The best fiction books worth gifting (and reading) this holiday season

Christmas tree ornament illustration.
(Roselly Monegro / For The Times)

This is part of the L.A. Times 2021 gift guide. If you buy books here, The Times may earn a commission from, whose fees support independent bookstores. See the full guide here.

When it comes to gifting books, it really is the thought that counts. This year has brought a surplus of major fiction following 2020’s pandemic delays (though supply chain issues make early orders a must). That means there’s something great for every reader on your list. Among these 10 picks, you’ll easily find a match, or three, that will elicit gasps of “How did you know?!”


Two men walk along the coast on the cover of "Silverview," by John Le Carré.
(Viking / Penguin)

No spy buff’s collection would be complete without John le Carré’s swan song, the last novel he completed before he died last December. His final gladiators are retirees who’ve come in from the cold, including a mysterious émigré we meet in a bookshop. Yet this is no cozy mystery; it’s a high-stakes game as chilling as the rest.


$28 | 👉 Purchase here

The Perishing

A woman's profile on the cover of "The Perishing" by Natashia Deón
(Brienne Michelle)

Any devotee of contemporary fantasy will tell you the momentum lies with writers of color reappropriating the genre. For readers who can’t wait for the next entry in N.K. Jemisin’s “Great Cities” trilogy, Natashia Deón‘s new novel, about a denizen of 1930s L.A. who figures out her immortal mission while working for (ahem) The Times, will definitely tide them over.

$26 | 👉 Purchase here

The Trees

The cover of "The Trees," by Percival Everett

Colson Whitehead took a breather this year from grave Southern narratives (see below), but Percival Everett picked up the baton, with satiric gifts to match. An epic racial revenge fantasy set in the Mississippi town where Emmett Till was killed may not sound like a fun gift, but Everett’s verbal hijinks are funny as hell.


$16 | 👉 Purchase here

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A man playing guitar and a woman are seated outside on the cover of "Crossroads," by Jonathan Franzen.
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

This one is a no-brainer for Jonathan Franzen fans on your list, but anyone who craves old-fashioned narrative immersion will find something in Franzen’s saga of a 1971 suburban Chicago family in moral crisis. It will take a while to sink in — and for many, that’s a feature, not a bug.

$30 | 👉 Purchase here


The book cover of "Matrix," by Lauren Groff.

Has anyone in your life complained about all the dystopian novels out these days? Lauren Groff’s latest isn’t exactly Utopian (she’s too smart for that), but her story of an ambitious, talented 12th century nun who turns her abbey into a center of matriarchal power is the kind of fantasy a lot of readers could go for right now.

$28 | 👉 Purchase here

The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois

An image of a face and a tree on the cover of "The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois," by Honorée Fanonne Jeffers

Honorée Fanonne Jeffers has written a great American novel — 800 pages of poetry, history and pain, as well as the personal story of one woman raised with “Talented Tenth” expectations but driven to learn everything about this powerfully cruel country. Give it to any fan of Nikole Hannah-Jones, and they’ll be blown away.

$28.99 | 👉 Purchase here

Something New Under the Sun

A person on fire in a field on the cover of "Something New Under the Sun," by Alexandra Kleeman.
(Hogarth Press)

Anyone who really wants to know L.A. would benefit from (and likely devour) Alexandra Kleeman’s hilariously creepy new novel, the realist dystopia we can’t escape. An author is enlisted to “consult” on a Hollywood adaptation of his novel, only to face up against a spoiled starlet, a substance called WAT-R, a Ballardian landscape of fire-fringed highways and a conspiracy worthy of “Chinatown.”

$28 | 👉 Purchase here

Beautiful World, Where Are You

The illustrated cover of "Beautiful World, Where Are You," by Sally Rooney
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Sally Rooney has become, evidently to her horror, a millennial brand — a dynamic that is key to her latest novel about Irish semi-intellectuals in very hot relationships. For the left-leaning, bookish young people in your life, it hits all the pleasure centers — philosophical and carnal, old-fashioned and new.

$28 | 👉 Purchase here

Our Country Friends

A drawing of a wine glass and a country road on the cover of "Our Country Friends," by Gary Shteyngart
(Random House)

It may not be the first novel about the pandemic, but it’s got to be the funniest. Gary Shteyngart’s modern update of “The Decameron” — that classic set of stories told by exiled Florentines riding out the bubonic plague — has a multicultural cast and a location in New York’s Hudson Valley. Comforting, neurotic, cosmopolitan and apocalyptic: What’s not to love?

$28 | 👉 Purchase here

The Lincoln Highway

A black-and-white photograph of a vintage train and car on the cover for Amor Towles' "The Lincoln Highway."

Everyone’s got that one relative who won’t stop talking about their life’s mission to hit every rest stop on Route 66. Amor Towles, the master of literary historical fiction, has written the book for them — a bittersweet 1950s road trip taken by hardscrabble kids across a legendary route whose on- and off-ramps stand in for America’s promise and its limitations.

$30 | 👉 Purchase here

Afterparties: Stories

Two men smoke in the back of a truck on the cover of "Afterparties: Stories," by Anthony Veasna So
(Ecco Press)

Fiction can transport us through time and space, but some of us read it for a level of immersion and understanding you can’t find on vacation. Anthony Veasna So died last year at 28, his promise largely unfulfilled. But we have “Afterparties,” his collection of funny, profound, agonizing stories about Cambodian Americans making new lives in Stockton, Calif.

$28 | 👉 Purchase here

Harlem Shuffle

The red, yellow and green cover of "Harlem Shuffle," by Colson Whitehead.
(Doubleday Books)

Colson Whitehead is so adept at switching genres and tones that his fans don’t always follow him with each book; readers of zombie satires may not like Oprah-anointed slavery fantasies — and vice versa. “Harlem Shuffle” has something for everyone, though — hard-boiled wit, deep historical nuance, plus the makings of a new fan base for crackling heist thrillers.

$28.95 | 👉 Purchase here

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