Welcome to my Best Holiday Gifts for Book Lovers 2020 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, and For the Hobbyist).
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 Pick
Plot Summary: When Ruby King’s mother is murdered in her home, Ruby is left to live with her abusive father…while her best friend, Layla, makes it her mission to save her.
My Thoughts: This debut novel is absolutely stunning (5 stars!)! West’s writing is intimate and powerful and the book kicks off with a Prologue where I highlighted at least 4 passages. There is an incredible amount packed into this story, but it flows so easily. Despite the heaviness of these themes, there is hope and strength. If you loved The Mothers by Brit Bennett (my review) and A Woman is No Man by Etaf Rum (my review), you’ll love Saving Ruby King! Full Review.
Plot Summary: Bea Schumacher, a plus-size blogger, becomes the lead of Main Squeeze, a Bachelor-esque reality TV show.
My Thoughts: One to Watch gives a juicy behind-the-scenes picture of The Bachelor (which I think is fairly accurate based on everything I’ve learned by reading Reality Steve‘s blog). It felt timely and looked at various types of diversity (obviously body type, but also racial, etc). One to Watch is brain candy the way I like it…a light style, but dealing with substantive topics. Full Review.
Plot Summary: Harvard Law grad Alexandra (Alex) Vogel falls under the spell of the high-powered M&A group in her first year of her job at a prestigious NYC law firm, but she eventually finds there’s a dark underbelly to BigLaw where women take the fall.
My Thoughts: The Boys’ Club is my favorite kind of Brain Candy…one that reads easy, but has good substance (aka Brain Candy with substance). The Boys’ Club was marketed as Sweetbitter meets The Firm, but I thought it was more The Devil Wears Prada. Katz (which is a pseudonym, as she actually works in “BigLaw” in New York City) paints a spot-on portrayal of the world of BigLaw, which is incredibly stressful and can be a toxic culture for women. And, she provides excellent commentary on women’s unique struggles with trying to pursue a career in an intense, male-dominated industry. My Review.
Plot Summary: After running away from their small, predominantly light-skinned black town in Louisiana (Mallard) at age sixteen, the Vignes twins’ lives diverge dramatically, with one living back at home with her black daughter while the other one “passes” for white in Los Angeles, CA.
My Thoughts: Bennett’s 2016 debut novel, The Mothers (my review), was one of my top 3 books of 2016. While The Vanishing Half didn’t hit me quite as hard as The Mothers, I still loved it (despite reading it during week #2 of coronavirus quarantine, which meant an extremely distracted mental state). This is a story about family and identity, told through the eyes of four unforgettable women (the Vignes twins and their respective daughters). 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: Two MFA students plot revenge against their star professor when she destroys (I’m leaving the meaning of “destroys” intentionally vague) one of their dear friends.
My Thoughts: I love campus novels and the writing in this one is out of this world…Zancan’s commentary on the social hierarchy of the MFA students is perfection and her introductions of each new player in the story make you feel like you know the depths of their psyches from just a few paragraphs. It reminded me of The Other’s Gold (my review) in this way and the simmering dynamics between the MFA classmates reminded me of The Ensemble by Aja Gabel (my review). 5 stars! My Review.
Plot Summary: Afi lives in Ghana with her widowed mother and is offered the “opportunity” to marry a wealthy man she’s never met. He doesn’t show up at their wedding, sending someone else in his place. Nevertheless, the marriage goes through and Afi moves to a swanky apartment in Accra, but discovers her husband is in love with someone else.
My Thoughts: Peace Medie grew up in Ghana and is a women’s rights advocate who shines that lens on fiction in her debut novel. His Only Wife begins with this intriguing first line: “Elikem married me in absentia; he did not come to our wedding” and, from there, explores the impact of Ghanian patriarchal culture on women through Afi’s story. It’s propulsive and reads easily, yet challenges cultural norms in Ghana. A great pick for fans of readable literary fiction! My Review.
