holly, jolly book recs for the holidays (or: books to gift your loved ones for Christmas)
Hi again, it’s me! As promised in my most recent article, I now am here to do a more constructive thing. Rather than tearing books and authors down, I’m here to uplift books that I have actually enjoyed and think you, or your loved ones, might enjoy too. Don’t get me wrong, I love ranting about books that I think are awful. But during the pandemic, instead of trying out a new hobby, I have simply become a quirky person, mostly through re-watching the hit tv show New Girl, but also by becoming a Swiftie again. To fully rebrand as a quirky person, I have to also be positive from time to time and share my quirky, little interests with the world. Or just the 3-4 people who actually read the stuff posted on this website.
As I mentioned previously, my one form of escaping from this impossible year is reading books. I’ve really outperformed my goodreads reading challenge (usually, I barely make it to the goal), I’ve spent a lot of money on books and I’ve read a lot of them. Mostly also because university forced me to stare at a screen for so many hours every day that I needed to protect my eyes by reading instead. Not sure if there’s any science behind that, but I study British Literature for a reason (and it’s not “awesome job perspectives”, obviously). I don’t know anything about science. Anyways, by now, I’ve read 85 books, at least according to my goodreads account, so there’s a broad variety to choose from. I tried to pick a diverse range of books so there’s something for everyone, kind of, but obviously my taste in literature my differ from yours. Therefore, I can’t guarantee anything. But maybe you will read this and find one or two books to gift to your loved ones. Or you get curious and decide to give one of these books a go, despite usually reading other genres. Either way, I hope this is useful and you can take a valuable lesson away from it. Like, even if you think “Oh god I don’t want to read any of this!” I have done my job. But let’s dive right into this! (into the unknoOoOwn)
Loveless by Alice Oseman
The first book I’d love to recommend is Alice Oseman long-anticipated fourth novel Loveless. If you know me, or have read any of my articles, you know that Alice Oseman is one of my favourite authors. I probably sneak in a Radio Silence or Heartstopper recommendation into most of my articles. And I’m not even getting paid for that! But to get to the point: Loveless was released in June this year, and I think I’ve read it within like three or four days. And I loved it.
The novel is told from the perspective of Georgia, who graduates from school and is about to go to university at Durham, alongside her best friends Pip and Jason. Georgia is eighteen and unlike other people her age, she hasn’t ever dated anyone, kissed anyone let alone had sex with anyone, despite literally obsessing over the idea of romantic love and such in books, movies, tv-shows and fanfiction (she’s an avid reader of those). Yet, once she has the chance to kiss her long-time crush, she finds herself repulsed by the idea of kissing him, or anyone for that matter.
She’s uncomfortable with this idea of herself, and desperately wants to change that once she’s at uni. There she meets her assigned roommate Rooney, who’s very outgoing and experienced in sex and dating. Rooney decides to help Georgia find someone to date and kiss to finally get some experience, while Georgia more and more discovers that she’s not interested in romantic love or sex. At a pride society event she meets its president Sunil, who’s asexual and romantically attracted to men, and learns about the aromantic and asexual identities. Research on the internet leads her to bad definitions of those terms, definitions that make it seem as if aro-ace people have to lead a “loveless” life (hence the title). Georgia struggles with accepting those labels for her identity, considering how much she dreams and fantasizes about romance. Being faced with a “loveless” life is devastating for her; it leads her to doubt herself and obstructs her journey through self-acceptance. Meanwhile, she has to also juggle her friendships with Pip and Jason, which are put to test in multiple ways, help Rooney save Durham’s Shakespeare society, and deal with life at university. Her first year of university is tumultuous, but will it lead her to accept herself? Will she learn that love isn’t just romantic or sexual, but can exist in a variety of ways? You’ll have to read to find out.
What I love about this book first of all is Alice Oseman’s usual writing style. It’s easy to read, very fluent, and doesn’t feel stiff or any of that. It also feels adequate to the portrayal of teenagers/freshers at university. While other authors might just put in many, many references to popular culture to make up for their novel’s lack of relatability or use language that feels super weird and constructed and shows just how out of touch they are with their target audience, this novel doesn’t fall into either of these traps. The references feel authentic and actually make sense with the characters, as does the language they use.
