Welcome to my Best Holiday Gifts for Book Lovers 2019 guide!
Every year, I compile a list of the books I came across that year that I think make perfect holiday gifts plus some fabulous book subscription services and some bookish goodies that aren’t actual books!
This year’s Holiday Guide has:
- Printable Cheatsheet – the Holiday Gift Guide in quick recommendations in PDF format for easy printing (great for taking to the bookstore or library!). Download for free below!
- #1 Picks for Each Category – I highlighted my very favorite book in each category in the Guide (Go-To Recommendations, Edgy Literary Fiction, Introspective Books, Page Turners, Something Fun, For the Hobbyist, and Investigative Journalism).
This post contains affiliate links (plus: here’s your Amazon Smile-specific affiliate link), through which I make a small commission when you make a purchase (at no cost to you!).
These books have broad appeal and are all-around great selections for most readers.
My #1 Fiction Pick
Plot Summary: Two NYPD cops, Brian Stanhope and Francis Gleeson move their families next door to each other in a suburb of New York City…setting the stage for a friendship between their two children (Kate and Peter) and a tragic event that causes ripple effects years down the road.
My Thoughts: Ask Again, Yes is 5-star a character-driven novel that I couldn’t put down…a type of book I tend to love. These particular people struck a chord with me. The first 10% is a little slow, but I started flying through it after that. It’s a coming of age story and an unconventional love story. It’s about mental illness, addiction, and how these characters cope during the aftermath of a horrible tragedy. Full Review.
My #1 Nonfiction Pick
The Only Plane in the Sky: An Oral History of 9/11by Garrett M. Graff
Nonfiction – History (Release Date: September 10, 2019)
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Plot Summary: Graff compiles the memories of a multitude of people surrounding 9/11, from Vice President Dick Cheney and Katie Couric to regular people in and around the crash sites.
My Thoughts: I expected The Only Plane in the Sky to be emotional, but I underestimated how much it would hit me. This book is absolutely incredible and the oral history format transports you back to that day. This isn’t a book about the facts of 9/11 (though those are there in spades), it’s about the feeling of living that day. In my view, The Only Plane in the Sky should be required reading when 9/11 is taught in schools…especially now since the children coming through school were not alive when 9/11 happened. This book is currently in the running for my #1 book of 2019. P.S. – Garrett Graff was on guest on Ep. 38 of the podcast! Full Review.
Plot Summary: The story of the friendship between three female cadets and basketball teammates (Dani, Hannah, and Avery) at West Point…during college and into adulthood as they go in different directions.
My Thoughts: The writing is incredibly readable and I didn’t feel the length of this book at all. I love that Gibson focused on women at West Point and she grew up living on the West Point campus while her father was a professor, so had firsthand knowledge about life there. Despite their athletic and academic statures, all three of these women are relatable and I cared about all of them. Beyond the Point is a unique, character-driven novel about female friendship that you’ll fly through! Full Review.
Plot Summary: Shapiro’s memoir about her experience discovering her father was not her biological father through an online DNA test.
My Thoughts: This memoir was emotional and an interesting look into a new phenomenon brought on by the simple and cheap online DNA test. It went places I wasn’t expecting (good!), but did go over the top with theological and philosophical theory at times. Still, it’s 4 stars and reads easily enough for the beach.
Plot Summary: Ministers Charles and James are hired to co-lead the congregation of New York City’s Third Presbyterian Church in the 1960’s and their families become inextricably linked despite their different beliefs.
My Thoughts: The Dearly Beloved is a yet another gorgeously written character-driven novel involving two families. The writing style reminded me of Mary Beth Keane’s in Ask Again, Yes (my review). I was worried it would be it too much religion (I’m not a super religious person) and/or too quiet…and it is relatively quiet. But, it gradually got under my skin, really made me think, and I wanted to know what would happen to these people. Each character has a very different outlook on faith…making it easy to find at least one person to identify with. Plus, it was a #ReadwithJenna book club pick! Full Review.
