surprise no one who knows me to find out that I am once again giving the gift of escaping into a good book for the holidays. This year, I’m making all my book purchases from bookshop.org, picking out various independent bookstores across the US for the different orders so that I can spread the love a bit. If you don’t have a local bookstore, bookshop.org can help you find the closest independent bookstore to your location. Or, if you know which bookstore you’d like to support, you can search their name directly too.

Now for the books that I wanted to promote, because sharing books is what I had intended back in November, and maybe you’re doing last minute shopping (if so, check to see if your local indie has curbside! Many do!).

For my friends’ kids…

We Are Water Protectors – Carole Lindstrom, Michaela Goade (picture book)

I picked this up because of the artwork, and then upon finishing it, I bought a copy for my best friend’s daughter because the message of safeguarding our precious water resources was SO GOOD, and I knew she’d love it.

No Fuzzball! – Isabella Kung (picture book)

Do you have a cat? Ever had a cat? Just like cats? Get this picture book. I laughed, hard, and then I sat my partner down and read it to him so he could be entertained by the arrogance and adorableness of No-Fuzzball (that’s the cat’s name, or so he thinks).

Franklin’s Flying Bookshop – Jen Campbell & Katie Harnett (picture book)

I read this last year, but it’s a go-to for me when it comes to friends and their children. I gave this to a friend’s kid last year and I’ve been told its still his favorite. It’s got a dragon. And a bookstore. That flies, on the dragon’s back. I mean, come on! How can you not love it? And the artwork is gorgeous.

Nevermoor – The Trials of Morrigan Crow – Jessica Townsend (fantasy middle grade)

Like Harry Potter but find it problematic? Or just want more Harry Potter-esque things? Nevermoor gives us a female protagonist who is supposedly cursed (and blamed for everything bad that ever happens in her town) and also fated to die on her birthday (it’s that curse, it’s a killer…I’ll see myself out). Except she doesn’t die. She’s taken away to a part of the world she didn’t know existed, where magic exists. And it turns out, she’s not cursed! She has powers. Book one and two are basically HP meets Hunger Games, but for middle schoolers, and have I mentioned yet the giant talking cat? Yeah, you know you want this one.

Kodi – Jared Cullum (graphic novel)

This graphic novel has water-color style artwork and is about a friendship between a young girl and a bear. It’s sweet, heart-warming, and very pretty.

From the Desk of Zoe Washington – Janae Marks (contemporary middle grade)

This book tackles important topics (wrongful conviction and imprisonment, and the way black men are disproportionately suspected by police of committing violent crimes and then disproportionately convicted of said crimes). And if you’re thinking that sounds heavy for a middle grade novel, two things: first, this book does a fantastic job of covering these issues with a sense of hope that keeps the read lighter than it could have been. Second, middle graders have these experiences and know friends who have lived through unjust and horrible experiences too. This book not only brings awareness to a major problem with the U.S. judicial system (and systemic racism beyond that) but also puts representation on the page so that children will know their experiences aren’t unique. Representation matters. This topic is important. And the way the author unfolds the story is engaging and even heart-warming.

Slay – Brittney Morris (contemporary YA)

I’m a gamer. My day job is in game development. I’m nervous to write both of those things. But there it is. I really enjoyed this book about a teenage girl who is so over the horribly toxic and violent online experience of gaming while black that she creates her own MMO centered around black culture and specifically for black people only. If that last bit makes you uncomfortable, I invite you to read this, and then sit with your feelings. I’m a white woman. I am uncomfortable in many online spaces because of the toxicity of being a woman online, but that’s a fraction of what is spewed toward POC online. My partner also read this book, and we ended up having a very lengthy discussion across several days about it, which I think is wonderful! Beyond all that, this is just a fun book with an awesome online world.

For my friends who like sci-fi…

All Systems Red – Martha Wells

I freely admit that I’m not a big sci-fi reader (stares at sole sci-fi book on this list), and yet here I am shoving this book at anyone who will listen. I’ve bought three copies this year to gift to friends and loved ones. I just love me this Murder Bot. Come for the sci-fi, stay for the humor. It’s a novella, so you have no excuse to not at least try it.

For romance readers…

Only Mostly Devastated – Sophie Gonzales

I’ve previously recommended this book. And here I am again. I was a HUGE fan of the movie Grease as a child. So a queer Grease retelling couldn’t go wrong, in my opinion. And even though I knew this was a romance, and so some sort of satisfying ending was headed my way, I was a little nervous at times that it wouldn’t happen (or rather it would, but I wouldn’t believe it…I read a few of those this year too, where the HEA felt completely rushed and contrived) and then, there I was with all the right feels I needed over the summer.

The Worst Best Man – Mia Sosa

I was SO very intrigued to see how this enemies to lovers would turn around. The opening pages had me laughing hard, out loud. Seriously. And they hooked me. I mean, this woman’s fiancé leaves her at the alter, and the guy’s best man (and also brother) is the one to tell her she’s been jilted, and it’s his fault she’s getting dumped. I had to see how these two would wind up together.