Oseman has often said that this is her most personal book so far, which made it so difficult to write (she updated people on that agonising journey through her social media accounts). With Oseman coming out as aro-ace many people advertised Loveless as an OwnVoices novel, which basically means that the protagonist’s identity is the same as the authors. It’s a “movement” striving for more diversity among authors. Initially a well-meaning cause, it has since done more damage than good (e.g. bullying authors into coming out and then questioning their identity). Oseman herself has expressed reluctance toward Loveless being advertised as an OwnVoices book, and I personally don’t see it as an ideal term to even describe books in the first place. Author’s identities are turned into the selling-point of their novels, which is as bad as it sounds.
I feel like many people also then approach these stories to represent their very specific experience with sexuality, even though everyone’s experiences differ. No story should bear the weight of doing the impossible (i.e. representing every single person in one community). Loveless doesn’t strive to do that. Instead, I think, Oseman did a great job at portraying one character’s journey of self-discovery, which may not be 100% relatable to every single aro-ace person out there, but definitely felt very authentic.
Furthermore, I think this definitely is her most joyful novel so far. Whereas Solitaire was super depressing and Radio Silence and I Was Born for This were filled with a lot of angst (the good stuff), Loveless was more wholesome, I’d say, without sweeping difficult and uncomfortable things under the rug. I also think this cast of characters was very nice, very well-written, and seemed very realistic. Also, since Oseman strives for more diverse casts of characters, she included the first out-and-proud heterosexual character since her debut novel. Jason is representing the heterosexual men, who are historically underrepresented in the media. He’s sort of a fairy tale portrayal though, because he’s actually decent. And we all know straight men are rotten!
Considering this year is “socially distant” and mostly spent away from our friends, this novel, which is sort of an ode to platonic love, can provide comfort to you. Especially if you really like YA-literature. I definitely loved it, and found a lot of comfort in it, considering how much I miss my friends (lots of love to them).
How it All Blew Up by Avid Ahmadi
The next one on the list actually doesn’t quite make sense for a holiday season rec, since it is set in summer. However, with this year being mostly spent in lockdown, I think it can still provide some sense of escapism with its depiction of a unique summer holiday, while also having a good message and shedding a light on underrepresented coming-out stories. But let me sum up the basic premise first.
Amir is in his senior year of high-school, one of the few transfer students there, when a secret fling with fellow student Jackson is caught on camera by two people in his grade. They threaten to out Amir to his parents unless he pays them 1000 dollars. Once he does that, they up the stakes, and demand 3000 dollars until graduation otherwise they’ll out him to his family. Amir’s parents are immigrants from Iran and practicing Muslims. He knows coming out to them will be difficult, if not impossible, so he tries to come up with the money by doing his semi-illegal “I create Wikipedia articles for those who pay”-job. Struggling to come up with more than 2000 dollars, he makes the decision to not pay them, and instead use the money to go to New York City on graduation day. Once he is outed to his family, he’ll know if everything is fine and he can come home, or if he has to stay and make his life in NYC. Well, funnily enough, a lot of homophobes are cowards, and therefore they don’t go through with their threat. Now, Amir is faced with having to explain why he’s disappeared on graduation day. While on the phone with his parents, he watches the departure board and sees an upcoming flight to Italy. With the rest of his “illegal” Wikipedia money he makes the decision to just go there and see what happens. Once in Italy, he quickly becomes part of a group of queer people while his family is trying to find out why he left and where he’d gone. Amir gets to experience an openly queer life, is part of the queer art scene, and of course gets to explore Rome and go on dates and such. But is his new “found family” (consisting mostly of white gay men in their late twenties/early thirties) really a good “replacement” for his family at home? Would his coming out even be as much of a struggle as he imagines it to be? Should he really stay in Italy forever? To find out, you’ll have to read the book yourself or, if you’re Lea Michele (thank you so much for checking out the website, omg), have Ryan Murphy read it to you!
I definitely really enjoyed the way this novel was told. It was split up in two different narratives. One is just a regular old plot progression, mostly chronological, told from Amir’s POV. The other narrative level are the transcripts of the interrogation of Amir’s family after they “cause a scene” on their plane back to the US (which is set after the novel’s main plot). Amir’s sister Soraya does a lot of detective work to find her brother in Italy. Once his absence makes his parents realise that they’d rather have a gay son than have no son at all, so they go to get him back, mostly wanting to talk things through once they’re home. Amir, not wanting things to get swept under the rug, wants to talk it out on the plane, which causes a fight, that leads them to get interrogated once they land in the states. Because of Islamophobia, you know. They have to explain things in their interrogation, which opens this second narrative.
