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Spanning 30 years, Mantel Pieces: Royal Bodies and Other Writing From the London Review of Books delivers a wonderful sampling of Wolf Hall author Hilary Mantel's nonfiction work, which includes essays, reviews and autobiographical writings. In these erudite yet accessible pieces, Mantel tackles a variety of topics, from Anne Boleyn's sister-in-law and other figures of Tudor history, to pop singer Madonna, to England's current royal family. Mantel's commanding intelligence and inimitable style are on full display throughout. Her examinations of history, female identity and popular culture make this collection an excellent book club pick.

Zadie Smith reflects on an unprecedented time in America in Intimations, a collection of six essays focusing on the year 2020. Despite its brevity, this powerful book gives book clubs plenty to talk about. In sharply observed, compassionate prose, Smith examines politics, the murder of George Floyd and its repercussions, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and life under lockdown. Themes of isolation, social justice, family and the writing process will provide points of connection for all types of readers as Smith draws on personal experience to create essays that are moving and resonant.

In The End of the End of the Earth, Jonathan Franzen explores environmental concerns and reflects on writers past and present. Franzen, who is a passionate birder, visits locales across the globe to indulge his passion, and his travels supply wonderful material for some of the book's central pieces. There are also essays on authors Edith Wharton and William T. Vollmann, which offer new perspectives on both authors. Written with humility, humor and visionary insight, Franzen's wide-ranging collection is certain to generate rewarding dialogue among book club members.

The Source of Self-Regard: Selected Essays, Speeches, and Meditations brings together key nonfiction writings by Toni Morrison (1931–2019). Covering four decades, the volume collects more than 40 pieces including Morrison's eulogy for James Baldwin, her Nobel Prize lecture on the importance of language, commencement speeches and works of political analysis and literary criticism. Morrison's impassioned views on race, feminism and American society ensure that this book will stand the test of time. Reading groups will find no shortage of rich discussion material here.

Four beloved authors turn to the essay form in these incisive collections.

New Native Kitchen

Perfect gift for: Your foodie spouse who loves gardening and open-fire grilling

In New Native Kitchen, Navajo chef Freddie Bitsoie, previously of the Mitsitam Native Foods Cafe in the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, celebrates the cuisines of Indigenous cultures while respecting and revering "hyperlocal" regional distinctions in these foodways and traditions. Bitsoie, who came to cooking via cultural anthropology and art history, aims to tell "edible stories that allow people to appreciate the living artifact of food." Here, with the help of James Beard Award-winning author James O. Fraioli, Bitsoie introduces readers to key elements of the Native pantry, such as nopales (cactus paddles), Navajo steam corn, sumac powder and tepary beans, many of which can be ordered online or found at specialty spice shops. From a sumac Navajo leg of lamb with onion sauce, to a Makah crab boil, to Choctaw bison chili, Bitsoie covers the vast North American continent and its islands in this important book.

Wild Sweetness

Perfect gift for: Your boho friend with a shortbread obsession

With full-page photographs of winter branches, gently wilting roses and foggy ponds, Thalia Ho's Wild Sweetness is as much a moody evocation of nature's evanescence as it is a sumptuous celebration of dessert. Grouped by season, the recipes range from comfy American standards like cinnamon buns and gingersnaps to frangipane tart and a fig clove fregolotta. All possess a delicate quality and some flower, spice or other ingredient redolent of the natural world. Cream seems a visual motif, showing up, for example, in a juniper ice cream, a frosted chamomile tea cake, a lemon curd streusel cake and amaretti. But deep, dark chocolate is at play too—in ganache thumbprints, drunken fig brownies and a beetroot mud cake, among others sheer delights.

À Table

Perfect gift for: The hip newlyweds next door with the adorable dog

Is anything sexier than a good French cookbook? Rebekah Peppler's À Table reveals and revels in the charms of long, casual French dinners with friends, and Peppler leads with blithe wit as she shares a modern take on entertaining. (She won me over instantly with the words "Hemingway was a supreme ass" in a recipe for Chambéry cassis, an aperitif.) Women are at the center of Peppler's vision, one in which we dispense with yesteryear's formalities in favor of long, carefree nights of smart conversation, mismatched plates and zero pretension. Ouais, cherie. On to olives with saucisson and roast chicken with prunes! On to daube de boeuf and (vegan!) French onion soup with cognac! You'll love the mellow-but-decadent vibe, even if you feel un petit peu jalouse of Peppler's Parisian coterie.

