Circus trains, calligraphy, and coming of age: December’s 10 best books

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Globally minded readers are in for a treat this month, with books that traverse places as disparate as Italy, India, Iraq, and South Africa.

The novels will transport you aboard a circus train, sweep you into the daily life of a Sardinian seamstress, and propel you on an apocalyptic climate-change adventure.

Why We Wrote This

Our reviewers’ picks for this month celebrate fiction set around the world. From Italy and Iraq to India and South Africa, characters seek courage to move beyond limitations. In nonfiction, an exploration of U.S.-China relations challenges long-held assumptions.

Other fiction titles include a romance that celebrates the perfumer’s and calligrapher’s arts and the powerful story of an Iraqi woman held by Islamic State fighters.

The nonfiction books illuminate a little-known espionage mission during the American Civil War, deconstruct false stories affecting U.S.-China relations, and explore the challenges facing American mothers. 

1. Roses, in the Mouth of a Lion, by Bushra Rehman

Razia, a Pakistani American, navigates the whirl of growing up across cultures in 1980s New York. As Razia confronts stereotypes, untangles American oddities, and practices her Muslim faith, her first-person narrative vibrates with humor and honesty. 

2. The Circus Train, by Amita Parikh

Why We Wrote This

Our reviewers’ picks for this month celebrate fiction set around the world. From Italy and Iraq to India and South Africa, characters seek courage to move beyond limitations. In nonfiction, an exploration of U.S.-China relations challenges long-held assumptions.

Welcome aboard the World of Wonders, a theatrics- and splendor-filled circus train crisscrossing Europe in 1938. Yet Lena, the wheelchair-using daughter of the show’s illusionist, eschews magic in favor of science. As war looms, a mysterious Jewish teen joins the troupe and befriends Lena, helping expand her world. The need to persist in spite of hardship underscores the engrossing story.

3. The Seamstress of Sardinia, by Bianca Pitzorno

“I wanted to be considered a worker, an artisan, not a maid,” declares the young seamstress at the heart of Bianca Pitzorno’s novel, translated from Italian by Brigid Maher. In six short-story-length chapters, the seamstress describes her life and work on the island of Sardinia in 1900. The compelling tales reveal the challenges women faced when daring to be different.

4. Scatterlings, by Resoketswe Manenzhe

A multiracial family faces judgment and danger in 1920s South Africa. Weaving myths and journal entries with expressive prose, Resoketswe Manenzhe delivers a powerful, if uneven, novel exploring ancestry, belonging, and home. “The gift of my skin is precisely that – a gift,” says Alisa, the Black matriarch. “I cannot hate it, the world does that well enough.”

5. The Light Pirate, by Lily Brooks-Dalton

Lily Brooks-Dalton’s apocalyptic climate-change adventure story ushers readers into the center of a family’s preparation for a major hurricane in Florida. Amid the storm’s devastation, the mother gives birth to a special girl named Wanda. As the child grows, she’s mentored in survival skills by her neighbor, a biologist. The novel is riveting, imaginative, and encouraging. 

6. The Book of Everlasting Things, by Aanchal Malhotra

Aanchal Malhotra’s novel sweeps across more than a century of a Hindu family of perfumers. When the 1947 Partition rends India, the perfumer’s son is parted from his love, a Muslim calligrapher. Malhotra’s poetic tale of remembrance blends artistry and history to honor the inspiration of love.

7. The Bird Tattoo, by Dunya Mikhail

A Yizidi woman’s peaceful village life in Iraq is upended when she goes in search of her missing husband and is captured by Islamic State. Dunya Mikhail’s story echoes her nonfiction book, “The Beekeeper,” which highlights efforts to rescue Iraqi women. The subject matter may be challenging, but the prose projects hope for the survivors.

8. Screaming on the Inside, by Jessica Grose

This compelling, razor-sharp, and deeply personal book by New York Times opinion writer Jessica Grose examines the impossible demands placed on American mothers, who are expected to be self-sacrificing supermoms even in the absence of adequate structures of social support.

9. The Lion and the Fox, by Alexander Rose

Historian Alexander Rose delivers an atmospheric and entertaining account of a largely forgotten episode of the American Civil War. It concerns a Confederate agent who travels to England on a clandestine mission to acquire warships for the South and the Union agent tasked with stopping him.

10. Accidental Conflict, by Stephen Roach

Stephen Roach unfolds the false, fear-based narratives that China and the United States tell about the other. Roach, a former chairman of Morgan Stanley Asia, analyzes each country’s economic trajectories and shortcomings, and suggests a way forward. 

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