This story is, loosely based on some of Ahmadi’s experiences with queerness and coming out in an Iranian family. Obviously, this provides more authenticity to the whole thing, but I also think that it was written with care. Amir’s parents’ reluctance towards him being gay is embedded into their cultural background, and while they, of course, in some sense are what’s stopping Amir from openly being himself, they are never presented as terrible parents and monsters. And through the family’s narration in the interrogation transcripts the reader gets to see the discomfort on their journey to accepting their son as he is. Oftentimes, I feel like coming-out stories are somewhat meant to appeal to white, liberal cishets, who can only identify and feel for the queer character if there’s a clear, irrationally homophobic antagonist they can strongly disagree with. Someone who confirms that they’re not like “those kind of people”, so they can safely live in their “I’m a good person, of course I’m not homophobic” bubble. Now, of course I’m not saying that deeply queerphobic and harmful people deserve a redemption or any kind of positive portrayal, but I do think, although homophobia exists in all faiths and Christianity did the thing where it exported it across the world, homophobia in Muslims is oftentimes the main antagonist for western liberal people. Therefore, I do think that Ahmadi’s portrayal of a painfully underrepresented coming-out narrative is quite good in and of itself, however, given his family a gentler portrayal as well makes it even more impactful and important.
So, if you really like YA, themes like coming-of-age and identity, or maybe you just want to escape to Italy while also getting to read a different perspective on the coming-out story, you should check How it All Blew Up by Arvin Ahmadi out!
The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang
While I spend this year trying to get more into adult literature, I also had the dumb idea to re-familiarise myself with an old friend: Fantasy literature. When I was sixteen, I would devour fantasy novels within three days (sure, most of them were YA, but those still have like 500 pages each), but somewhere along the line, I lost my interest in the genre. It got a bit repetitive, it’s very white-washed, and let’s be real, straight men write the weirdest shit when they write fantasy novels. But then, this year, there was a sudden surge of interest in the works of R.F. Kuang, whose debut novel The Poppy War was published back in 2018 (a year I have suppressed all my memories of, much like 2019 and 2020). She has since gone on to win the “Astounding Award for Best New Writer” in 2020, released the two sequels to The Poppy War, and even has been featured in the recently released anthology From a Certain Point of View: The Empire Strikes Back, celebrating the 40th anniversary of the film of the same name. So, her career is going very well. But let’s get back to the novel, shall we?
Kuang was chose to write a fantasy retelling of China’s 20th Century and The Poppy War is the first result of that aspiration. While Sci-Fi and Fantasy often borrow elements from Chinese or Japanese mythology and history and whitewash them, Kuang felt that the genre lacked stories like hers, therefore she wrote it. And I think her approach to it is quite refreshing.
The novel follows Runin, a war orphan, who takes part in the Keju, a nationwide test to find talented students in the Nikara Empire. She succeeds, to everyone’s surprise, and gets to go to the Sinegard academy, a school for the military, the most prestigious one in the Empire in fact. Runin, while struggling to compete with her privileged classmates in an environment that benefits them, discovers that she has ancient magical powers. She is a Shaman, powerful beings that are said to have died out. She learns about the connection with the gods, and what powers that could bring her. Then, the peace with the Federation of Mugen, an Empire on a nearby Island, ends, and the Third Poppy War is starting. Runin, with her new powers, becomes an Elite soldier, and has to fight in a new, brutal war.
If you have any sort of knowledge of China’s history in the 20th century, you probably see some parallels there. Parallels that someone else probably already has pointed to; someone who’s more suited than I to do that. But, as I said before, there definitely is an inspiration rooted in China’s history there. The portrayal of war in this novel is quite accurate, I’d say, especially in all its brutality and gore. So, if you can’t, or don’t want to, read explicit details about murder, rape and mutilation in war, you might want to sit this one out. Though, I do have to point out that this novel explicitly puts that into the context of war crimes against civilians, meant to undermine the point of war’s inhumanity and cruelty. It’s not glorified, or randomly added into the story because the author felt like sprinkling in a little torture and rape would be “fun”, as some fantasy authors tend to do.