Plot Summary: Danny and Maeve Conroy grew up wealthy in a castle-like house called the Dutch House, but their circumstances change when their father remarries a younger woman.
My Thoughts: Ann Patchett is one of my all-time favorite authors and she writes family dysfunction better than almost anyone (except maybe Pat Conroy?). And, she’s done it again in The Dutch House with a multi-generational story featuring a single father, neglected children, an evil stepmother, and a house that’s its own character. Full Review.
Plot Summary: The story of the Skinner family – the four Skinner children, their father’s unexpectedly passing in his thirties, their mother’s years long depression (which the children call “the Pause”), and how their lives unfold into adulthood.
My Thoughts: This family drama similar to Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth (my review) with shades of My Sunshine Away (my review) was my first 5 star book of the year! The Last Romantics‘ dysfunction is normal enough to be relatable…the type of dysfunction you see in real life all the time. It’s a novel of sibling dynamics and how parenting decisions/style impacts children in later life. It’s one of those character-driven novels I couldn’t put down! Full Review.
Plot Summary: When Diana, Lucy’s accomplished, but distant mother-in-law is found dead in suspicious circumstances, Lucy and her family are forced to confront their feelings about Diana and each other.
My Thoughts: The Mother-in-Law opens with Diana’s mysterious death, but that’s not really what this story is about. Told in alternating perspectives (Diana’s and Lucy’s) and timelines that shift between the past and the present, this is a family drama focusing on the relationships between Lucy and Diana, Lucy and her husband Ollie, and Lucy’s sister-in-law (Nettie) and Diana. For a family drama involving death, it’s surprisingly heart-warming and thought-provoking about the complicated mother-in-law / daughter-in-law dynamic.
Plot Summary: In the 1950’s, two undercover members of the CIA typing pool are enlisted to help smuggle the novel Doctor Zhivago out of the USSR (where it had been banned) so it can be used as an anti-Communist propaganda tool.
My Thoughts: Doctor Zhivago was actually smuggled out of the USSR by the CIA, which came to light when CIA documents were declassified in 2014. Much of these documents were redacted and Prescott filled in those blanks for her novel. The novel alternates between the story of Sally and Irina (the two undercover CIA typists) and the story of Boris Pasternak and his mistress and muse, Olga, in the USSR. I don’t often call historical fiction page-turning, but this one is. This book has broad appeal and will work for a wide range of readers! Full Review.
Edgy Literary Fiction
These books are a bit darker, tackle more fraught issues, or have more aggressive language, etc. than my go-to literary fiction recommendations. Read the publishers’ summaries carefully before choosing one of them for your prim and proper grandmother!
My #1 Pick
Plot Summary: Daisy Jones & the Six, a hot 1970’s rock n’ roll band, mysteriously broke up after a Chicago concert. This is the story of their rise and fall, told in an oral history format.
My Thoughts: I almost didn’t read Daisy Jones & the Six because I’m not that interested in music, but I couldn’t put it down and it’s my #1 book of 2019 so far. The oral history format made the story seem incredibly fast-paced. And, it clearly illuminated how multiple people can have completely different interpretations of the same events. And, the chemistry between these fictional is so raw that you forget you’re reading fiction. If you liked the movie A Star is Born, this is the book for you. Full Review.
Plot Summary: Vivian Morris looks back on her unconventional life in New York City…beginning in the 1940’s when she was sent to live her with Aunt Peg above a small theater (the Lily Playhouse), kicking off a free-spirited life of pleasure, love, and friendship.
My Thoughts: I almost didn’t read this novel because I’m not much into historical fiction or the NYC theater scene…but, this is not your average historical fiction and I’m so glad I have it a shot because it was a 5 star read! I immediately loved the voice…it’s funny, readable, and reminded me a bit of a cross between Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk and The Heart’s Invisible Furies (my review). The characters make this story come alive…they’re unapologetically frivolous and fun and most of them are bawdy, badass ladies in an era when ladies weren’t generally bawdy or badass. Full Review.
