gift guide

32 Books (That Aren’t Political Memoirs) to Gift for the Holidays

Photo: Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library/YouTube

Book lovers are simultaneously the hardest and easiest people to shop for. You can always buy them a book, of course, but how do you know they haven’t already read it yet? The reality is, you can’t know for sure, but you can be pretty sure that your dad has read Obama’s memoir and your Gen-Z sister has read Cazzie David’s. (The Vulture quiz, “Is This Quote From Barack Obama’s Memoir or Cazzie David’s?” makes for a fun family activity, btw.) This gift guide aims to highlight those books that will please every type of reader, from sci-fi and fantasy to comics and cookbooks, and, yes, some celebrity memoirs as well.

[Editor’s note: We’ve avoided repeating anything in our Best Books of 2020 and Best Comedy Books of 2020 lists, but those are great places to look for book recommendations as well.]

Science Fiction and Fantasy

The first installment in the Hugo and Nebula award–winning trilogy follows Binti, the first of the Himba people to attend Oomza University. Isolated from her culture and her customs, Binti must then embark on a journey in the pursuit of peace between two worlds. She must also learn to tap into her own power to stay alive. Earlier this year, Okorafor signed on as a writer for a television-series adaptation of Binti for Hulu, so there’s still time to catch up before the Afrofuturistic novella trilogy hits the streaming service. —Gabrielle Sanchez


If you’ve spent some time over quarantine revisiting the Twilight series, you’re not alone. However, if you found yourself looking for new content to dive into, Stephenie Meyer delivered in this year of our Lord 2020. Following a leaked draft back in 2008, Meyer shelved the anticipated follow-up to Twilight, which tells the story from Edward Cullen’s point of view. However, this year she announced the official release of Midnight Sun, 15 years after she began writing the book. Not a disappointment in the least, Midnight Sun gives more insight to the young, brooding vampire with the ability to read minds, and how he falls in love with the clumsy mortal Bella Swan. —GS

With the delays in its film release and quarantine extending into 2021, you can finally take the time to read (or reread) the 1965 science-fiction novel that set the course of the genre for the last 55 years. When Frank Herbert penned this legendary novel, he imagined a world far away, but certainly could never have imagined that Timotheé Chalamet would have the starring role in the film adaptation. —GS

In her first novel since her triple Hugo Award–winning Broken Earth series, N.K. Jemisin wonders, “What does the soul of New York look like?” Her answer is in five New Yorkers from the different boroughs, who must protect the city from Lovecraftian evils while taking on the xenophobia and racism that Lovecraft peddled in his writing. Considered the most celebrated science-fiction and fantasy writer of her generation, Jemisin gives the pulse of New York City many forms. —GS


Writer James Tynion IV’s take on the Caped Crusader has been a welcome departure from the plethora of self-serious Batman stories that the last decade-plus have given us. Paired with artists like Guillem March and Tony Daniel, Tynion’s run takes its story seriously without taking itself too seriously, allowing the sort of ridiculous fun superhero comics are so uniquely capable of without dumbing down. While the standout crossover Joker War won’t be collected until next year, the superhero fan in your life would do well to catch up on the first chunk of the run, which introduces the villainous Designer and Joker’s new love interest, Punchline. —Tres Dean

It’s increasingly rare in American comics to come across a book that you can legitimately call one of a kind. Lonnie Nadler and Jenna Cha’s is that unique sort of book. Set in the Canadian wilderness during the late 1800s, it draws from a deep well of horror influences from Lovecraft to Alan Moore, anchored by Cha’s genuinely unsettling interior art. It’s the perfect winter read, the sort that will leave an extra chill in your bones and have you looking at the cold night sky with fear and wonder alike. —TD

Published in February of 2020, Ben Passmore’s Sports Is Hell proved itself perhaps unintentionally prophetic. A chaotic meditation on the tradition of the all-American sports riot, it hits a different chord after the events of this past year, touching on everything from the expression of communal anger to the necessity of action in place of passive resistance. This is the book to pick up for your friend who seems to have read every comic under the sun. There’s a good chance they missed this small-press gem. —TD


