Capping off the year with the 10 best books of December

Ecco/Atria Books
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The mood in December can range from a festive holiday spirit to a quieter reflection as the year draws to a close. This month’s choices include evocative historical fiction set in Ecuador and Korea, a gentle fantasy about a cat who helps a young Japanese man save books, and a ricocheting novel with a choose-your-own-adventure ending. 

Among the nonfiction titles are a collection of environmentalist Rachel Carson’s luminous writings, a riveting history of the thwarting of a post-9/11 terrorism plot, and a personal story about encountering the work of 17th-century poet John Milton. 

Why We Wrote This

Our 10 picks for this month include books that convey bravery in the midst of hardship, wonder at the beauty and fragility of nature, and curiosity over two enigmatic figures: screen star Greta Garbo and street photographer Vivian Maier.

The selections this month bring readers to armchair destinations and deeper insights. From sweeping historical novels to close-ups of colorful and sometimes prickly personalities, these are the books to keep you company this season.  

1. Beasts of a Little Land by Juhea Kim
Courtesans, opportunists, and occupiers cross paths in Juhea Kim’s rich sweep of a story. Set during the decades of Japan’s brutal takeover of Korea, the tale centers on best friends Jade and Lotus, as they grow up, apart, and into themselves amid dire circumstances. “People are brave in different ways,” affirms Jade’s lifelong admirer JungHo, a sentiment that infuses the book.

2. Where You Come From by Saša Stanišic
“Digression is my mode of writing,” declares the narrator of Saša Stanišic’s confident, careening novel. Bouncing between the present in the narrator’s adopted Germany and his recollections of childhood in pre-war Yugoslavia, the book packs in history, legend, and current events, plus a poignant choose-your-own-adventure ending.

Why We Wrote This

Our 10 picks for this month include books that convey bravery in the midst of hardship, wonder at the beauty and fragility of nature, and curiosity over two enigmatic figures: screen star Greta Garbo and street photographer Vivian Maier.

3. The Cat Who Saved Books by Sosuke Natsukawa
This charming Japanese tale celebrates life and books through the transformation of a reclusive teenage boy named Rintaro. He’s been tasked with closing his grandfather’s bookshop, which has provided a refuge. When a talking tabby cat enlists Rintaro to help save books for humankind, the story highlights how courage, compassion, and connection to others brings rewards.


4. The Spanish Daughter by Lorena Hughes
Betrayal, secrets, and chocolate fuel this transporting page turner from Lorena Hughes. Puri, sporting a fake beard and her late husband’s suits, disembarks in Guayaquil, Ecuador, with sweaty palms and sundry purposes – disentangling an inheritance, tracking a murderer, and confronting siblings she’s never met. Set amid the early 20th-century cacao boom, the novel gently comments on the confines of gender, while asking if goodness is innate or learned.

5. Just Haven’t Met You Yet by Sophie Cousens
Sophie Cousens’ refreshingly kooky rom-com pokes mild fun at romantic daydreams. Laura, a lifestyle journalist in London, thinks she may have found The One in a handsome stranger who disappears with her suitcase on Jersey Island, where she’s researching her parents’ love story. 

6. The Sea Trilogy by Rachel Carson
This gorgeous Library of America volume collects “Under the Sea-Wind,” “The Sea Around Us,” and “The Edge of the Sea,” in which the firebrand ecological whistleblower Rachel Carson shifts her narrative tone from warning to wonder, writing some of her most luminous prose about the strange, liminal space between the sea and the land – and the fragility of both. 

7. Vivian Maier Developed by Ann Marks
Vivian Maier was posthumously hailed as one of the great 20th-century street photographers after her massive portfolio was discovered in an abandoned storage locker in Chicago. Ann Marks’ fascinating biography features Maier’s work and also explores why the enigmatic artist, who worked as a nanny for decades, never sought to share her photographs. 

8. Garbo by Robert Gottlieb
In this entertaining biography, Robert Gottlieb assesses screen legend Greta Garbo’s film career with insight and wit while also exploring the enduring enigma of her early retirement and retreat from the public eye.

Potomac Books

9. Disruption by Aki J. Peritz
During the summer of 2006, British security services, with the assistance of the CIA, foiled what would have been the most devastating terrorist attack since 9/11: an Al Qaeda plot to detonate bombs on seven commercial transatlantic flights. “Disruption” is Aki J. Peritz’s meticulous, riveting history of this plot, from the radicalization of the perpetrators to their sentencing in a British courtroom.

10. Making Darkness Light by Joe Moshenska
Oxford University professor Joe Moshenska traces the 17th-century English poet’s life but also reflects on the profound effect of Milton’s work on Moshenska’s own life as a reader and a scholar. This revelatory biography is inventive, erudite, and personal.

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