Well Met – Jen Deluca

They had me at Renaissance festival romance. I was desperately wishing I could go to a Renaissance festival this year. I hadn’t been in several years, and the idea of getting out and wandering around in costume without a care in the world sounded pretty darn great for 2020. Naturally, that didn’t happen. But I did get to read about this sweet laid-back aunt and a totally stubborn perfectionist pirate who can’t help falling in love at faire.

Always Only You – Chloe Liese

As someone who has been struggling this year with pain that the doctors can’t find a diagnosis for, I found it refreshing to read a romance with a protagonist living with chronic pain. Also, I maybe kind of like sports romances. Everyone has their thing, right? And this hockey player is a total cinnamon roll! Hot jock who is also NICE? Yes, please.

Taproot – Keezy Young

Oh yeah, I know what you’re thinking. This is a graphic novel. Yep. And it’s an adorable romance too. Ghost in love with a person who can see ghosts. Also, gardening. Very chill and very sweet.

For fantasy readers…

Mexican Gothic – Silvia Moreno-Garcia

I’ll admit, I wasn’t a huge Bronte sisters fan when I was in high school. And the first thing that comes to mind when I hear Gothic literature is the name Bronte. But a friend of mine who is also not a huge Bronte sisters fan read this and was raving about it. And I kept seeing it mentioned online. And it was October, and I wanted something chilling to read. So I read this. And I loved it. It’s taken the traditional gothic story telling methods and added an extra little dash of speculative fantasy elements that turn the psychological thrill of a gothic novel into something uniquely special, and surprisingly feminist too.

The House in the Cerulean Sea – TJ Klune

Dare I say this was my favorite fantasy read of the year? I might just dare. I’m still thinking about this book and the impactful message that people aren’t inherently bad or dangerous or monstrous, but rather society primes them to live up to the expectations they’re presented with as children.

The Empress of Salt & Fortune – Nghi Vo

I nearly missed this book. How, you might ask, since it came out in March of 2020? Well, I read the synopsis and thought, ‘meh, not really for me’. But then people kept raving about it, and I decided to give it a chance. Plus, it’s a short novella (112 pages) so it’s not like it was a huge time investment if I didn’t end up liking it. I ended up liking it. A lot. If you also read the description and think, ‘meh, maybe not’ just give it a shot. The prose is beautiful and the pace is quick. You’ll get sucked in before you know it.

For those who like graphic novels…

I’ve already recommended Kodi and Taproot above, but here are three more:

Heathen – Natasha Alterici

I boxed up and mailed my best friend some books earlier this year. She then used that flat rate USPS box to mail me back a giant stack of graphic novels, and this was in the stack. Bad-ass Viking women. Either you’re in or you’re out, but that’s what this graphic novel will bring you.

Snapdragon – Kat Leyh

Sometimes covers sell me. Sometimes they make me walk away. Nothing in this cover pulled me in, and so I didn’t pick it up for a long time. I’m not sure what brought me back, but I found myself interested in Snapdragon and the witch in the woods. And then I found myself reading this graphic novel and loving this story of acceptance and friendship, and women doing witchy magic things.

The Old Guard: Opening Fire – Greg Rucka, Leandro Fernandez, et al.

I’d seen the movie adaptation advertised on Netflix and hadn’t been too interested, and then came that box of comics from my friend, with a note saying she’d particularly enjoyed this one, so I gave it a shot. I must say, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this violent graphic novel. I really liked the new take on what it means to be ‘immortal’ (or nearly immortal).

For those craving non-fiction…

Come As You Are – Emily Nagoski

I now have two books on my bookshelf that have suggestive zippers, and they’re both fantastic. I thought about packaging up this book with The Vagina Bible and giving the set to all my female friends. This book is about the science behind sexual pleasure, and while that’s awesome in and of itself, what I loved about this book was the very practical application much of the book had to how to manage my generalized anxiety. It presented studies and information I’d heard before, but it also presented new information. So if you’re interested in increasing your physical pleasure from sex, or you’re just looking to better understand how your body works, or you’re looking for some insight on how to handle stress a little better, pick up this book.

Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs? – Caitlin Doughty

Mortician Caitlin Doughty answers children’s (and adult’s) burning questions about death in this short book. Ten year old me would have loved this book. Thirty-five year old me found it delightful as well. Take a look; you know you’re dying to know more about death.

Sorry. Not sorry.

Why We Sleep – Matthew Walker

I read this at the beginning of the year, and I’m still thinking about it. Anytime I’m up too late, sleep poorly, have a drink with alcohol after five pm, or consume fewer than 2 Nalgenes worth of water in a day, I think about the science in this book. Sleep is very important. Like critical to your health, yes you can die without it level of important. Most people in the U.S. are chronically fatigued and under-rested. Read this book to learn more about the science of sleep. Read this book to motivate yourself to prioritize sleep.

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