Plot Summary: Set in 1930’s Paris and inspired by the real-life love affair between former Vogue model and photographer Lee Miller and the artist Man Ray.
My Thoughts: I don’t normally love historical fiction or love stories (and The Age of Light is both), but I loved Scharer’s take on it…mainly because it’s also a “badass lady book.” It’s the story of a woman who is defined by the man in her life trying to break out on her own…to be known for her own work. Scharer immediately immerses you in 1930’s Paris and I was engrossed in the story right from the beginning. Full Review.
Plot Summary: A “sleeping sickness” (i.e. people fall asleep for long periods of time and have vivid dreams) befalls one floor of a college dorm in a small town in the California mountains (Santa Lora), but then begins to spread to the town, putting everyone on high alert.
My Thoughts: The Dreamers is like a more literary version of Megan Abbott’s The Fever (which I loved). The Dreamers is not a thriller by any means, but it still had me on the edge of my seat with incredible tension and suspense. This is a novel about fear, hysteria, isolation, and human behavior in the face of those things. The Dreamers has been compared to Station Eleven (my review) and I’d say the epidemic portion of the book is somewhat similar, but overall The Dreamers shines on its own. Full Review.
Plot Summary: The story of four female friends who meet at Quincy-Hawthorn College and face four large mistakes (one for each friend) in their lives.
My Thoughts: This debut novel was 5 stars for me! The writing style took me a minute to get used to (it has some very long sentences and requires a bit of concentration), but it’s gorgeous and Ames is an astute observer of life. Ames’s structure of the four mistakes could have been cliche, but her choices of what those mistakes were were brilliant. They are not ones you’d ever guess (trust me, these are not your run-of-the-mill life screw-ups). It reminded me of The Interestings (my review) and The Ensemble (my review). Full Review.
Plot Summary: When star news anchor Ted Grayson gets caught on video berating a female make-up artist, the media (including his own journalist daughter) attacks and Ted is forced to re-evaluate his entire life.
My Thoughts: Talk to Me is a snarky story that’s ultimately about regret…taking place in today’s media world. Kenney’s commentary on today’s brand of journalism is spot-on and pokes fun at pretty much all parties involved. But, buried under all the snark is some actual heart. If you’re interested in stories about falls from grace, today’s media climate, and life regret, Talk to Me is for you. Full Review.
These books help you think about your life…
My #1 Pick
Plot Summary: Mary Laura Philpott had an enviable life by conventional standards (i.e. happy marriage, children, career, house, etc), yet she still felt unsettled and unsatisfied. These essays are about her experience trying to navigate that.
My Thoughts: I’ve been on a kick with “women who get women” memoirs over the past few years and Mary Laura Philpott is an excellent addition to my club of go-to authors (also including Anna Quindlen and Kelly Corrigan). Philpott writes about this unsettling stage of life with openness, humor, and relatability. If you enjoy “maintaining your identity through marriage and motherhood” books, I Miss You When I Blink should be next on your list! Full Review.
Plot Summary: The author (daughter of New York Times journalist David Carr) comes to terms with her father’s unexpected death, her own addiction, and reflects back on her relationship with her father.
My Thoughts: It’s a bit of a mash-up of a grief memoir, an addiction memoir, an early-mid 20’s career memoir, and a father / daughter story. And, all that works beautifully together. Carr shares email exchanges between her and her father, which illustrate the mentor / mentee relationship they had as she began a career in media. Like From the Corner of the Oval and Who Thought This Was a Good Idea?, it would make a great gift for someone graduating from college, particularly if he/she is interested in a career in media.
These books are pretty much the opposite of the last bunch.
My #1 Pick
Plot Summary: When there is an explosion at Korean immigrant Young and Pak Yoo’s “Miracle Submarine” alternative autism treatment facility, resulting in two deaths, everyone at the facility that day becomes targets of the investigation.