If you do feel ready to read this, this novel is definitely quite interesting. As mentioned, it doesn’t glorify war, it doesn’t glorify soldiers, it doesn’t even try to present its protagonist Runin as a morally good person. Everyone is sort of morally grey. I also think the fantasy elements were good, while the world-building was integrated into the story without making the reader stumble. You know how some fantasy books give you like an exposé on every single new piece of lore, and it really hurts the reading flow? Well, this novel doesn’t.
The Poppy War definitely isn’t a quick read, it takes some time to get through. It also isn’t a cosy, little read you can have next to the Christmas tree, while listening to Christmas music (well, to be fair, last year I have read a book on austerity while listening to Christmas music next to the Christmas tree, so maybe you can do it with this book). If you’re up for a new take on the fantasy genre, and okay with reading scenes that may leave you with discomfort, you should check out this book!
You Should See Me in a Crown by Leah Johnson
This is the book on this list I’ve read most recently, therefore, one might think I’d have fresh memories of it. Well, plot-twist, I still have to take out the book and read up on the plot, because I seem to be unable to remember much without help, but on the other hand can recall every embarrassing moment of my life, starting when I was 13 years old. Memory-loss works in strange, mysterious ways (Editor’s Note: nerd). But let’s return to the topic at hand: this novel.
You Should See me in a Crown is a contemporary YA-novel dealing with themes like coming-of-age, identity, belonging and also the race to become prom queen (which is somewhat tied into all the things before). Liz, the novel’s protagonist, is in her senior year of high school, thinking she has a good, safe plan to get out of this town: playing the violin for her dream college’s orchestra and getting a scholarship that comes with that role. Despite being relatively sure of getting it, she’s rejected from both the orchestra and the scholarship, and therefore attending college and studying medicine seems out of reach. Liz, a black girl from a working-class family, living with her grandparents ever since her mother’s death, and can’t afford to go to college without a scholarship. There’s only one option left: Her school doesn’t give out any scholarships for graduates with top grades, instead the prom king and queen win a huge amount of money (that mostly comes from the rich classmates’ parents). Not only are the odds against Liz through her cultural and social backgrounds, considering that her majorly white school usually produces white prom king and queens that come from wealthy families, she also happens to be someone who hates attention and public speaking. However, considering it’s her only option to get the money, Liz joins the race from prom court, with the support from her friends.
While competing for the crown, she grows increasingly frustrated with her best friend-turned campaign manager Gabi, who’ll stop at nothing to get Liz to the crown. Furthermore, her former best friend Jordan (running for prom king) tries to mend their friendship somehow. And then there’s also the transfer student Amanda (usually called Mack) in the race, whom Liz is very interested in. To see how the story unfolds from there, you’ll have to read it.
The thing I really liked about this novel is that it’s sort of a new take on this prom queen storyline we’ve seen billions of times before. While it is clichéd, it at least adds something new by talking about the unfair treatment of those who can’t afford to run expensive campaigns or simply don’t fit into the “prom queen fairy tale” of rural America. Liz’s love story with Amanda adds another layer to it, considering that the prom rules explicitly state that you can’t go to prom with a person of the same sex. The love story itself is cute as well, and I really found myself enjoying that part of the novel. It felt really accurate in its depiction of young love, with all the necessary cuteness and drama of a high school film.
Obviously, the race for prom court and then prom queen was central to the entirety of the novel, and its execution kind of reminded me of the Netflix show The Politician, since this also blows the dimensions of it out of proportion. Like, there’s polls. Analysed data on who’s in what spot of the race right now. There’s a secret school-network like Facebook where digital campaigns take place, and of course there are the usual campaign posters, or photo-ops, and whatnot. It seemed a bit like a tiny election, and therefore really reminded me of that Netflix show. Fans of it might really enjoy this book.
You Should See Me in a Crown is Johnson’s debut novel, and really reads like one, if I’m being honest. The writing style is rather simplistic, and the plot is predictable to some extent, I’d say. This doesn’t make the book less fun, and I feel like it’d be a great read for younger readers in the YA-target group. While the story sometimes drifts off into the cliched and too-good-to-be true (like, obviously there’s a high school film kind of ending), it makes up for it by addressing more serious issues. Furthermore, I think queer love stories between two women are still rather underrepresented in the YA-genre (while there’s an overabundance of those focusing on two men), and I think it’s good that Johnson wrote an authentic one.