Plot Summary: Amanda and Clay’s vacation in a Long Island rental house is interrupted when the home owners (a black couple) show up on their doorstep…saying that NYC is in the middle of a blackout. They must figure out what’s going on and if they’re safe where they are.
My Thoughts: This #readwithjenna pick is one of the most divisive books of the year. I thought it was immersive, dripping with emotional tension, and chock full of commentary on technology in the modern world. But, don’t give it to readers who need all their questions answered by the end.
Plot Summary: Laura moves to New York’s Lower East Side to pursue her music dreams, but her life is turned upside down by a love affair with a flaky fellow musician.
My Thoughts: If the theme of women struggling to pursue their dreams while being mothers and wives appeals to you (and you like character-driven novels), read this book. The story begins with a toxic relationship that reminded me of the one in Sweetbitter (my review) and turns into an exploration of motherhood and balancing time and attention to children with pursuing a dream of your own. Perfect Tunes packs a lot of themes and a long timespan into a small package, but the story and characters still feel fleshed out. Full Review.
Plot Summary: When Juliet and Michael decide to escape their conventional lives by taking their 2 young children to live on a sailboat off the coast of South America, disaster strikes.
My Thoughts: The publisher describes Sea Wife as a “literary page-turner” and there is a suspenseful element, but I want to dispel the “page-turner” myth right away. Sea Wife reads more like literary fiction with a suspenseful element that is very much in the background of the story. This is a story about marriage (Juliet and Michael were struggling with their marriage prior to their trip) and the commentary on marriage (and parenthood) is excellent. Full Review.
Plot Summary: The story of a teenage friendship between Bunny, a 6 foot 3 girl whose mother died and father is a wealthy alcoholic, and Michael, a gay boy who’s living with his Aunt after his mother was sent to prison and his father skipped town…set on the North Shore of California.
My Thoughts: It’s a dark coming of age story (though there is a life-changing incident that drives the plot) of two teenagers who feel like outsiders in their own ways trying to come to terms with who they are amid their own family drama. Thorpe’s voice and writing are the stars of this show…as are the characters of Bunny and Michael, who are flawed, yet endearing. I think readers will be drawn to them. Full Review.
These books help you think about your life…
My #1 Pick
Plot Summary: Doyle shares her journey to finally living a life that’s true to herself…including her marriage to soccer star Abby Wambach.
My Thoughts: Untamed came into my ears (the audiobook is excellent!) at a time when I desperately needed an extra dose of sanity (i.e. about 6 weeks into coronavirus quarantine and when I was mentally starting to break down from it). Listening to Glennon Doyle felt like going to therapy. She makes you feel like it’s okay to just be you…whatever that looks like. She’s fierce in her belief that women should not be constrained any longer…by other people or societal expectations / norms. She encourages women to be the “goddamn cheetah.” My Review.
Plot Summary: The author shares personal stories from her project called Craigslist Confessional, where she asked strangers to “confess if you knew it would never get back to your spouse, your colleagues, or [their] family.”
My Thoughts: I didn’t know much about this book going into it and kind of expected it to be light-hearted. I couldn’t have been more wrong. These stories are the take-your-breath-away kind that I remember from Tiny Beautiful Things…just without the advice element (Dea Bala chose to strictly listen). They’re deeply raw, unfiltered, and unflinching. Each story is relatively short, so you could easily read this in snippets or take breaks if the stories become too emotionally overwhelming. A 5 star book that came out of nowhere for me! My Review.
Plot Summary: The co-host of The Popcast podcast shares topics he’s changed his opinion on and how reconsidering our beliefs can help us grow as humans.
My Thoughts: The topic of reconsidering long-held beliefs feels especially pertinent right now and Knox McCoy applies this concept to topics ranging from the serious to the silly (because, of course, if you listen to the podcast). He covers rescheduling birthdays (I’m here for this…my son’s birthday is December 29 and it’s the worst!), participation trophies in kids sports and how every generation is mad at subsequent ones for “having it easier”, and faith and the church not necessarily equating to each other. My Review.
