Christmas is beginning to loom on the horizon, and in my family, that means “Books for everyone!” Occasionally we change it up by giving food or jewelry or a silly t-shirt, but really, it’s not a Butzen holiday until three or more of us are gathered around reading each others’ new books. This means that I end up going to lots of book stores, and however virtuously I plan and budget, half the books I buy are going to end up on my shelves alone.

Here, then, are three books that somehow sneaked their way onto my shopping list recently.

Ancient Egyptian Pharaohs, Jo Forty (1998) Or as I like to think of it, Pharaohs: A Spotter’s Guide. This is a nicely concise work covering the reigns and notable achievements of Egypt’s known pharaohs in chronological order. Considering the sheer number of pharaohs they had over the millennia, not to mention their habit of sharing names and rewriting each others’ histories, a straightforward reference book is a big help to anyone writing about ancient Egypt, and this one is pretty darn useful.

Skull in the Ashes: Murder, a Gold Rush Manhunt, and the Birth of Circumstantial Evidence in America, Peter Kaufman (2013) Exactly what it says on the cover. Skull in the Ashes examines a landmark 1897 case involving Frank Novak, an Iowan storekeeper who burned down his shop and left someone else’s body in the wreckage. Novak flees, and when the truth about the body is discovered, Detective Red Perrin tracks him all the way to the Yukon.

What held my attention wasn’t just the examination of a historical crime, but the author’s focus on evoking the world the crime occurred in. Kaufman shows us America at the end of the nineteenth century: modernized in fits and spurts, very much a society in transition. The last third of the book, including a description of prison life in the 1890s, described a way of life both fascinating and weirdly alien.

Treasure Island, Robert Louis Stevenson (1883) Everyone knows this one. It was one of my favorite books growing up, but when I moved to Iowa the family copy stayed in Chicago. Now I finally have my own–and when an Iowa winter is moving in on you, staying indoors and reading about tropical islands and buried treasure is a great way to pass the time.

One thing I found interesting about the Barnes & Noble edition of Treasure Island was the addition of academic notes and discussion questions. Question #2 made me laugh a little, though: “Is this just a story for boys or young-at-heart men? What is there in this novel for girls or grown women?” Pirates, sword fights, buried treasure, daring adventure and the Black Spot nicely fit the bill for everyone, I think.