So, if you’re up for something that reads like a movie about high-school-students, but still manages to talk about stuff that’s more serious than the race for prom queen, you should probably check out You Should See Me in a Crown. With its cute little story and the happy ending, it can be a sweet escapism read underneath the Christmas tree!
Little Weirds by Jenny Slate
Up next is the only nonfiction-ish kind of book on this list. I say nonfiction-ish, because you shouldn’t expect theory of any sort from this one, but also not an autobiography. Instead, it provides what the title suggests. Little, weird short texts. Like, no poems, no essays, just texts that seem to be an impression of a specific moment, or a specific feeling Jenny Slate had. There’s no plot, no real read threat, although there are some repeating moments like the “I was born:” and “I died:” texts. Jenny Slate is mostly known from her acting career, she does, however, also do comedy, and has a Netflix Special called Stagefright, that sums her as person up quite well, I think (I don’t know her, but I guess). She combines the comedic with the more intimate and presents herself as a complex person in that special. There’s a segment in it, where she talks about why she suffers from stage fright, which, I think, is quite relatable, and I’ll try to link it, if I can find it.
To be completely honest, last year I would have probably made fun of a book like this. Even more so, if it was a poetry book, lol. But, since it was very cheap as an eBook, and I enjoyed Slate’s Netflix special, I decided to give it ago. Also, as someone who more-or-less secretly engages with writing f*nfiction to cope with this weird, weird year, I have no moral high ground in any situation anymore. Anyways, as I said, I gave it a go, and read the book within a couple of days. Obviously, some of the texts were kind of meh, while others I really liked. But, since I’ve become quirky this year (as mentioned before), a lot of Slate’s thoughts really spoke to me. There literally was one text that made me cry for 45 minutes, and honestly, besides Folklore by Taylor Swift and everything Phoebe Bridgers released this year, nothing made me feel emotions that intensely (obviously excluding my shoddy mental health here, lol).
Some of Slate’s texts deal with heartache, open wounds (emotionally), or the feeling of not really being able to let go of something bad that happened/move on from it, other texts describe yearning for love, to be known and understood by another person, to be vulnerable with them without having to try so hard to impress them, and then there are texts that are about finding contentment or maybe even just a sense of purpose and connection in the little things. If you’re reading this, and think “Wow, he’s really projecting there, isn’t he?”, you might be on to something. However, I do genuinely think that in this year, there’s lots of time for introspection, but not really a lot of possibility to resolve some external issues or fulfil an internal need for external validation, so maybe that’s why some of the texts in this book really struck a chord with me. I don’t know, it might just be me, but when you’re only ever really able to deal with yourself, you tend to go over the same issues over and over again, and while “normal” life might have helped you move on, the lockdowns, the social distancing etc. might trap you in overthinking situations that you cannot resolve or move on from. I certainly have, and I felt understood by this book, as odd and cheesy as it may sound.
Furthermore, I feel like we now are more aware of the human connections we’ve build and appreciate even the smaller form of them more deeply. Same goes for our natural surroundings, I guess. And this book really speaks to that, despite being written and published before the pandemic. Now, I might just be a homosexual who overly identifies with a woman in her mid-thirties going through some emotion stuff, but maybe not, who cares. If you’re generally interested in reading something that’s “quirky”, this book might be right for you! Or maybe you have a quirky friend, who’d enjoy this.
Lost Stars by Claudia Gray
Considering that this article has already been very embarrassing in the way that I’ve made myself “vulnerable” with my “honest”, “sincere” and “genuine” opinions, I have no idea why on earth I thought to end this list of recommendations with a Star Wars novel. Like, what am I on? Do I want to get bullied? Again? However, since I’ve spent an embarrassing amount of money and time on Star Wars novels this year, I feel like I couldn’t not mention one of them. (I have also recently finished watching the animated tv-series The Clone Wars and am now emotionally destroyed, and this is one way of coping. If you know how to help, please reach out!)
