Whether you’re celebrating the end of this seemingly endless year with a big shin-dig or planning to see the holidays through on your couch in your fluffy socks, you’ve got holiday presents to buy…and nothing fits better in a UPS envelope or a Christmas stocking than a nicely-wrapped book. Here are my recommendations for your shopping list, twenty-two of the best books I read in 2022, though not all were published this year. Some of these were written by friends and colleagues, some by authors I only hope to meet someday—but all were fabulous reads, and would make a great holiday gift for someone in your life. I’ve even given you some help figuring out who…
1. PORTRAIT OF A THIEF by Grace D. Li
Five Chinese-American college students get the offer of a lifetime from a Beijing billionaire: fifty million dollars to steal back five relics of the Old Summer Palace from the western museums that turned a blind eye to their looted origins. A thrilling heist story layered with complicated questions of diaspora, cultural identity, and colonialism.
Buy for: That high school kid in your life who’s heading off to art school. Hopefully it’ll leave them with ideas about who art belongs to and how its power resonates through centuries—not ideas about befriending a hacker and robbing the Met.
2. KILLERS OF A CERTAIN AGE by Deanna Raybourn
Four 60+ women friends get cranky as they look ahead toward retirement . . . but these ladies have been working together as international assassins for the past forty years, and when they realize on their retirement cruise that someone has put a hit out on them, they stuff their fanny packs with brass knuckles, poison syringes, ammunition, and Tums, and go on a darkly hilarious hunt for their would-be killers.
Buy for: Your grandma. She’ll relish a thriller where older women with grandchildren and creaky knees get to be the badass for a change.
3. BY HER OWN DESIGN by Piper Huguley
An unsung historical heroine gets her well-deserved spotlight at last: fierce and fashionable Ann Low, long erased from history as the unnamed “colored dressmaker” behind Jackie Kennedy’s famous wedding dress, claws her way here from a Jim Crow Alabama childhood to a storied career as dress designer for the social elite.
Buy for: Your fashionista bestie, who will relish the sumptuous dress details as well as the peek inside the mind of a fashion-designer genius.
4. THE LIONESS by Chris Bohjalian
An early-sixties party of Golden Age Hollywood royalty—a vivacious A-list actress, her new husband, her agent and manager and B-list BFF—head to Tanzania for a glamorous safari vacation. But when Russian mercenaries descend to kidnap the party and their guides, the privileged guests must fight both their kidnappers and the wilds around them to survive.
Buy for: Your perpetually-traveling younger brother who’s always backpacking somewhere off-the-grid. He might think twice about that safari trip.
5. THE SCHOOL FOR GOOD MOTHERS by Jessamine Chan
Exhausted, overworked Frida, struggling to live up to her Chinese immigrant parents’ expectations and her husband’s abandonment for a younger mistress, lapses for a moment with her toddler and is sentenced to a Big Brother-like institution where erring moms will be trained and rated for an endless year. But when is a mother ever perfect enough for those who judge her?
Buy for: The judgiest mom in your kid’s play-group. Let’s see how fast she gets out that side-eye after reading Frida’s harrowing story.
6. THE WAYWARD CHILDREN series by Seanan McGuire
Eleanor West’s Home For Wayward Children is a boarding school like no other—a refuge for children who have side-slipped into other worlds like Narnia or Oz, and are now stranded back home trying to remember how to be children again and yearning for the fantasy worlds where they adventured, warred, and reigned. A spellbinding series of novellas following the school’s students as they quest for both identity and home.
Buy for: That bookworm middle-schooler in your life. They’ll appreciate the wild adventures—not to mention a magical school series that features transgender, intersex, lesbian, gay, fat-positive, and asexual students with great sensitivity.
7. THE HUNGER by Alma Katsu
The wagon-train journey of the famous Donner Party takes a dark folktale twist: what if the stranded party of pioneers in their snowbound pass didn’t turn cannibal because of starvation, but because Something out there in the frozen west is twisting their every instinct against them? Darkly and gorgeously written; it’ll raise every hair on your neck.
Buy for: Your Yellowstone-loving brother-in-law fascinated by all things frontier. He’ll devour the grittily-realistic rendition of a wagon-train journey . . . and when things take a bloodier turn, he’ll sleep with a nightlight for a month.