Black Food

Perfect gift for: Cultural mavens, globetrotters and aesthetes

Chef and Vegetable Kingdom author Bryant Terry assembles a large all-star team for his glorious new Black Food, "a communal shrine to the shared culinary histories of the African diaspora." I love this trend of cookbooks that are so openly ambitious, with essays and poetry, visual art and historical context, all of it standing strong alongside the food. Structured by themes such as motherland; Black women, food and power; and Black, queer, food—each with a corresponding playlist—this vibrant, immersive book pulls from many foodways and regions of the globe, with Black chefs, intellectuals and tastemakers leading the way. We encounter dishes as diverse as Somali lamb stew, Bajan fish cakes, Ghanaian crepe cake, vegan black-eyed pea beignets and, at last, for the perfect finish, Edna Lewis' fresh peach cobbler. Terry also shares a recipe for Pili Pili oil, which adds an herbaceous, spicy kick to anything you drizzle it over.

Tables & Spreads

Perfect gift for: Your sister-in-law who loves to host and is always leveling up

I am not a big entertainer, but I love a good snack-meal. And there's something delightful about artfully arranging a table full of nibbles for guests: curious cheeses, spiced nuts, tangy jams, decadent dips and a handful of rosemary sprigs plucked from the garden. Whether this sounds fun, anxiety-producing or a bit of both, Tables & Spreads is here to help you party. Shelly Westerhausen, master of Instagram-worthy tablescapes, shares themes for every occasion, from dips for dinner, to a savory focaccia party, to a Christmas morning Dutch baby party. Special attention is given to what Westerhausen dubs the "wow factor": decorative and mood-setting details such as color themes, decanters and candles of varying heights, along with floral arrangements. Informational charts abound with practical assists; my favorite may be "Portioning a Spread," right down to tablespoons of dip or pieces of crudites, so you don't over- or under-buy.

This holiday season, whether you're hosting or showing up with a single covered dish, let one of these outstanding cookbooks be your guide.

The Left-Handed Twin

Edgar Award-winning author Thomas Perry returns with The Left-Handed Twin, his ninth novel featuring guide Jane Whitefield, a member of the Wolf clan of the Seneca Nation of Indians. The term guide does not entirely describe Whitefield's job; she serves as a one-woman witness protection program, spiriting people out of life-threatening situations and into new and safer existences. This time out, she assists a young woman who testified against her boyfriend in a murder trial only to see him acquitted and bent on revenge. The first part of the task is fairly straightforward, utilizing the obfuscation skills Jane has honed over the years, but it all starts to go sideways when the ex-boyfriend enlists the help of the Russian mob, a group with an agenda of its own in locating Jane: extracting information from her about past clients who ran afoul of the mob. Suddenly, she finds herself on the run, and the safest places for her are the forests and fields of Maine's Hundred-Mile Wilderness, one of the ancestral Seneca territories where she holds the home-court advantage over lifetime city dwellers. Still, her Russian adversaries are nothing if not determined, and there are at least a couple of times when readers will wonder if this is the book where Jane's story comes to an untimely end.

Bryant & May: London Bridge Is Falling Down

Spoiler alert: London Bridge Is Falling Down marks the final installment of Christopher Fowler's beloved Bryant and May series. With each passing book, the Peculiar Crimes Unit, which solves murders that stump other branches of law enforcement, finds itself more critically threatened with closure. Both protagonists, cranky Arthur Bryant and the urbane and charming John May, are getting rather long in the tooth (in Bryant's case, long in the dentures), and cases don't present quite as frequently as they once did. So in hopes of postponing the inevitable, Bryant goes in search of a case and turns one up: Amelia Hoffman, age 91, whose death does not entirely fall into the catch-all of natural causes. Hoffman had something of a chequered (the English spelling must be used here) past, as it turns out, and before long the case develops into a full-blown conspiracy investigation. The narrative neatly straddles the blurry line separating espionage fiction from straight-up suspense, and adds for good measure a mean streets of London travelogue and more than a little laugh-out-loud but still dry British humor. Lovers of this series need not despair (well, not yet). Next year, we will see Bryant and May's Peculiar London, a companion travelogue of sorts in which fan-favorite characters will hilariously dish on their home city while ambling about its streets, and there will be no dead bodies to be found anywhere.  