My Thoughts: Miracle Creek is a courtroom drama, but it’s so much more than that. It’s highly literary and tackles multiple serious issues, yet doesn’t forego the fast-moving plot of a traditional courtroom drama. In addition to the “who caused the explosion and why” angle to the story, Miracle Creek addresses children with severe disabilities (including autism) and what life is like for those who care for them. Full Review.
Plot Summary: When fifteen year-old Stella Sandell is accused of murdering a wealthy businessman in his thirties, her lawyer mother and pastor father must decide what they’re will to do to save her.
My Thoughts: Told from three perspectives in three sections (Stella’s Dad’s, Stella’s, and Stella’s Mom’s), A Nearly Normal Family reminded me of a cross between Miracle Creek (my review) and Reconstructing Amelia (my review). The evidence tells a different story depending on whose perspective you’re viewing it from, which kept me turning the pages. Full Review.
Plot Summary: Jessica Farris signs up for a supposedly anonymous study only to find that Dr. Shields (the psychiatrist conducting the study) seems to be able to get into her head in a much deeper way than she imagined.
My Thoughts: Psychological thrillers that are heavier on the psychological and lighter on the thriller tend to work for me…and An Anonymous Girl fits this bill. It’s less reliant on action and outlandish plot twists…the suspenseful question is not what will happen, but who can you trust? The beginning of the story sucked me in in a creepy, unsettling way. This book is a giant mindf*ck! Full Review.
Plot Summary: While anew disease called False Memory Syndrome (which gives people memories of things that never happened and whole lives they never lived) is spreading throughout the country, Barry Sutton investigates the death of a woman possibly afflicted with this illness, which leads him to a neuroscientist (Helena) developing a technology involving memory that could have sinister consequences.
My Thoughts: I don’t read much Sci-Fi, but Blake Crouch is the exception (I loved his last book, Dark Matter). He writes incredibly human takes on Sci-Fi that make you consider a big life question. In Recursion‘s case, the question is “what is memory?” There’s a LOT going on in this novel (I had no idea what was going on at first)…it’s somewhat of a mind-bending and made my brain hurt at times, but in a good way. Full Review.
Plot Summary: When two college girls end up in the icy Black Root River on their way to Minnesota, a small town is taken back to another young girl’s death in the same river a decade earlier.
My Thoughts: This literary mystery feels like a suspenseful small-town story (especially in the first half)…not a thriller. Though the beginning is a slow burn, I was immediately drawn in and wanted to find out how these two river tragedies a decade apart would connect. And, the second half really takes off. Full Review.
Plot Summary: After artist Alicia Berenson is found standing next to her beloved husband (Gabriel) in their home after he’d been shot 5 times in the face, she never speaks again.
My Thoughts: This mystery / thriller is a slow burn for most of the book until all the pieces come together in the end. It’s as much about Theo, Alicia’s psychotherapist, and his past, as it is about Alicia and how her husband ended up dead. Theo gives off a creepy vibe, which fits in with the overall creepy story. The ending rode the line between possibly brilliant and possibly ridiculous, as it did rely on a somewhat important coincidence, but the pieces did come together kind of brilliantly.
These books are your brain candy. They read easy, but their stories still have great depth.
My #1 Pick
Plot Summary: Katharine McGee imagines a world where George Washington was King rather than President and the book focuses on his modern-day descendants, particularly Beatrice, a young woman who is first in line for the throne (and would be the first Queen by birth).
My Thoughts: Beatrice and her siblings are falling in love (sometimes with the wrong people) and having to navigate that within the confines of the monarchy. It’s pure, unapologetic fun, examines appearances vs. reality involving public figures, and has a number of couples to root for. It reminded me of The Royal We, I flew through it in a few days, and it pulled me out of my recent mini slump. I can’t wait for the second book in the series to come out in Fall 2020.
Plot Summary: After leaving New York in disgrace after a case of the yips, Dean (a pitcher for the Yankees), escapes to a small town in Maine and moves into Evvie’s (a recent widow) guest apartment.
