Dec 15 2009 11:15am

Foolproof Holiday Gift Books

Many of us celebrate some kind of winter holiday around this time of year. If you don’t, or if it’s summer where you are, I hope you’re having a lovely calm December.

The Montreal Gazette, my local daily newspaper, really annoyed me with a feature in Saturday’s “Books” section. They’re normally a pretty good local paper, covering local and national and international news the way North American papers do. They have a terrific restaurant column, and a great little thing on Wednesdays that tells you what fruit and vegetables are in season, in town, and good value for money. Their book coverage is normally pretty good, too—but not this week. This week’s “Books” supplement is headed chirpily “Dozens of reviews grouped by theme to help gift shoppers buy books for the readers on their lists.” It might as well say “Remember those scary rectangular things with words in they made you read in school? If you’re unfortunate enough to know someone who inexplicably likes them, while you’re rushing around like crazy finding something for everyone, even the weirdos, we can help you choose an unobjectionable one.” Their lists are bland and boring and full of bestsellers. If anyone had any interest in these books they’d already own them. My sympathies are with the poor readers on Christmas morning who tear off the paper thinking “Oh good, a book!” only to find disappointment.

But have no fear of strange rectangular objects with words in them! I can suggest something for everyone who loves books.

The first thing you should do is check if your friend or relative has an Amazon wishlist, or any other accessible public list of books they want. If they do, that’s the end of the problem and the ideal solution, you can just buy them as many as you can afford.

Next, try asking them if they have a list of books they’re looking for.

If this fails, or you don’t want to ask, then my top choice for any random person who loves books would be Francis Spufford’s The Boy That Books Built. This is a memoir about growing up a reader, and the ways this was both good and bad. It’s fascinating and most readers will find something they recognise in it. People have been recommending this to me for a few years, and I finally bought it this summer. They were all right, I loved it. You and your reading friends will love it, too. I haven’t reviewed it here because I’ve only read it once so far. I did review, and thoroughly recommend Francis Spufford’s The Backroom Boys, a book about the last fifty years of technology and society.

After that, it’s a case of what do they like? Are they an artist, or a creator of any kind? Try Steven Brust’s The Sun, the Moon, and the Stars. Do they read genre, rarely stepping outside it, but you have no idea what books they have? How about Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, good science fiction but published as mainstream where a lot of genre readers didn’t see it or assumed it would make elementary mistakes.

For any child or any adult who likes whimsy done without sentimentality, there’s a reissue of Joan Aiken’s The Serial Garden: The Complete Armitage Stories. These are short stories about Mark and Harriet Armitage and the strange things that happen to them. They’re completely charming and manage to be funny and serious at the same time. The title story is the only thing guaranteed to make me laugh and cry. And the publishers, Small Beer Press, are having a sale and giving a percentage of sales to a children’s hospital so you can buy a great book, get a deal, and do good all for the same dollar. While you’re there, you might want to consider buying Greer Gilman’s complex and astonishing Cloud and Ashes for any friends who love words and layered fantasy. Other brilliant books from Small Beer include Angelica Gorodischer’s Kalpa Imperial, which I reviewed in the spring. It’s likely to appeal to people who read literary fiction but don’t mind a little fantasy as well as to genre readers. They have lots of good possibilities.

If the people “on your list” like fantasy, consider buying them the whole set of Daniel Abraham’s terrific Long Price Quartet or, if that’s outside your budget, the first one, A Shadow in Summer. I wrote about them in detail when I re-read them this summer, they’re among the best things I’ve read this year.

If they like science fiction, well, my favourite book of last year, Anathem, is out in paperback. But there’s a high risk they already have it. But my favourite book of the year before, Susan Palwick’s Shelter, remains obscure. Or how about Karl Schroeder’s Virga books? (First one: Sun of Suns). They’re the kind of science fiction that uses real science and real physics projected into the future. So Virga is a huge hollow ball the size of a solar system but full of air, and suns, and people living in wooden spacestations with pedal-powered gravity spin. These are fast paced adventures in a truly fascinating background that all makes sense. I think Schroeder is probably the most exciting science fiction writer to emerge so far this century, and he could do with more attention.