At this point it feels like every year or two Japanese horror maestro Junji Ito drops a new contender for the title of his magnum opus. No Longer Human may not quite qualify for that honor, as it’s an adaptation of Osamu Dazai’s largely autobiographical novel of the same title. Still, the dense tome is among Ito’s best work, suggesting that what he finds most terrifying isn’t walking fish or spiral-induced insanity, but rather going through life having successfully fooled people into thinking you’re normal. —TD

Ed Brubaker. Sean Phillips. That should be more than enough to sell any comics fan on this one. The duo has been working together in some form or another for nearly 20 years and have only gotten better with age. Their 2020 output has proven prolific but there’s nothing that stands out quite like Pulp, an homage to not a single genre but the medium of pulp novels at large. A lean, mean book featuring everything from outlaw cowboys to Nazi spies, it’s the can’t-miss book of the year. —TD


Alexis Daria has written one of the best books you could gift to anyone this year, whether they’ve read romance before or not. Actress Jasmine Rodriguez is coming off of a very messy breakup splashed all over the tabloids, so her next outing — a telenovela for a popular streaming service — is a way to achieve her dream of leading lady status. Meanwhile, Ashton Suárez is making a last-ditch effort to revitalize his lagging career, but he’ll need to generate some chemistry with his new co-star in order to keep himself relevant in Hollywood’s eyes. All those long nights rehearsing and intensive work with the show’s intimacy coordinator can only lead to one thing, but neither Jasmine or Ashton are entirely prepared for the buzz their series generates — or the secrets it could threaten to uncover between them. —Carly Lane

Rosie Danan’s debut is a self-described “raunch-com” that seeks to reclaim the term from its pejorative connotations — and does so to undeniably memorable effect. East Coast socialite Clara Wheaton uproots her life for the possibility of a long-awaited romance with her childhood crush, only to find he’s stranded her in California to go touring with his band. Enter Josh, who swoops in at the eleventh hour to share the lease for the summer. When Clara realizes her new roomie is a famous adult performer, it’s the inspiration she needs to develop an interest in tackling the widely held stigmas around female pleasure — all while navigating her burgeoning tension with a porn star who’s more than happy to show her a few things. —CL

In a sea of Austen remakes and reinterpretations, how do you make yours stand out from the rest of the pack? Make it queer, you cowards. Alexandria Bellefleur’s debut is a sparkler of chemistry and wit, and the perfect holiday-set romance that takes long-familiar characters and tropes and repackages them in a way that makes the story feel fresh. Darcy Lowell has just come off a disaster of a blind date, but she can’t tell her well-meaning brother that or he’ll just try to set her up again. Instead, she goes for the lie, pretending that she and astrologer Elle Jones hit it off after all. But when that fib spirals out of control, Darcy and Elle reluctantly agree to pretend they’re dating with a preplanned expiration date of New Year’s Eve — just long enough to get their families off their backs. What happens when real feelings spark during a fake relationship? —CL

As a writer who got their start in fandom circles on the internet, I’ve always been fascinated by how much overlap fanfiction and romance truly share as art that is often misperceived or derided — and Dade’s contemporary romance feels like a love letter to both. Marcus Caster-Rupp is starring on one of the most popular TV shows around, Gods of the Gates (based on a popular fantasy series, wink wink nudge), but he’s secretly been writing fanfiction to work out his own personal frustrations with how his character has been handled. When he notices a fan has posted her cosplay photos on Twitter, he decides to ask her out to spite the hate from toxic bros, but what he doesn’t know is that April Whittier is also one of his closest and longest-running fandom friends, too. —CL