These books are pretty much the opposite of the last bunch.
My #1 Pick
Plot Summary: The story of two Philadelphia sisters; Kacey, an opioid addict living mostly on the streets, and Mickey, a cop whose beat is Kacey’s hang-out area.
My Thoughts: This book was marketed as “the next Girl on the Train” and was blurbed by Paula Hawkins. Forget about that right now…Long Bright River is not like The Girl on the Train (it’s much better!). It’s feels like a literary police procedural with some character-driven family drama thrown in and I’d say it’s much more mystery than thriller. It’s long, but I flew through it. Full Review.
Plot Summary: When corporate attorney Lizzie Kitsakis gets a call from an old law school friend who is being held at Rikers after his wife is found dead in their home, she gets enmeshed in the tony Park Slope parents’ scene and finds her own life in turmoil.
My Thoughts: Kimberly McCreight is one of my go-to mystery / thriller authors (I loved Reconstructing Amelia and Where They Found Her too). A Good Marriage is heavy on the legal angle and she sets a breadcrumb trail that leads up to an ending that is surprising, yet not too outlandish. I loved how she explored different issues that often mean trouble for marriages: addiction, workaholism, neglect, fidelity, money, and ambition (to name a few). My Review.
Plot Summary: When a black lawyer and a white local girl are murdered in Lark, Texas (rural East Texas), Darren Matthews (a black Texas Ranger) is called in to investigate amid racial tensions.
My Thoughts: Bluebird, Bluebird is a police procedural with depth…covering more issues than just who did it. It deals with racial tensions in East Texas, racial inequality in law enforcement, and small-town secrets. It’s super atmospheric…you can feel the heat, dustiness, isolation, and danger of East Texas. Perfect for fans of literary police procedurals!
Plot Summary: Bookstore owner Malcolm Kershow is drawn into a murder investigation when someone begins committing real murders based on the fictional murders in a blog post he wrote years ago called “Eight Perfect Murders.”
My Thoughts: I loved Swanson’s The Kind Worth Killing, but hated his last thriller, Before She Knew Him. Eight Perfect Murders is completely different from both. It feels much more like a mystery than a thriller and is somewhat of an homage to classic murder mysteries (i.e. Agatha Christie, Patricia Highsmith, etc), but you don’t have to be intimately familiar with those books to like this one. Also, it’s weirdly a somewhat comforting mystery (maybe because of the bookstore setting). If you like mysteries that avoid outrageous, eye-roll-y twists / endings, this might be for you.
Plot Summary: Ten years ago, Maya was the lone juror who wanted to acquit Bobby Nock of murdering Jessica Silver…and she was able to convince her fellow jurors to come around to her side. Now, a true crime docu-series is reassembling those involved with the case, including the jurors.
My Thoughts: This courtroom drama was inspired by Moore’s (Academy Award-winner for Best Adapted Screenplay for The Imitation Game) real-life experience serving on a jury in 2008 and sending that defendant to prison for murder. The Holdout does not have a particularly thriller-y vibe, but it’s easy to quickly turn the pages. It looks at the impact of a high profile trial on the jury (particularly one that is sequestered)…how it affects the jurors’ lives, families, and mental state…and how slippery the legal system is in the U.S. Full Review.
Plot Summary: When Eddie Flynn agrees to defend superstar actor Bobby Solomon for the double murder of his wife and bodyguard, he doesn’t realize he’s up against a killer who’s on the jury.
My Thoughts: Thirteen is one of the best fast-paced thrillers I’ve read this year! I love the unique premise of having the killer sitting on the jury for the crime he committed and I don’t think I’ve ever seen that before in a legal thriller (not to say it hasn’t been done at some point). The entire story and all the suspense that goes with it come from the how and the why of it all. If The Holdout by Graham Moore made you skeptical of the impartiality of juries, Thirteen might take you to the point of no return.
