Wrap, read, rejoice.
If you need holiday gift ideas for the big readers in your life, you’re in luck—because some absolutely incredible books came out in 2018. So many, in fact, that curating a list of the definitive best is an impossible task.
We scoured a year’s worth of reviews and best-of lists, polled our staff, and reached out to voracious readers and writers for their top picks to compile this selection of 2018 titles that are groundbreaking, or paradigm shifting, or so exceptionally written that everyone is talking about them. Through fiction and nonfiction prose, these books look at life through a kaleidoscope of experience, tackling often difficult issues that helped define 2018—for better or for worse (or maybe a little of both).
Books are one of those gifts that keeps on giving, since they offer you the chance to talk about the work and pass it on to others. Plus, purchasing a writer’s book is an amazing way to support authors whose work you love and whose voices deserve to be heard. And if you read something you love, finding a minute to review it online or recommend it to a friend can truly help amplify an author’s reach.
To help you get started, here are 21 books published this year that would make great holiday gifts.
Rage Becomes Her by Soraya Chemaly
In this excellent collection of essays, Chemaly explores women’s anger—which is so often dismissed, but holds incredible transformative power. Don’t take it from us, take it from Gloria Steinem, who graced the book with this convincing jacket blurb: “How many women cry when angry because we’ve held it in for so long? How many discover that anger turned inward is depression? Soraya Chemaly’s Rage Becomes Her will be good for women, and for the future of this country. After all, women have a lot to be angry about.”
Milkman by Anna Burns
Milkman, which won the 2018 Man Booker Prize, is set during the Troubles in Northern Ireland in the 1970s. It follows a teenage girl attempting to avoid sexual advances from a middle-aged paramilitary she calls “milkman.” Kwame Anthony Appiah, the 2018 Man Booker Prize chair of judges, described the book as “a story of brutality, sexual encroachment and resistance threaded with mordant humor.”
The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner
The Mars Room, a finalist for the Man Booker Prize and longlisted for the Andrew Carnegie Medal, is a novel about characters in the fictional Stanville Women’s Correctional Facility in central California. “Originally, I was drawn not so much to tell one particular story, but instead to try to understand the prison system in California,” Kushner explained in an interview. “To look at who ends up serving long sentences in these facilities that are placed deep in the Central Valley, which is otherwise all industrial farming. I tried to learn everything I could about the criminal so-called justice system, and from there, began to think about people’s lives; about class, race, destiny, chance; and the way our society is structured.”
When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir by Patrisse Khan-Cullors and asha bandele
Khan-Cullors, who co-founded Black Lives Matter in 2013 alongside Alicia Garza and Opal Tometi, wrote a memoir that explores her own experience growing up as a black woman in America, the early stages of her movement, and what happened when #BlackLivesMatter took off.
There There by Tommy Orange
The New York Times describes Orange’s book, which follows a variety of characters who intersect at a powwow in California, as “a new kind of Native American epic,” which explores the history of violence against Native Americans and how that has come to bear in the present day. Orange says: “There’s been a lot of reservation literature written. I wanted to have my characters struggle in the way that I struggled, and the way that I see other native people struggle, with identity and with authenticity.”
Am I There Yet?: The Loop-de-loop, Zigzagging Journey to Adulthood by Mari Andrew
“You’ve probably seen Andrew’s beautiful yet hauntingly relatable and simplistic Instagram illustrations that entirely nail the human experience,” says Katie Tamola, a freelance writer who writes about reading. “This is a book about youth, grief, relationships, and reality. The illustrations perfectly highlight Andrew’s ability to invite the reader into a world of thoughtfulness, healing, and gratitude. All my friends who are navigating their twenties and often find themselves lost (which is the current place I operate out of) have also loved it.”
A Place for Us by Fatima Farheen Mirza
In this novel, which is the first book published by Sarah Jessica Parker’s imprint, SJP for Hogarth, Mirza writes about a Muslim family living in California who gather for a young woman’s wedding. Mirza told The Guardian that the book is “like a long love letter to the life that was mine right until I started writing it.” She doesn’t want readers to focus on the characters’ religion. “To me it was always a story about brothers and sisters, mothers and daughters, fathers and sons—they just happened to be Muslim,” she said.
Educated by Tara Westover
Former president Barack Obama listed this book as one of his summer reads, commenting, “Tara Westover’s Educated is a remarkable memoir of a young woman raised in a survivalist family in Idaho who strives for education while still showing great understanding and love for the world she leaves behind.” Westover, who never set foot in a classroom until her first day of college, writes about growing up working at her family’s junkyard, studying solo for the ACT, and struggling through her first semester of college. She flourished, and now holds a Ph.D. from Cambridge.
