With the holidays coming up, you know what you need more of: books! Erasmus famously said, “When I have a little money, I buy books; and if I have any left, I buy food and clothes.” I don’t know if I could give up Funyuns, but I do spend way too much money on books. A lovely side effect of that habit are the end-of-year reading recommendations I’ve written for Nerds On Earth over the years (check out my recs for 2020, 2019, 2018, and 2017 here). Peep these seven books for some great stories to jump into!
Record of a Spaceborn Few—Becky Chambers
I’ve written about Becky Chambers’s hopepunk Wayfarer books for the site before. Her unremitting commitment to character development and world building makes Record of a Spaceborn Few an incredible addition to a series whose conclusion I still mourn.
Spaceborn Few introduces a handful of people who are so lovingly written that even Kip—an incredibly annoying teenager stuck on an enormous life raft for humanity—redeems himself by the end. And Chambers has so completely realized that life raft (a huge spaceship named the Asteria) that the book is practically begging for a movie adaptation!
The Actor’s Life—Jenna Fischer
Ever wanted to know what it’s like to be a working actor? Jenna Fischer, best known for her role as Pam Beesly on The Office, walks readers through the paces of making it in Hollywood.
Using her own life and the experiences of her friends as a backdrop, Fischer explains how to improve your acting skills, audition, find an agent, land gigs, and even gives tips on side-hustles to make ends meet (hint: working for a catering company is gold for starving actors). Even if acting isn’t in your tarot cards, The Actor’s Life provides a friendly, unpretentious look behind the curtain.
Goldsworthy is more famous for his scholarly work on the Roman Republic, but this first book in his Vindolanda trilogy is well worth the detour into historical fiction. Flavius Ferox plays like a scruffier Maximus of Gladiator fame, tasked with solving a bloody crime while tiptoeing through the explosive colonial politics of Roman-era Britain. His sidekick, the laconic Brigante scout Vindex, is a underused delight too.
Goldsworthy gives the forts, carriages, weapons, and tribal encampments a gritty, tactile realism that reaches across the millennia. Don’t let all the Latin scare you away!
Leadership in Turbulent Times—Doris Kearns Goodwin
There’s an old curse that masquerades as a blessing that goes, “May you live in interesting times.” The past few years have certainly been interesting, and in such buckwild times, this book from one of America’s very best historians is a much-needed balm. Leadership in Turbulent Times illustrates how catastrophes can both test and strengthen us by examining pivotal moments in four American presidencies.
Whether it’s Lincoln pulling the country back from the brink the apocalyptic Civil War or Lyndon Johnson finding his moral purpose in the burgeoning civil rights movement, Goodwin shows us how strength and courage can be found in unlikely places.
Ramses: The Son of Light—Christian Jacq
When I say that this story reads like the script of a sword-and-sandals epic, it’s a good thing. Light on meaningful dialogue but highly evocative of ancient Egypt, this translation from the original French is zippy and light, making Ramses: The Son of Light the perfect holiday read. Jacq’s decades of experience in Egyptology give this fast-paced romp some much-needed ballast, and the whole book has an eternal quality lends it further weight. Some unexpected cameos from other mythologies and pantheons provide some bitter twists and turns to the otherwise smooth path young Ramses takes to the khepresh.
Circe’s powerful, lonely, and vibrant namesake is an often intimidating presence. This forgotten child of the sun god Helios and the naiad Perse spends millennia mastering her powers, winning control of her life, and navigating a legendarily thorny family tree.
In the process, Miller brings readers on a whirlwind ride around the Mediterranean, introducing everyone from the flippant sociopath Hermes to the unknowable, ancient Trygon. Circe makes Greek mythology addictive and cool in a way it hasn’t been since the course on The Odyssey I took my freshman year (miss you, Robert Fagles!).
Light of the Jedi—Charles Soule
Lucasfilm’s High Republic multimedia initiative started in January 2021 with the stellar Light of the Jedi. Charles Soule transplants the best parts of the prequel trilogy—its gee-whiz optimism, new technology, and strong characters—into the greatest opening in a Star Wars novel ever. From there Soule spins a tale of the Jedi at the height of their unity and the Republic at the peak of its power, though hidden enemies lurk around every tree root. Almost a year in, the High Republic continues to thrive, and Light of the Jedi deserves credit for hitting all the right notes at the very beginning.