Plot Summary: Shay Miller is living a lonely, unremarkable life in New York City when she witnesses a woman jump in front of a subway train. Horrified and intrigued, Shay seeks out the woman’s glamorous friends, who turn out to be interested in Shay too.
My Thoughts: When I started this book, I was in an epic reading slump (four DNFs in a row!). You Are Not Alone was just the book I needed, hooking me from page one and keeping me engrossed for the next two days. It’s a story about loneliness and the lengths people are willing to go for companionship. And, for once, a thriller where the women are in charge! My Review.
These books are your brain candy. They read easy, but their stories still have great depth.
My #1 Pick
The Office: The Untold Story of the Greatest Sitcom of the 2000’s by Andy Greene
General Nonfiction, Released March 24, 2020
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Plot Summary: An oral history of the TV series The Office.
My Thoughts: Greene uses the oral history format (which I love) to share the backstory of how the show got adapted from British TV, cast, developed over the years, and ultimately came to an end after Season 9. Rather than focus on every episode, it highlights a certain number of “key episodes” within the bigger picture story. You get a nuanced picture of the show showing both the good and the bad. Bonus: pair with The Office Ladies podcast! Full Review.
Plot Summary: Anna K is a perfect Korean-American daughter (especially compared to her party-boy brother, Steven) with the perfect Greenwich society boyfriend until she meets Alexia “Count” Vronsky, a notorious NYC private school lothario.
My Thoughts: Anna K is a YA romance that is the first novel in a series (the second installment, Anna K Away, is coming in 2021). It’s billing as a reimagining of the classic novel, Anna Karenina, but also as “Crazy Rich Asians meets Gossip Girl” is 100% accurate. There’s a lot of NYC glitz, drugs, beautiful people, and partying. Full Review.
Plot Summary: The businesswoman, singer, and reality star talks candidly about her life and career.
My Thoughts: I was so pleasantly surprised by this book! The title is perfect…Simpson is an open book with her life. She talks about her struggle with weight and body image, her high profile romances (including more than I ever knew about her relationship with John Mayer), and starting her clothing business. One of the best celebrity memoirs I’ve ever read (4.5 stars)! Full Review.
Plot Summary: After a period of scamming rich people in LA, Nina (the daughter of a con woman) and her partner, Lachlan, team up to target a wealthy heiress in Lake Tahoe after Nina’s mom gets sick.
My Thoughts: Though this is a thriller, it felt more suspense fiction and didn’t feel super thriller-y to me until the very end. The writing was the first thing I noticed about this book and that’s not what I usually say about a thriller.There’s a bit of a Breaking Bad element, which makes Nina likable. And, I enjoyed the commentary about social media in general and social media influencer culture in particular.
For the Hobbyist
Books for people that are into specific things…in this case, true crime, food / restaurants, therapy, and friendship.
My #1 Pick
Plot Summary: While an undergrad at Harvard, Cooper hears the story of a 1969 murder of Jane Britton (a Harvard Anthropology graduate student and daughter of Radcliffe VP) in her apartment…the rumored (and unsolved) story so intrigues her that she begins a decade long quest to investigate what happened.
My Thoughts: We Keep the Dead Close is part literary true crime, part memoir (Cooper shares her own story of investigating Jane’s death and the effect it had on her) and reminded me of I’ll Be Gone in the Dark in that way. It has a super atmospheric setting and Harvard feels like a romantic, yet sinister character. Though this book is long, it’s broken up into smaller sections and has pictures throughout, so it moves faster than you’d think. Perfect for fans of The Devil in the White City, In Cold Blood, In the Garden of Good and Evil. And, it’s one of the better true crime books I’ve ever read! My Review.