8. MOTHER DAUGHTER TRAITOR SPY by Susan Elia MacNeal
MacNeal takes a step sideways from her acclaimed Maggie Hope series, and delivers a stirring standalone thriller. Budding journalist Veronica and her widowed mother Violet are looking for a fresh start when they move to Los Angeles, but when they stumble onto a nest of anti-Semitic propagandists, mother and daughter put their blond German-American looks to good use and infiltrate the world of American fascism.
Buy for: Your mother, of course. Cue the discussion about how the two of you would fare as a mother-daughter spy team.
9. THE MANY DAUGHTERS OF AFONG MOY by Jamie Ford
The first Chinese woman to set her lotus-bound feet in America sets off a ripple through time and space, as her descendants struggle with her legacy of loss and loneliness. Themes of karma, courage, love, and motherhood weave timelessly through eight generations of women seeking to find balance in an increasingly tempest-racked world.
Buy for: The octogenarian gal at the senior center where you volunteer. She’ll love the exploration of memory working its unspoken way through generations of women, and maybe tell you more of her own stories.
10. THE MEMORY KEEPER OF KYIV by Erin Litteken
Sixteen year old Katya witnesses the arrival of Soviet activists to her Ukrainian village and struggles to protect her family through Stalin’s systematic starvation of her country—seventy years later, a young widow struggles to understand her haunted, tough-as-nails grandmother. On every page the Ukrainian spirit shines out: unbowed, unbent, and unbroken.
Buy for: Your dad, who has been glued to the news coverage of the Ukrainian invasion. He’ll appreciate the parallels and wounds of Ukraine’s past history with its current crisis.
11. STARGAZER by Laurie Petrou
A twisted, fascinating deep-dive into the codependent bond between two friends, an artistic loner and a shy It Girl who head off to college together in the 1990s and are soon over their heads in some very dangerous psychological waters indeed.
Buy for: Your old college roommate. Reminisce that even when you were arguing about who borrowed whose sweater without asking, you never got even remotely as toxic as Diana and Aurelle.
12. THE HACIENDA by Isabel Cañas
A classic haunted house story set in the aftermath of the Mexican War of Independence. Scrappy Beatriz has lost everything in war, and seizes the chance for a home again by marrying a widower she barely knows . . . but his crumbling hacienda resists her every attempt at refurbishment until she starts rolling up her sleeves and considering exorcism.
Buy for: Your sister going through the home renovation from hell. She will reflect that while her kitchen has no sink and her contractor won’t return her calls, at least the walls don’t actively want her dead.
13. ITHACA by Claire North
A humorous, moving retelling of the Odyssey myth—centering not on Odysseus but on Penelope, whose endless clever schemes to keep her kingdom afloat and her suitors at bay are narrated by the goddess Hera, a proud, sniffy, and flat-out hilarious goddess with a soft spot in her spiky immortal heart for scheming queens.
Buy for: Your Rachel-Maddow-watching, AOC-retweeting work friend who majored in women’s studies. She’ll savor this retold myth which re-centers not just Penelope but all the women of Ithaca as the heroines of their own stories.
14. SLAY by Brittney Morris
Bright seventeen year old Kiera is one of the few Black students at her school, juggling social life and college apps—and no one suspects she’s also the creator/moderator of a secret online role-playing card game Slay, which she created as a safe space for Black gamers. When a racist troll and ugly media drama threaten Slay, Kiera embarks on a fierce, moving battle to save the world she made.
Buy for: Your gamer nephew. He’ll thrill at the Black Panther-inspired game that springs to life on the pages—and walk away with more ideas about how racism and toxicity can infect into the virtual world just as much as the real one.
15. I KISSED SHARA WHEELER by Casey McQuiston
Fierce, bisexual honor student Chloe lives for her academic rivalry with perfect blond prom queen Shara Wheeler . . . but when Shara kisses Chloe and then disappears, Chloe finds herself teaming up with Shara’s quarterback boyfriend and unrequited crush neighbor on a hilarious but moving scavenger hunt to find their maddening queen bee.
