While the year might be slowing down, these authors sure are not. These top picks for what to read this month start with a smart and lively historical novel set in England and span to a rural Chinese town suffering from "dreamwalking." December also brings the latest Man Booker Prize-winning novel, a rich collection of fantastical stories from a Hugo Award winner, and Louise Penny's latest Chief Inspector Gamache thriller, all of which make excellent gifts for loved ones. And hey, don’t forget to get yourself a present while shopping this holiday season. You’ve been good this year, right?
When a man bursts into a riverside inn on the longest night of the year, covered in blood and carrying a dead child, the patrons of the Swan are beyond thrilled to find themselves in the middle of a swiftly unfolding tale — especially when the child is determined to actually be alive. Weaving among the turmoil is a buoyant dance between science and superstition, as Darwinism, psychiatry, and scientific observation waltz with skullduggery, a curiously wise pig, and a spectral river patrol. As Diane Setterfield juggles a colorful mob of characters whose lives are upended by the mysterious young girl, the joy of storytelling permeates every moment in this lively and wise historical novel. —Adrian Liang
N.K. Jemisin has been sweeping science fiction and fantasy awards for years with her Broken Earth novels. Now Jemisin gathers almost two dozen short stories she crafted during her writing career, and, golly, you can see "award winner" on every page. Each one of Jemisin's tales is gloriously bright and complex, thrusting you forward to read the next, and the one after that, and so forth, until suddenly it's morning and you find you haven't gotten a wink of sleep. The collection's title reflects Jemisin's realization that much of the science fiction she read excluded characters of color, making it seem as if people like her had no place in writers' dreams of the future. These stories reshape that vision through the lens of alternate history, dragons, fairies, near-future drama, and far-future events that spotlight the age-old blight of discrimination and upend readers' assumptions about who can be heroic. Through her imagination and fierceness, Jemisin declares that Black Future Month can be now. —Adrian Liang
Chief Inspector Gamache is on the ropes, professionally speaking, as a shipment of opioids that escaped him in the past makes its way to the streets of Montreal. Heads will roll, and Gamache’s noggin is top of the list. Meanwhile, Gamache, Myrna, and a neighboring man are informed that they’ve been named executors to the estate of a woman who had given herself the delusionary title of Baroness. It’s quizzical until it turns deadly and a beneficiary is found dead in the woman’s decrepit house. Reading Penny’s deceptively loose plots, the reader gets distracted by the priest-like Gamache marshaling his flock, personal and professional, attuned to any strays he may need to take under his protective wing. It isn’t until Penny pulls the final string that the plot goes taut, the smoke and mirrors fall away, Gamache’s true game plan is revealed, and the evil that was hiding in the blind spots is exposed in this dark, slow-burning, and masterful thriller. —Vannessa Cronin
No one in Milkman, winner of the 2018 Man Booker Prize, has a name. The place isn’t named either, although it appears to be 1970s Belfast. This stream-of-consciousness novel is essentially about borders — the ones we try to maintain between ourselves and others: families, cities, countries, belief systems, even time itself. The story revolves around “middle sister,” who keeps to herself and only likes to read old books because she’s not a fan of the 20th Century. When a local man with a dangerous reputation takes an unwelcome interest in her, she is unable to repel him and seems incapable of breaking the chain of innuendo that surrounds her as a result. The issues in Milkman seem very relevant to today — #MeToo, cultural and political tribalism, gossip and opinion presented as fact — but this is a modernist novel and should be viewed through that prism first. It won’t be every reader’s cup of tea. It’s a rare vintage from an island that has no name. —Chris Schluep
There was a time — before Fidel Castro died and Cuba was "opened" to tourism in 2014 — that Cuba cast a mysterious spell over would-be travelers. A country frozen in time with decrepit colonial architecture looming over resplendent beaches and vintage cars, all forbidden to outsiders by forces on both sides. In 2009, young photographer David Ariosto landed a coveted two-year assignment in Havana, where he observed of a country struggling to shift out of a Cold War mindset while the outside world inevitably leaked in. With evocative prose and an insightful eye for the details of everyday life — large and small — This Is Cuba captures the island country at a crossroads as it faces an uncertain future. —Jon Foro
