15 fiction books that follow their own rules — and make great gifts

Illustration by Patrick Hruby / Los Angeles Times; animation by Li Anne Liew / For The Times

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This is part of the L.A. Times 2022 Gift Guide. See the full guide here.

What books make the best gifts? That’s not an easy question when it comes to fiction; each novel or story collection sets its own mood, follows its own rules, appeals to its own perfect reader. Here’s what you need to know about 15 delightful works of fiction, all published this year, and the ideal recipient who will thank you for making the match.

Toad

Book cover for "Toad," by Katherine Dunn shows animated caterpillar on fire
(Farrar, Straus & Giroux)

Shopping for a Gen Xer? Or, really, anyone fascinated by nonconformity? Look no further than this posthumously published novel by Katherine Dunn, the author of the 1989 classic “Geek Love.” Where that bestseller depicted a family of carnival freaks, “Toad” harks back to the ‘60s (Dunn was in fact a boomer), rendering that decade of idealism via flashbacks to a cohort of Northwestern hippie college kids who preached peace and love but dissolved into envy and darkness.

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$27 at Macmillan

Olga Dies Dreaming

Cover image of "Olga Dies Dreaming" is illustration of woman made up of different patterns
(Flatiron)

It’s easy to adopt radical positions on social media, harder to truly understand inequality or commit to a cause above all else. Xochitl Gonzalez wraps these issues up in a wrenching but warmhearted family story: A wedding planner and her brother, a closeted gay politician, yearn for their radical mother, who is off in her native Puerto Rico fighting for independence, even as they scramble up the slippery capitalist ladder and their old Brooklyn neighborhood falls prey to gentrification.

$28 at Macmillan

These 15 nonfiction books will please every reader on your list this holiday season, whether they prefer memoirs, histories or essay collections.

Lessons

orange and pink illustration of boy playing the piano on cover of "Lessons: A Novel" by Ian McEwan
(Knopf)
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Anyone on your list who loved “Atonement” knows what the British novelist can do at his best, especially with historical fiction. The particular appeal of “Lessons” isn’t just its historical sweep, taking in the last 70 years of world history through the perspective of one complicated Brit: it’s also Ian McEwan’s most personal novel. This one is for the boomers, sure, but not only: gift it to readers of meaty Anglocentric novels who enjoy a good yarn, well told.

$30 at Penguin Random House

Fiona and Jane

yellow, green and pink illustration of two women on cover of "Fiona and Jane," by Jean Chen Ho
(Viking)

Jean Chen Ho’s ode to friendship and growing up is a sort of dual coming-of-age story, featuring two besties who cope with family secrets and early-adult conflicts within a highly specific milieu — Taiwanese American Los Angeles — even as their dilemmas would feel familiar to any millennial, especially one who’s ever had a best friend. Essentially a novel in stories, it’s also easy to digest in bites.

$26 at Penguin Random House

Sea of Tranquility

moon rises behind a hilly meadow on cover of  'Sea of Tranquility.'
(Knopf)
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Even for fans of “Station Eleven” — the bestselling pandemic novel and the hit TV show — who passed on Emily St. John Mandel’s modest follow-up, “The Glass Hotel,” this one is well worth pressing into their hands: a generation-spanning matrix of vignettes revolving around the central mystery of several people who have the same weird experience across centuries. Along the journey from 1912 Britain to 25th century moon colonies, the narrative coheres brilliantly. There’s even another pandemic — and a bestselling novel about it.

$25 at Penguin Random House

Trust

building under a glass case on cover of "Trust" by Hernan Diaz
(Riverhead Books)

For the reader in your life who loves complicated, puzzle-box narratives but isn’t so much into sci-fi a la Mandel, Hernan Diaz’s deconstruction of a warped family of New York aristocrats would likely hit the spot. Not only is there a novel within the novel but also an autobiography in progress, a catty memoir and a lost diary, arranged like nesting dolls and wallpapered with enough Gilded Age splendor to keep you dazzled until the pieces snap into place.

$28 at Penguin Random House

The Last White Man

illustration of an eye on purple background on cover of "The Last White Man" by Mohsin Hamid
(Riverhead Books)
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From the terrorist’s monologue in “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” to the migration parable of “Exit West,” Mohsin Hamid’s novels always manage to hit the zeitgeist while opening up timeless worlds. That’s true of “The Last White Man,” a story about the anxieties of whiteness that reads like a Borges cover of a Kafka tale, beginning with the first sentence: “One morning Anders, a white man, woke up to find he had turned a deep and undeniable brown.”