Then there’s Rosemary Kirstein’s The Steerswoman’s Road and sequels, some of my favourite books of all time. I wrote about them. They’re wonderful. It’s also worth mentioning that my son lapped them up when he was fifteen, so they clearly appeal a lot to that most difficult gift-recipient, the teenage boy.

If you were thinking of buying one of the Jane Austen manglings, consider instead Patricia Wrede and Caroline Stevermer’s Sorcery and Cecelia, a regency romance with magic. It’s written in epistolary form—the two writers wrote letters to each other, in character, and let the plot develop. It’s absolutely delightful. And if your friends own it already, there are two sequels, check their shelves. (Checking their shelves is rather easier if you live close by, I do appreciate that.)

If you have teenage readers, try Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin, the story of going to college and meeting the Queen of Air and Darkness. Or Ursula Le Guin’s Annals of the Western Shore. Or Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother—though I hesitate, because this has been a bestseller and they may already have it.

If you really can’t decide and can’t ask them, if you don’t know what they like or what they’ve got, simply put $40 inside a card and write “This is for you to buy yourself a book.” A friend of mine a few years ago gave a Christmas gift of a book a month—they went out together to the bookshop, the recipient chose the book, my friend paid for it and they had lunch afterwards. Wouldn’t that be lovely? Wouldn’t it any any rate be nicer than tearing the paper off a book-shaped object that turned out to be some celebrity’s diet secrets?

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published eight novels, most recently Half a Crown and Lifelode, and two poetry collections. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

Ursula L
1. Ursula
A friend of mine a few years ago gave a Christmas gift of a book a month—they went out together to the bookshop, the recipient chose the book, my friend paid for it and they had lunch afterwards.

That may possibly be the most perfect gift I've ever heard of.
Rob Munnelly
2. RobMRobM
Jo - did you see that the website i09 just named your book Tooth and Claw one of the best 20 sci-fi/fantany books of the last decade? Congrats. Rob
3. hapax
My "secret weapon" book is John Myers Myers SILVERLOCK, but that's partly because everybody knows that I think that this is the Greatest Book Ever Written and when I give it as a gift it means that I consider you *worthy* of reading SILVERLOCK. :-)

Usually I like to visit my friendly used bookstore and put together themed baskets, that include a selection of paperbacks and token gifts -- romances, bubble bath, and a candle; mysteries, tea, and mug; sf, geeky cubicle widgets, and a goofy t-shirt; manga, pocky, and a anime figurine; etc. -- together with a gift certificate for "further purchases."

Nobody at least has told me that they hated them...
Jo Walton
4. bluejo
Hapax: I think that sounds terrific.

RobM: Yes, I did see that, it's very kind of them. It's also in print in an Orb edition and would make an excellent gift for a wide range of people.
Liza .
5. aedifica
Excellent thoughts, Jo. Though I'd add that if someone reading this wants to take the "put money in a card" option but doesn't want to spend $40 on that recipient, $10, $20, or $30 would also work very well (I'm referring to USD, since that's the currency I know best and buy books in).
Marc Houle
6. MightyMarc
Jo, Jo, Jo, when will you learn not to read the Gazette for anything other than Jack Todd and restaurant reviews? Succumb to the dark side and switch to La Presse.

The Steerwoman's Road is the best suggestion I've seen all year. Thanks!
Rob Munnelly
7. RobMRobM
Jo - I should note that I saw the i09 story from a link on Fark.com, which has a huge readership and regularly wins Webbie awards for best online community. So, who knows, maybe you'll get a couple of additional books sold this holiday season due to the power of Fark. Rob
8. Rush-That-Speaks
I would slightly amend the Jane Austen knockoff comment to say that Vera Nazarian's Mansfield Park and Mummies, which is not, repeat not, a Massive Corporate Product but rather a labor of love and a last attempt at financial solvency, is available and worthwhile.

(Context here. Book's website here. I recommend looking over the entire Norilana catalogue-- Vera has great taste and is Good People.)
9. Suemoe
Thanks for the great list! I selfishly look forward to vetting the list before the presents are wrapped.

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