To make this rec applicable to people who may not have watched any of the movies (good for you, I cannot escape) or may just be casual viewers who have never looked up things on the wiki for their silly, little writing project, I chose one that’s probably the most accessible. I bought it in Edinburgh back in March before the things became super terrible, so I also have some good memories attached to it.
The novel doesn’t really require knowledge of the movies, since it’s mostly set on a newly made-up planet, with newly made-up characters at the centre of the story. Protagonists of the movies like C-3PO or R2D2 have no appearance (as far as I remember), while others like Princess Leia or Darth Vader only have very limited appearances. The story follows Thane and Ciena from the planet Jelucan, who, upon their world being “liberated” by the Empire, set out to enrol in the Imperial Academy to become military officials of the Empire. Once the Empire successfully constructs their Death Star and uses it to destroy Princess Leia’s home world Alderaan, Thane becomes disillusioned with the Empire and joins the Rebellion against it, whereas Ciena’s loyalty remains with the Empire. Considering that they’re in love (heterosexuality is a disease), being on opposite sides is kind of a shitty situation. They’re torn apart again and again while the Galactic Civil War rages on.
This novel basically retells the story of the Original Trilogy. I’m not going to be too nerdy and spell out the titles for you, considering I don’t want this article to tarnish my reputation of being very sexy and interesting. Anyways, it retells the story from the point of view of two unknown characters, who both don’t fall into the “heroes”-category (like Luke Skywalker) or the “antagonist”-category (like Gwyneth Paltrow), but are merely little people within the systems of the Empire and the Rebellion respectively. I thought that was quite interesting to read, considering that the movies very much focus on the chosen ones, while regular people aren’t really featuredThey tried fixing that with the sequels, but oh well).
Reading the stories I very much knew from a different point of view was fun to me, but I imagine that it could also work for people with no Star Wars-knowledge (once again, good for you!) or those who enjoy Sci-Fi love stories. Because, at the core, the novel is about their Romeo and Juliet kind of love story, you know, the whole “being torn apart and on different sides” point, yada yada. While I mostly am very heterophobic, personally, I felt that the love story was okay. Maybe a bit predictable. But, to be fair, any heterosexual love story is kind of a retelling of some heterosexual love story that came before. And at least their love developed from a long childhood friendship, and there was a time when they actually were on the same side, so it’s not like one of those weird “I fell in love with someone who wants to kill me” situations. Plus, there’s enough other content to enjoy there!
Anyways, to finally make my point: I really enjoyed this novel – if you like Star Wars you might enjoy it too. It’s combining Sci-Fi with YA-romance elements. Maybe that’s your thing, and that’s completely fine. Or maybe you know someone who likes the movies, and you want to gift them this 550-page book, so they shut up about Star Wars for a couple of hours. Because, oh boy, Star Wars fans can be super annoying (and that includes me).
In writing this article I sacrificed the last bit of dignity I had left. Therefore, I sure hope that you found something in these recommendations, even if it’s just a book that you can get your niece or your co-worker Sharon for Christmas. But I hope some of you found yourselves interested in something up there, maybe add that to your wish list. Or just treat yourself, you really deserve it, mishamigo!
Originally, I had wanted to include more books that would be suitable for adult readers, but I’m not really an expert there. RIP to you, but I’m different. I’m just going to give some “rapid fire”-recommendations that loosely could work for adults real quick: Carrie Fisher’s novels could really work, if you’re interested in reading about 80s or 90s Hollywood stuff, or something that’s very character driven (Surrender the Pink is my favourite novel of hers), if you’re looking for nonfiction that talks about mental health or such Maybe You Should Talk To Someone by Lori Gottlieb could work, if you’re looking for something about intersectional feminism, I personally really enjoyed reading Mikki Kendall’s Hood Feminism. Those are some things that could work for adults, but, as I said before, I’m trash and have terrible taste in what brings me joy (the answer is, mostly, YA-literature), which is how I ended up with the list above. I’m just quirky like that!
Now, if you’re still left wondering what you should get your spouse, who’s a stranger to you and probably themselves, for Christmas, I can leave you with an ancient German proverb, echoed throughout the “Thalias” and the “Hugendubels” around the country this time of the year: “Wie wär’s denn mit dem neuen Fitzek?”
- Robin was listening to “making the yuletide gay as we speak”, a Christmas-playlist compiled by yours truly.