So Far and Good

For the better part of 30 years, I have counted myself as a major fan of John Straley's sporadic series featuring Alaska-based PI Cecil Younger. From the outset, 1992's Shamus Award-winning The Woman Who Married a Bear, the books have combined grittiness, social issues and introspection with whimsy and slapstick, as the hapless investigator moves from crisis to crisis, both business and personal. So Far and Good, the latest adventure, finds Cecil serving seven-plus years in prison for homicide, arguably a necessary one. His daughter, Blossom, visits him regularly, and this time she has an interesting tale to tell: Her best friend took a DNA test to surprise her mom with an ancestry-related gift and discovered that she and her "mom" were not in any way related. As it turns out, this friend was abducted as an infant, and the case has remained unsolved for the past 16 years. Should be a happy ending, right? Instead, it serves as the catalyst for a suspicious suicide, a near-homicide and assorted disappearances. And Blossom joins the missing, it will take all of his considerable savvy, not to mention a reversal of his inherent unluckiness, to set his world back in order (more or less) once again. 

★ War Women

The year that John Straley's first Cecil Younger book appeared, 1992, also marked the debut of Martin Limón's excellent series featuring George Sueño and Ernie Bascom, military police partners stationed in Itaewon, Korea, in the 1970s. Several plot lines wind around one another in the pair's latest outing, War Women. First off, there is the disappearance of their best confidential informant, along with some particularly sensitive classified documents about impending military exercises. Then there is the nosy reporter who has acquired explicit, potentially career-ending photos of an Army general and the hasty cover-up attempts that spiral speedily out of control, the suspense building until the final, nerve-shredding shootout. But these events are only the tip of the proverbial iceberg. A culture of abuse targeting female service members has permeated every level of the military hierarchy, and there are those who will kill to keep that culture thriving. Bascom and Sueño, while still their customarily smart-aleck selves, are more thoughtful this time around. They're not overcome by the gravity of the situation, but they're certainly affected by it. War Women is the most sobering of the series to date, while still being a book readers will want to devour in one sitting. 

Thomas Perry gives fans the gift of another Jane Whitefield thriller and a beloved series comes to an end in this month's Whodunit column.

Picture it: You're navigating your first holiday party of the season, you've got something to sip on, and you've just bumped into an editor from BookPage. Of course, they'll probably bring up a book they've recently read—for example, one of the books below.

Wintering

In my friend group, there's an annual string of holiday parties that begins with Oktoberfest and ends with New Year's Eve. Though each gathering has its own celebratory tenor and theme, all of them have in common a milieu of wintry darkness. Against this twinkly backdrop, someone always brings it up: "How are you staying out of the jaws of depression now that the sun sets at 4:30 p.m.?" Personally, my answer is Wintering by Katherine May. After reading it for the first time in 2020, I resolved to reread it every year as a reminder of the advantages of darkness, idleness and cold. As May travels to Iceland, Norway, Stonehenge and beyond to experience different groups' cold weather rituals, she reflects on the metaphorical winters that challenge us: periods of unexpected illness, rejection, bereavement or failure. When the sun begins disappearing earlier and my mood starts to sink, May's beautiful words help me to remember this season's transformative power and embrace its long hours of darkness.