Untrue: Why Nearly Everything We Believe About Women, Lust, and Infidelity Is Wrong and How the New Science Can Set Us Free by Wednesday Martin
Martin, a cultural critic, does a deep dive into women’s infidelity for her latest book. “As someone who is usually pretty salty about the sexual double standard that lets men fool around but penalizes women for not being faithful, I read Untrue with great interest,” says Jessica Wakeman, SELF’s interim beauty editor. “I’ve always wondered why everyone believed men are inherently one way when it comes to sexual appetite and women are the exact opposite. Martin interviews anthropologists who study sexual behavior for the latest research and found that females in many species are a lot randier than we’ve been told.”
What If This Were Enough? by Heather Havrilesky
“Heather Havrilesky is one of the nation’s most beloved advice columnists and essayists, and her latest book of essays, What If This Were Enough?, is proof of why,” says Wakeman. “These read like well-written, culturally acute missives from your smartest girlfriend. Whether she’s ruminating about BuzzFeed, Disneyland, her late father’s driver’s license or her mother’s house, she’s a thoughtful and interesting writer.”
The Map of Salt and Stars by Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar
In this novel, Syrian American writer Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar follows two Syrian women leading parallel lives almost 800 years apart. As Nour and her family are forced to flee conflict in present-day Syria, she comforts herself with the story of Rawiya, who disguised herself as a boy in order to become a mapmaker’s apprentice in the twelfth century.
An American Marriage by Tayari Jones
In An American Marriage, Jones writes about newlyweds Celestial and Roy—and what happens when Roy is sentenced to 12 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. The New Yorker described the novel as “both sweeping and intimate—at once an unsparing exploration of what it means to be black in America and a remarkably lifelike portrait of a marriage.”
She Would Be King by Wayétu Moore
Moore’s novel, which combines history with magical realism, reimagines the early years of Liberia through three main characters: an exiled woman from the Liberian region, a former slave from Virginia, and the Jamaican son of a British colonizer and a slave. Moore, who was born in Liberia and raised in the United States, said in an interview: “I knew that if I wanted to tell the story of Liberia, or attempt telling the story of Africa, then it had to be through the eyes or from the perspective of womanhood, black womanhood, and African womanhood.”
Little Fish by Casey Plett
Casey Plett used to write a column for McSweeny’s about being transgendered. In her debut novel, a transgender woman named Wendy Reimer discovers that her grandfather—a devout Mennonite farmer—may also have been transgender. Trans readers laud Plett’s ability to get at the heart of their experience, while non-trans readers say they closed the cover feeling enlightened.
Insurrecto by Gina Apostol
Apostol’s novel is about more than the Philippine-American War. Her story—of a Filipino translator and an American filmmaker who take a road trip through the Philippines to work on a film script about a massacre—is also about truth, memory, and who gets to write history.
Circe by Madeline Miller
In her latest novel, Miller adapts and retells the Greek myth of Circe, a goddess who transformed her enemies into wild animals, featured in Homer’s Odyssey. Publisher’s Weekly called the book “a classic story of female empowerment,” and Miller has spoken about why she chose to write about Circe and the process of reimagining the character. “This is the story of a woman finding her power and, as part of that, finding her voice,” Miller told BookRiot. “She starts out really unable to say what she thinks and by the end of the book, she’s able to live life on her terms and say what she thinks and what she feels.”
If You Leave Me by Crystal Hana Kim
Kim’s debut novel, longlisted for the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize, is an intergenerational saga that starts in wartime Korea. It’s at once a love story, an exploration of female autonomy, and a tale of war and refugee life that offers a unique, human view from within a splintered nation.
The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai
This novel, a finalist for the 2018 National Book Awards, follows two characters, one grappling with the AIDS crisis in 1980s Chicago, the other experiencing the decades-long repercussions of it in modern-day Paris. When the book came out this summer, Makkai promoted it while raising money for Vital Bridges, a food pantry serving those living with HIV/AIDS. She lists other worthy organizations on her website.
Putney by Sofka Zinovieff
Zinovieff’s novel, about the relationship between a young girl and a much older man in the 1970s, and the woman’s present-day reckoning with what actually happened, raises important questions about consent and agency.
Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo” by Zora Neale Hurston
This book is based on Zora Neale Hurston’s interviews with Oluale Kossula (also known as Cudjo Lewis), the last known survivor of the slave trade, in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Publishers wouldn’t print the book at the time—it’s written largely in Kossula’s specific vernacular, and the Smithsonian magazine reports that interested parties wanted Hurston to “translate” the dialogue. The manuscript stayed unpublished for over 80 years until its release this year.
The Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath by Leslie Jamison
Jamison’s latest book is a memoir about addiction and recovery—and so much more. She also includes the addiction stories of famous—and non-famous—people, cultural analysis of how we think about addiction and sobriety, and some truly excellent scholarship and reporting.