My Thoughts: I really enjoyed this rom-com! It has all the rom-com cliches you’d expect: good friends with sexual tension, two broken people trying to put themselves back together, and a strung out “will they or won’t they” scenario. But, the writing and the dialogue tempered the cheesiness of all these cliches for me. It’s smart and snappy and Holmes also included excellent commentary on grief, secrets, platonic friendship between a man and a woman, and appearances vs. reality. Full Review.
Plot Summary: Lillian, a scholarship kid, and Madison, an heiress, become friends at their Tennessee boarding school. Years later, Madison is married to a U.S. Senator and asks Lillian to serve as “governess” for her ten year-old stepchildren. But, the stepchildren catch fire when they get upset and Senator Roberts is gunning for higher office.
My Thoughts: I was nervous about the outrageous premise (kids literally catching on fire when they’re upset). I usually like my fiction firmly rooted in reality; however, I’m a mother, so I appreciated this idea as a metaphor. This book seamlessly combines dark humor with warmth into brain candy that has sass and heart. Lillian’s salty, filter-free commentary on rich people’s eccentricities and her rough-around-the-edges demeanor balance out the unrealistic premise. Full Review.
Plot Summary: Ellis (an Alabama native living in New York City) shares her outrageous take on Southern etiquette and eccentricities.
My Thoughts: Ellis has an inappropriate, outrageous sense of humor (my favorite!). And, pairing it with her spot-on social commentary on the South can be magic. She covers marriage, thank-you notes, general etiquette (courtesy of her mother), and crazy stories from her childhood a la Jenny Lawson (I loved these). Some of these essays are outrageously funny, while some are still fairly outrageous (but less so for Ellis), but also poignant. Full Review.
Plot Summary: When debut novelist James Smale sells his semi-autobiographical novel to Doubleday (his editor turns out to be Jacqueline Onassis), he is forced to address his frayed relationship with his mother.
My Thoughts: The Editor is a marriage of a dysfunctional family novel and a publishing world / literary life novel…with some fun celebrity allure sprinkled on top. The premise of having Jackie O be Smale’s fictional book editor could have been preposterous and silly. But, Rowley didn’t have Jackie overtake the story…he worked in just the right amount of Kennedy anecdotes in a way that didn’t feel forced. The Editor is a delightful (but, not annoyingly so) book if you’re looking for a fun, light read. Full Review.
Plot Summary: Phillips, best known for her roles on Freaks and Geeks, Dawson’s Creek, and Cougartown (and as Michelle Williams’ BFF) shares her experience growing up in Arizona and breaking into the acting business.
My Thoughts: She’s raw, honest, down-to-earth, hilarious, and unafraid to share some experiences from her childhood that many people would feel uncomfortable talking about. She’s also willing to tell it like it is about Hollywood and other actors she’s worked with, not in a “who’s sleeping with who” kind of way, but more in a “that guy is a pompous prick and treated me badly” kind of way. A light, fun, juicy listen and one of the most engaging celebrity memoirs I’ve read / listened to! Full Review.
For the Hobbyist
Books for people that are into specific things…in this case, food / restaurants, being a Grandmother, Pat Conroy, and interesting takes on current events.
My #1 Pick
Plot Summary:This memoir by long-time restaurant critic and Editor-in-Chief of Gourmet Magazine is a look behind-the-scenes of Gourmet during a time when they were trying to re-vamp the magazine.
My Thoughts: I love “behind-the-scenes of business” stories and I loved this one. But, Reichl also gets personal. She talks about growing up with a bi-polar mother, the stress being a restaurant critic caused within her own family (i.e. it’s hard to be gone almost every night when you have a child), and her feelings of imposter syndrome when she took over the top job at Gourmet without any editorial or magazine experience. And, though this memoir isn’t primarily about the food, Reichl’s glittering food writing is there.
Nanaville: Adventures in Grandparentingby Anna Quindlen
Memoir (Released April 23, 2019)
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Plot Summary: Quindlen’s take on her experience being a grandmother.