The best thing about romance is that there’s a subgenre for everyone, including those of us who like our fantasy high, epic, and spectacularly bloody. When Parsathean warrior Maddek learns that his parents have been brutally murdered by a supposed ally, his intention is to seek revenge by any means necessary. Kidnapping the king’s daughter seems like a foolproof plan, but the woman is anything but predictable. Yvenne may look slight and weak from years of being held captive in a tower, but she has her own list of grudges to deliver against her family. Not only that, but she suggests they take it one step further by getting married. Their begrudging alliance may be bound in blood, but their mission to claim their respective thrones and wreak vengeance on Yvenne’s father will start them down the path to a different kind of desire — for each other. —CL

Young Adult

Carry On, by Rainbow Rowell

Carry On follows Simon Snow, the golden child, the Chosen One at the Watford School of Magicks. Baz Pitch is his moody, uber-wealthy nemesis and roommate with a secret. As things begin to fall apart around Simon, he finds himself turning more and more to the person he trusts least. Think of it as a gay Harry Potter (if Harry and Draco Malfoy fell in love), with a non-problematic author and better representations of people of color. The second installment takes Simon and Baz on a roadtrip through the U.S. With the third book in the series on its way, you can wrap up these hefty books just in time to continue on their adventure. —GS

In a divine mix of magic, romance, and revolution that calls upon Bolivia’s cultural and political history, Woven in Moonlight tells the tale of Ximena as she uses her ability to spin thread from moonlight to gain what her people have lost to usurper Atoc. —GS

The Hunger Games prequel, released in May of this year, sends readers back 64 years, to the tenth Hunger Games, where a young Coriolanus Snow takes on the role of a mentor. Providing a complicated look at the future tyrannical leader, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes provides the origins to the political and socioeconomic forces behind Panem, and how the need for survival pushes people beyond what they thought possible. —GS

Described as The Hating Game meets Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist, Rachel Lynn Solomon’s tender look at the quickly changing nature of love follows Rowan Roth and Neil McClair, two over-achieving academics, on the eve of their high school graduation. Neil’s already won valedictorian, so a determined Roth makes it her mission to win the senior class game, until she finds herself teaming up with him. —GS

This dual narrative novel, written in verse, follows the converging lives of Camino Rios and Yahaira Rios, two sisters who only learn of each other’s existence following the loss of their father in a plane crash. Camino, living in the Dominican Republic, and Yahaira, in New York City, trace their families’ secrets back to each other, and in their mutual loss, gain something entirely new. —GS



Asian American is an unwieldy term that Korean American poet and critic Cathy Park Hong takes up in this collection. Across seven fiery essays, Hong analyzes the model-minority myth, intergenerational trauma, the power of linguistic slippage, and more, leaving the reader with a sharpened understanding of inter- and intra-racial dynamics in America. Her essays meld criticism, memoir, theory, and history — highlights include a deep dive into the power of Richard Pryor’s comedy and a look at fraught Asian American friendships. Minor Feelings both untangles and complicates Asian American identity. —Allisen Lichtenstein

World of Wonders is a delightful collection of short essays accompanied by gorgeous illustrations. Intertwining the natural world with her personal history, Aimee Nezhukumatathil details memories of family, love, and growing up brown in America: being told what lipsticks to not wear because of the color of her skin, and family trips filled with blinking bioluminescent fireflies. Each essay is a joyous reminder that the world we inhabit is not ours alone. This essay collection will make you look at the trees in your yard a bit tenderly, dig out some old photos, call your family, and maybe fill you with a bit more hope, resilience, and wonder. —AL

In her third essay collection, Samantha Irby performs alchemy, turning an anxiety-ridden mind into comedic gold. Irby is a homeowner, TV writer, and stepmom. Despite seeming put together, she, like many of us, is filled with existential anxiety. Watch her make friends in adulthood, pitch shows to Hollywood with Broad City’s Abbi Jacobson, and stepparent two white kids. Irby also delves into the world of bodily functions and chronic illness with a raw and hilarious frankness that never undermines the seriousness of her subjects. Reading this book is like catching up with your funniest friend. —AL