—Christy, Associate Editor

Valley of the Dolls

I decided to read Valley of the Dolls purely because I wanted to talk about it with people at parties. Jacqueline Susann's astonishingly successful tale of three women clawing their way to the top of midcentury America's gin-soaked, glitteringly cynical entertainment industry has been heralded as the ultimate beach read, the godmother of "chick lit" and a camp masterpiece. I thought it would be an interesting historical artifact, but then I inhaled almost half of the book in one day, cackling with glee at Susann's gloriously over-the-top refraction of her own experiences as an aspiring actress on Broadway and in Hollywood. Whether speculating on which real entertainment icons inspired Susann's characters or simply recounting the most unrepentantly wild scenes (two words: wig. snatch.), Valley of the Dolls will be livening up my cocktail chat for years to come—just like, I suspect, Susann would have wanted.

—Savanna, Associate Editor

On Immunity

After exhausting all of our catching-up chatter at holiday gatherings, my friends undoubtedly, almost helplessly, return to discussing our current crisis. In times like these, I wish everyone in America would read Eula Biss' 2014 book. Her son was born amid the H1N1 pandemic, and in her exploration into the history of vaccination and our cultural relationship with it, she makes a strong case for communal trust and the interdependence of our futures. Biss' book touches on so much of what we're experiencing right now, from the urgency to protect the ones we love to the difficulty comprehending other people's ill-advised choices, but surprisingly, her penetrating book is seemingly without anger. It could even be seen as an inoculation against such anger. I have a distant but very real hope that a book like On Immunity would allow us to reexamine our history, which over time has become corrupted by missing information, confused language and outright manipulation, and to instead proceed with clear eyes and compassion.

—Cat, Deputy Editor

Dragon Was Terrible

After a few glasses of wine, it doesn't take much to goad me into soapboxing about my favorite topics, from the notion that all children's literature reflects ideologies about the nature of childhood itself, to my soft spot for picture books about characters who violate social norms. Kelly DiPucchio and Greg Pizzoli's Dragon Was Terrible is among my most treasured of such books. This tale of a dragon who is so terrible that he scribbles in books, TPs the castle and takes candy from baby unicorns combines the wry humor of Monty Python and the Holy Grail with the visual wit of the best New Yorker cartoons. When the king offers a gift to whoever can tame the dragon, the sign posted on the castle wall reads, "It shall be a nice gift. Ye shall like it!" Beneath the sign, Dragon has tagged the castle in bright orange paint: "Dragon was here." It's the perfect antidote to the common misperception that picture books are moralizing bores.

—Stephanie, Associate Editor

All My Mother's Lovers

There are two topics I gravitate toward in group settings: the point when it becomes possible to grasp the magnitude of the lives our parents lived before having children, and novels that succeed in suggesting that their characters will continue to have consequential, interconnected experiences once the pages of the book have run out. Ilana Masad's All My Mother's Lovers gives me an avenue to talk about both of these things, introducing a cast of characters who are all multifaceted and contradictory in the best way possible, navigating their grief for the protagonist's mother—a person everyone thought they had figured out—while grappling with the facets of her life that became apparent after her death. It's a stunning reminder that as people, particularly women, get older and their preexisting identities get overshadowed by titles like spouse, parent and worker, their capacity for complexity doesn't cease. This novel features a twist that really drives that idea home.

—Jessie, Editorial Intern

Books make great cocktail chatter. Here are the five titles the BookPage editors can't stop talking about.

Whether the setting is a small town, a big city or a seaside refuge, romance has an extra chance to spark and thrive during the holiday season. Characters go home again, or go elsewhere to escape home, but there is no refuge from the potent combination of favorite scents, beloved foods and tender kisses.

★ Duke, Actually

Duke, Actually by Jenny Holiday sparkles with wit and charm. In this modern fairy tale, Dani Martinez decides she is post-men and love-averse as she waits for her divorce to become final. Still, she's excited about being a member of the wedding party for her best friend, Leo, even if that includes contact with Maximillian von Hansburg, Baron of Laudon and heir to the Duke of Aquilla. The ultra-handsome aristocrat rubs forthright English professor Dani the wrong way . . . until one night, friendship blossoms and they begin to support each other through career and family drama. The dual settings of New York City and Max's fictional European country of Eldovia add to the fun, but it is the clever banter, smoking love scenes and delightful characters that make this romance like a perfect cup of cocoa—rich, delicious and warming all the way to the heart. Don't miss it. 