Buy for: The office Karen who has been wailing nonstop ever since her teen came out as gay. Maybe she’ll read her way to a better understanding of things like teen sexuality, identity, and gender spectrum. Or maybe she’ll never speak to you again. Either way, you win.
16. TAKE MY HAND by Dolen Perkins-Valdez
A young nurse with big dreams of helping her community comes to an Alabama clinic and is immediately embroiled in the lives of two young Black girls, caught first in the trap of rural poverty and then in the spotlight of a national court case as their mistreatment at the clinic’s hands comes out into the open. This one will break your hreart and lift your soul.
Buy for: Your nurse aunt, who will empathize deeply with the heroine’s ethical dilemmas and end up in more than one water-cooler discussion about the nursing profession’s less palatable moments in history.
17. UNNATURAL CREATURES by Kris Waldherr
An eerie, atmospheric exploration of the dark feminine side of the Frankenstein myth, telling the famous story from the eyes of Victor Frankenstein’s mother, his angelic betrothed, and his hunchbacked maid.
Buy for: Your college-grad niece who wrote her thesis on Mary Shelley. She’ll adore the deep dive into Frankenstein’s women, who are presented as far more complicated than Frankenstein ever saw them.
18. DAUGHERS OF JUBILATION by Kara Lee Corthrun
Growing up Black in the Jim Crow South, teenaged Evvie has her hands full with a blooming romance, a judgmental mama, and the flowering of her “jubilation”–a powerful magic passed on through the women of her family since the time of slavery. Mastering her jubilation will be Evvie’s salvation when past demons come calling.
Buy for: Your teenage goddaughter who binged her way through “Motherland: Fort Salem” and needs more stories about young witches hurling force-fields at racist jerks.
19. IN THE FULL LIGHT OF THE SUN by Clare Clark
Three lives entwine in the decadent chaos of 1920s Berlin: a burgeoning female painter, a sophisticated art expert, and a mysterious dealer who produces a cache of undiscovered Van Gogh paintings—but what if they’re fake? The question resonates through the years as the Third Reich begins its rise and life grows uncomfortable for Berlin’s avant-garde art world.
Buy for: That art dealer you struck up a friendship with after standing in line to vote for three hours. She’ll love the lush, textured detail of the meticulously portrayed art world.
20. MISS ALDRIDGE REGRETS by Louise Hare
Nightclub singer Lena Aldridge boards the RMS Queen Mary in 1936, fleeing a host of problems in London for the Broadway career she hopes awaits her in New York. Passing for white on the upper decks, Lena makes friends with the wealthy, quarrelsome Abernathys in hopes of fitting in . . . but then the bodies start to stack up in this richly drawn locked-door mystery.
Buy for: Your book-club buddy who always lobbies for Agatha Christie. She’ll love the “`And Then There Were None’-But-On-A-Boat” aspect of it all.
21. THE WATCHMAKER OF FILIGREE STREET by Natasha Pulley
A shy Whitehall official crosses paths with a prickly female physicist and a Japanese watchmaker in fog-bound Victorian England, in a mystery that begins with a deadly explosion and ends with the world’s most adorable pet octopus on the run. Quirky and beautiful–and there’s a sequel that’s even better.
Buy for: Your cousin who cosplays Victorian steampunk. He’ll dig the m/m romance, the nuanced view of a more diverse 19th century London, and commission a tiny jeweled octopus to sit on his shoulder at the next conference.
22. TOMORROW, AND TOMORROW, AND TOMORROW by Gabrielle Zevin
Two books about gaming on this list! This one follows two lifelong friends, the brilliant and quirky Sam and Sadie, as they realize they have are soulmates—not romantically, but creatively, as they go on to fame and fortune as video game creators. Their love is as deep and unique as the fantastical virtual worlds they create, and as utterly fascinating.
Buy for: Anyone trying to make a living creating art, whether that art is games, novels, painting, or anything else. It’s a pitch-perfect examination of the creative process—the delirious highs, the darkest lows, the white-hot heat when the work flows, the bone-dry despair when the well runs dry, the never-ending struggle to balance artistic vision with the need to make a living. Any artist, whether they understand gaming or not, will see themselves in Sadie and Sam.
Happy shopping, and happy holidays!