Shakespeare wrote King Lear during a plague; Zadie Smith wrote Intimations, an unsurprisingly brilliant essay collection, during this pandemic. Smith’s writing etches an image of New York and the people who call it home, like her masseuse Ben, and her neighbor Barbara, who has an accent from an identifiable era and borough. The essays speak to our current moment with levity and shout-outs to banana bread. But Smith doesn’t shy away from subjects of gravity — the scourge of racism, the murder of George Floyd, and the brute suffering caused by the pandemic. The collection is gorgeous and short, perfect for those who find their attention scattered in quarantine. —AL

Celebrity Memoir


“I’ll take Ugly Crying While Reading for 400, Alex.” Trebek’s memoir would make any Jeopardy! fan sob when it was published in July, but reading it after his death from pancreatic cancer on November 8 is positively devastating — but it’s well worth the tears. In The Answer Is…, the beloved Canadian broadcaster shares behind-the-scenes stories from his tenure on Jeopardy!, of course, but also shares his thoughts on marriage, family, faith, and fame. The portrait it paints is of a sweet, smart, sensitive guy with a fascinating and fulfilling life. —Emily Palmer Heller

The Meaning of Mariah Carey

Most celebrity memoirs are pretty dishy, but leave it to diva Mariah Carey to really dish. The pop icon has been teasing a book for years, but now it’s real: She finally released the fantastically titled The Meaning of Mariah Carey in 2020, coinciding with her 30th anniversary in the music industry. Carey opens up about many of the infamous moments from her 30-year career, including her 2001 “breakdown,” which she claims to barely remember, and her bizarre 2017 New Year’s Rockin’ Eve performance, which she blames on the cold weather. —EPH


Come for the Nick Lachey gossip, stay for the surprisingly intimate reflections on a life lived as tabloid fodder. Jessica Simpson’s memoir covers all the bases from body-shaming (remember when Twitter called her fat for wearing high-waisted jeans??) and alcoholism to joking about her infamous “chicken or fish?” moment. Released in February, Open Book is now a New York Times best seller that’s getting an Amazon Studios series based on Simpson’s life story. —EPH

More coffee-table book than memoir, Dolly Parton, Songteller compiles photos, stories, and history behind the Queen of Country’s iconic songwriting career. All of the hits are covered, including “9 to 5,”“Jolene,” and “I Will Always Love You,” but Dolly goes way deeper by revisiting songs she wrote with her onetime partner Porter Wagoner, and even those she wrote for films like Joyful Noise and Blue Valley Songbird. If 2020 has proven anything, it’s that this is Dolly Parton’s world and we’re just living in it. —EPH



For those hip to this year’s endless Bon Appétit drama, rest assured that you can still adore former recipe developer and BA Gourmet Makes sweetheart Claire Saffitz, who left the publication in May. Leaning into her knack for all things sweet, Saffitz released her first cookbook in October, which offers meticulous guidance to typical baking kinks with the hopes of awakening everyone’s inner dessert person. —GS

From the heart of New Orleans comes 100 recipes that promise perfection in southern baking. Surprise your grandmother with this book to up her baking game, or at the next family gathering when your peach cobbler outshines hers. —GS

An excellent pick for anyone wanting to traverse the vegan culinary world. No meat substitutes will be found in any of the 100 recipes, just plant-based ways to make grains, veggies, and legumes shine. —GS

In lieu of late-night excursions to New York’s iconic noodle shop following evenings of bar-hopping and God knows what else, Xi’an Famous Foods is bringing all of their recipes to you. For those tired of ordering Chinese takeout during quarantine, give yourself the challenge of making it yourself. —GS

For those who began their cottagecore fantasies this year by baking lots of bread, Bryan Ford goes in-depth on all things sourdough. As the long title suggests, pan de coco, bagels, beignets, and more are definitely on the menu, as well as challah, pizza dough, and pita. —GS

Books (That Aren’t Political Memoirs) to Gift this Holiday