My Thoughts: I’ll basically read anything Anna Quindlen writes…especially her nonfiction about motherhood, so I was obviously excited to hear what she’d have to say about being a grandmother. Her view on life is always relatable and down to earth, but she doesn’t sugar-coat. Nanaville is a tiny book that would make a great holiday gift for your Mom or Grandmother.
Plot Summary: A collection of essays celebrating the life and work of author Pat Conroy…written by fellow writers and people in the publishing industry.
My Thoughts: Pat Conroy was one of those larger than life personalities who owned the room the second he walked into it. He wasn’t flawless by any means, but he was never without an entertaining story to tell (sometimes of questionable truth) and he made people thankful they were in his orbit. And, that’s the general theme of these essays. Most of the essays were written by authors he championed and others who worked with him over the course of his career. Full Review.
Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know About the People We Don’t Knowby Malcolm Gladwell
Social Science (Released September 10, 2019)
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Plot Summary: Gladwell uses examples pulled from history (Sylvia Plath’s suicide) and the headlines (the Sandra Bland police tragedy, the Amanda Knox trial, the Bernie Madoff scandal, etc) to examine “what happens when we encounter people we don’t know, why it often goes awry, and what it says about us.”
My Thoughts: Gladwell uses data to look at situations that many people use intuition to examine…and comes up with different conclusions (similar to Michael Lewis). He examines people’s mentality about trust…and essentially lays out why people tend to trust too much. I found his take on each scenario he examined intriguing, especially Bernie Madoff and the white collar criminal investigator he interviewed, though I didn’t agree with them all (i.e. his take on Jerry Sandusky).
Uncovering the secrets behind major news stories. I didn’t read nearly as much investigative journalism this year as I have in previous years, but this one was a winner!
She Said: Breaking the Sexual Harassment Story That Helped Ignite a Movementby Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey
Nonfiction – Investigative Journalism (Released September 10, 2019)
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Plot Summary: Kantor and Twohey’s story of how they broke the Harvey Weinstein sexual harassment story for The New York Times.
My Thoughts: I knew the general framework of the Harvey Weinstein story going in, but I truly didn’t understand the breadth and scope of his abuse or the investigation itself until I listened to this book. This book is important, but it’s also a riveting read/listen.
Hard Copy Book Subscriptions
Book of the Month
Affiliate Link: Purchase
The gift that keeps on giving for book lovers! On the first of every month, members get to choose one of five books selected by Book of the Month’s panel of judges (including a surprise guest judge). You also have the option to purchase additional books for $9.99 each and to skip a month if you want. Book of the Month will mail your chosen hardcover book (along with any extras you ordered) to your house for free.
Shelf Subscription (from The Bookshelf, an independent bookstore in Thomasville, GA)
Annie Jones, the owner of The Bookshelf, is also the co-host of From the Front Porch podcast and one of my very best book recommendation sources. For the Shelf Subscription, you choose The Bookshelf staffer whose taste best matches yours (there’s descriptions and a fun quiz on the website to help you!) and you get a surprise hardcover in the mail every month. You don’t have the choice of Book of the Month, but I love The Bookshelf staffers taste (PS – if you like my reading taste, you probably want to choose Annie Jones as your staffer)! Perfect for readers interested in supporting independent bookstores!
Libro.fm (independent bookstore audiobook service)
Affiliate Link: Purchase
For about $15 per month, you can get a 1, 3, 6, or 12 month subscription that includes one audiobook per month. The big difference between from Audible is, with Libro.fm, you select which independent bookstore you’d like to purchase from. So, you can support your favorite independent bookstore even when you’re buying audiobooks! Just like with Audible, make sure to tell your gift recipient to download the Libro.fm app on their smartphone.
Audible (Amazon’s audiobook service)
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
For $14.95 per month, members get one audiobook and two Audible Originals each month. Members get discounts on audiobooks you purchase above the credits that come with your plan. You can also upgrade your subscription to get more than one audiobook a month. Make sure to tell your gift recipient to download the Audible app on their smartphone.
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