★ A Season for Second Chances

Settle in by the sea with Jenny Bayliss' A Season for Second Chances. When chef Annie Sharpe discovers her husband's latest affair, she decides to forge a new life. Finances force her to take a position as a winter guardian for Saltwater Nook, a historic residence in the small town of Willow Bay on the coast of England. The small town has a special history, and the community is dedicated to upholding its traditions. Saltwater Nook is important to the people of Willow Bay, and increasingly so to Annie. Her mind spins toward somehow devising a future for the place, despite knowing the property is set to be razed in six months. Then there's the curmudgeonly nephew of the owner, a man who is brusque and appealing by turns—sparking other fantasies. There's so much to love about this enchanting story. Readers will want their own seat at the cafe Annie opens and to attend every quirky holiday party the townspeople dream up. This lovely, cozy read is perfect for winter. 

The Matzah Ball

Holiday magic clashes with real-life problems and a shared awkward past in The Matzah Ball by Jean Meltzer. Rabbi's daughter, romance novelist and secret fan of all things Christmas Rachel Rubenstein-Goldblatt reluctantly attends her parents' Shabbat dinner, despite knowing her childhood archnemesis, Jacob Greenberg, will be at the table this week. He's in New York City to put on a splashy, high-end event: the Matzah Ball, a Jewish music celebration set to take place on the last night of Hanukkah. Rachel finds herself in dire need of a ticket to the swanky sold-out party, since she's desperate for inspiration for the Hanukkah-themed romance she's being paid to pen. There are some amusing rom-com moments involving funny costumes and ballgowns worn with fuzzy socks, but the heart of this story is the central couple's need to face their pasts and deal with their presents, including Rachel's daily, very real struggle with chronic fatigue syndrome. Rachel finds a beauty she's never noticed before in Hanukkah, all while falling in love with Jacob, who proves himself to be a true hero. The Matzah Ball is sweet, kisses-only and highly sigh-worthy.

The Holiday Swap

Twin sisters switch lives and find their matches in The Holiday Swap by Maggie Knox. When a concussion causes chef Charlie Goodwin to lose her senses of taste and smell, she fears she might also lose her shot at a bigger and better professional gig. To save the day, her twin, Cass, agrees to take over Charlie's current job of co-hosting a reality baking show in Los Angeles, while Charlie steps in at the family bakery in the small mountain town of Starlight Peak. Since both identical twins are accomplished bakers, no one will be the wiser. From here, cue rom-com conventions: confused exes, befuddled bosses and inconvenient romantic attractions as their subterfuge does not go as smoothly as Cass and Charlie imagined. Starlight Peak is the perfect snowy setting for Christmas cheer as the plot's knots untangle and everyone finds their happy ending. Be warned that this kisses-only romance is full of mouthwatering descriptions of cookies, breads and cakes that just might inspire readers to take a turn in their own kitchens.

No Ordinary Christmas

Former high school sweethearts get a do-over in No Ordinary Christmas by Belle Calhoune. Small-town librarian Lucy Marshall vows to keep clear of Dante West, her high school boyfriend and ex-BFF, when the hunky action star returns to Mistletoe, Maine, to film a movie. Given that his looks are a cross between the Rock and Idris Elba, she doesn't have much luck resisting when Dante asks to talk. He has amends to make with the girl he never forgot and the family he left behind after running off to Hollywood. Perhaps the holiday season will sweeten everyone's feelings for him. But can good intentions and charming community events create the conditions he needs to finally win Lucy's heart? While the pair exchange hugs and kisses only, it's not long before hearts are also engaged in this warm, appealing tale of new understanding and belated forgiveness. The adorable town of Mistletoe is a snow globe-perfect setting in this satisfying holiday romance.

Make the holidays that much sweeter with these five romances.

Discover your next great book!

BookPage highlights the best new books across all genres, as chosen by our editors. Every book we cover is one that we are excited to recommend to readers. A star indicates a book of exceptional quality in its genre or category.

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