New York in the 1970s and early 1980s was a tough city, with rampant poverty, drugs, crime, and grime, but it was also a vibrant, creative, non-corporate place of creative ambition. The “Dakota” in The Dakota Winters is the famous Upper West Side building where John Lennon lived, and the Winters are a family that resides there. Buddy Winter is a well-known talk show host who suffered a nervous breakdown several years ago, and his son, Anton, who contracted malaria while in the Peace Corps, has returned to get his own small apartment in the Dakota and figure out where to go from there. The drama in this story begins when Buddy asks Anton to help him get back on his professional feet. Set in and around New York, up in Lake Placid during the Olympics, and venturing as far as Bermuda, The Dakota Winters is warm and entertaining, very sharp in its observations, and feels a little bit like a novel from another era. —Chris Schluep
In any other hands, this novel centered around performance artist Marina Abramović’s famous 2010 MoMA exhibit titled The Artist Is Present might not have worked. But Heather Rose’s poetic language, at once both accessible and heart-searing, is also a work of art. Movie composer Arky Levin is depressed and isolated from the family he’s known for 24 years after being written out of his wife’s legal wishes when she falls into a coma. He should be working on music for a new animated movie, but instead finds himself sitting on the sidelines watching Abramović’s silent performance every day. Over time, he is completely changed by the experience. This is a captivating story on the improbability of life and the power of art to transform our pain, and a meditation on the fluidity of time and the ruse of human separation. —Marlene Kelly
What would you do if your son was a terrorist, responsible for the deaths of many and, ultimately, himself? Would you mourn the loss? Would you support his wife and stepchildren, sponsoring their livelihood and their move from Somalia to Norway? What would you do if his wife’s strict adherence to Islam and her violent past made it nearly impossible for her to assimilate? Would you trust her? Would you defend your son’s family? Do you encourage notions of freedom with his children? In North of Dawn, Nuruddin Farah confronts these questions head-on. Told from alternating vantage points and across several years, Farah weaves an emotional tale that pits the past against the future, pushing the limits of loyalty and love, family and religion, to their breaking points. —Al Woodworth
Watching You is a twisty cat-and-mouse thriller of voyeurism, obsession, and murder. Multiple narratives guide the action, which begins with a brutal death and works backwards to unmask the killer. A charming little English town is the ideal setting for characters who become more complex and intriguing as the pages go by. It’s not just the adults keeping a watchful eye on the neighbors and trying to uncover each other’s secrets — a couple of the local teenagers also have their own theories as to who is doing what, and with whom. Everyone in this quaint neighborhood seems to have a secret they’re desperate to keep, but whose is worth killing for? Lisa Jewell keeps readers guessing all the way through to an ending you won’t see coming. —Seira Wilson
During a 24-hour period in a Chinese rural village in the Balou Mountains, people begin “dreamwalking” — going about their business even though the sun has set. Fourteen-year-old Li watches as the dreamwalking continues, and the villagers’ actions grow more sinister. Greed bubbles up. Jealousy turns to malice. Tradition and connection are buried beneath mindless industry. There are many deaths, many murders. Li’s uncle owns a crematorium, and the uncle grows very rich. Yan Lianke is one of China’s most popular and important writers, using satire to produce jarring social commentary — his aim is to reveal what exists just beneath the surface. The narrative can be repetitive and meandering at times, but something very powerful lies among these pages. There is a reason Yan’s books are often banned in China. And there’s a reason he is so beloved by readers there as well. —Chris Schluep
Dr. Seuss’s classic holiday tale, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, snakes across the floor to nab the No. 16 spot on the Most Sold list for fiction this week. While a holiday staple, the greenie meanie is venturing outside his snowy home on Mount Crumpit even more this season. Notable sightings include a new movie starring Benedict Cumberbatch as well as floating down Central Park West for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. In a 1957 article in Redbook — two months after that publication first ran the original story — Seuss revealed he hoped writing Grinch would help him “rediscover something about Christmas that obviously I'd lost.” Rediscover for yourself with Seuss’s signature whimsical verse and feel your heart grow three sizes bigger (in a medically safe way).