$26 at Penguin Random House

The Memory Librarian

a woman in a futuristic outfit on cover of "The Memory Librarian and Other Stories of Dirty Computer" by Janelle Monae.
(Harper Voyager)

Concept albums have sometimes been compared to novels, but what if you did it the other way around? The Afrofuturist pop star transports the sci-fi notions in her album “Dirty Computer” into a set of stories, each one a collaboration with a different science fiction writer. The result is an exploration of utopian freedom within a dystopian surveillance state, which is even more fun than it sounds, as kaleidoscopic as Janelle Monáe’s music.

$29 at Harper Collins retailers

Mecca

luminescent tree on cover of "Mecca," by Susan Straight
(Farrar, Straus & Giroux)

Every gift has a point of view. If your point of view is that pop culture has Southern California all wrong, Susan Straight’s latest novel is a great way to preach — largely because it’s so engaging. Her mostly Latino characters, including a motorcycle cop, an immigrant without papers and a harried single mom, live hundreds of miles from the ocean. The real outsider is a wealthy woman from Los Feliz, and the real community is forged out of adversity.

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$28 at Macmillan

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Our Missing Hearts

Feather over the words on cover of "Our Missing Hearts" by Celeste Ng
(Penguin Press)

For fans of “The Handmaid’s Tale” — the book or the show or both — Celeste Ng’s follow-up to “Little Fires Everywhere” (the book and the show) would be a welcome presence under the tree. In a not-so-distant future, powerful government forces have made scapegoats of minorities, and a boy is left adrift when his mother, a Chinese American activist poet, disappears. Raised to denounce her, at 12 he’s inspired to find out what happened, embarking on a quest that might change the country.

$29 at Penguin Random House

The Seaplane on Final Approach

Illustration of water with reeds sticking out on cover of "The Seaplane on Final Approach," by Rebecca Rukeyser
(Doubleday)
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This one’s a little naughty. Mira, 18 and obsessed with the concept of “sleaziness,” sets out for an adventure on a remote Alaskan island, dreaming of a hookup with her aunt’s older stepson while working as a cleaner in a small, shady resort. As tensions among the staff boil over, Rebecca Rukeyser weaves a dreamlike spell — “Twin Peaks” by way of “Northern Exposure.” Give it to someone who wants something weird, in the best way.

$27 at Penguin Random House

Nightcrawling

silhouette of head with long purple braids on red background on cover of 'Nightcrawling,' by Leila Mottley
(Alfred A. Knopf)

Leila Mottley, all of 20, is that rare young phenom who isn’t a product of privilege. Drawing on a real-life corruption case in the Oakland Police Department, she’s crafted a lyrical page-turner around Kiara, a teenage girl surviving poverty through sex work, dreaming of better days until she becomes enmeshed in a level of institutional abuse she’s never seen before — and she’s seen a lot.

$28 at Penguin Random House

Mouth to Mouth

Clouds on a black silhouette wearing white glasses on cover of "Mouth to Mouth," by Antoine Wilson
(Avid Reader)
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Get it for someone who likes Negronis; Antoine Wilson’s slim novel is bitter, sleek and bracing. Imagine “The Talented Mr. Ripley” set on L.A.’s Westside, at the intersection of the art world, the beach and the shadow economy of the Hollywood house guest. Our mysterious protagonist performs CPR on a powerful art dealer. The rescued man quickly forgets, but the rescuer feels he is owed … something.

$26 at Simon & Schuster retailers

Chilean Poet

A black cat graces the cover of "Chilean Poet."
(Viking Press)

The lives of international poets are tangled up, in the popular imagination, with love and revolution. And then there is reality: broken-off affairs, blended families, dashed ambitions. Alejandro Zambra has a blast mixing the two in a novel about two poets, stepfather and stepson, who aspire to the greatness of Neruda but must contend with the here and now. Roberto Bolaño devotees will have a lot to chew on.

$27 at Penguin Random House

Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow

Video-game-like font with wave illustrations on cover of "Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow," by Gabrielle Zevin
(Knopf)

Want to get a gamer to log off for a day? Hand over Gabrielle Zevin’s wild story of two gamers who connect in college (Harvard and MIT, of course) and end up creating one of the all-time great computer games. Tracking these friends over the ensuing decades of wildly disparate outcomes, the author has done her research but wears it lightly, so that the narrative zips along but the details make sense to experts and novices alike.

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$28 at Penguin Random House

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