Plot Summary: The true story of Israel Keyes, one of the “most ambitious and terrifying serial killers of modern history,” whose exploits never made it into the news like a Ted Bundy or Jeffrey Dahmer.
My Thoughts: This one was one of the most riveting (and terrifying…maybe avoid reading it at night?) true crime books I’ve ever read. Callahan, a journalist at the New York Post, spent years interviewing people in law enforcement and Keyes’s friends / family, and investigated classified FBI files to tell this story. I started reading it at the beach and you wouldn’t think it would be a great beach read, but it actually was…it’s incredibly readable, and the beach setting tempered how terrifying the book was. If you liked In Cold Blood or The Stranger Beside Me, American Predator is for you!
Plot Summary: Chang’s memoir about growing up Korean American in Northern Virginia, his struggle with mental illness, and how he built his Momofuko restaurant empire.
My Thoughts: Eat a Peach might be my all-time favorite food memoir, but it is much more than just a food memoir. Chang talks about what it’s like to be an Asian American who does not fit traditional Asian stereotypes (i.e. he’s not book smart and he’s a big guy), going into a non-traditional profession as the child of Korean immigrants, his childhood as a golf prodigy, and his struggle with mental illness (bipolar disorder). He’s incredibly self-deprecating and I love his philosophy on food. Excellent on audio!
Plot Summary: Gildiner, who was a psychologist in Canada for many years before becoming a writer, shares the stories of her five “most heroic and memorable patients.”
My Thoughts: Gildiner explicitly chose five patients to profile whose stories ended well and were inspirational. There is a finite sense of closure with each patient, including a check-in years later in most cases, and I think readers will love this. The patients she profiles also had incredibly dysfunctional childhoods, so there’s a bit of a dysfunctional childhood memoir feel to the book as well. These stories will punch you in the gut, but leave you hopeful at the end. If you liked Maybe You Should Talk to Someone, here’s your next book! My Review.
Plot Summary: Gottlieb shares her work with four patients (a cancer patient, an “asshole” TV writer who’s having trouble in his marriage, a young lost girl with an alcohol problem, and a 70 year old with life regrets), as well as her work with her own therapist.
My Thoughts: This book got so much hype over the past year or so and I wasn’t sure if I would like it, but I did to the tune of 4.5 stars! It feels like part memoir, part behind-the-scenes of how therapy works, and part self-help. Parts of it are universally applicable to many different kinds of people and problems and it caused me to self-reflect. And, it’s super readable…even when she weaves in academic research.
Mindhunter: Inside the FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit by John E. Douglas
Nonfiction – True Crime (Released October 31, 1995)
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Plot Summary: Douglas recounts his time profiling serial killers for the FBI.
My Thoughts: I’ve always been fascinated by the minds of serial killers (not sure what that says about me) and this book is eye-opening if you’re into that. It’s not perfect, but kept me engrossed in the most chilling way possible. He talks about his involvement in famous cases like Son of Sam, BTK Killer, Green River Killer, and the Atlanta Child Murders, as well as the struggles of having this type of career.
Plot Summary: The story of Patchett’s long friendship with poet, author of memoir The Autobiography of a Face, and cancer survivor, Lucy Grealy (passed away from a heroin overdose in 2002).
My Thoughts: Lucy Grealy had cancer of the jaw as a child and had over 30 reconstructive surgeries to try to repair the appearance and functionality (eating, talking) of her face in the years after. I love how Patchett portrayed Lucy as a whole person in this book. Patchett did not hero worship Lucy as one could likely do with somebody who lived the life Lucy did. This story is poignant, raw, and made me appreciate the value of true friendship.
Plot Summary: An “interactive guide to life-changing books” inspired by the Call Me Ishmael Project (obviously based on the opening line of Moby Dick), where readers everywhere call phone number to leave a voicemail about books that changed their lives.
My Thoughts: This is a creative and unique concept that I’ve never seen before. The Call Me Ishmael Phone Book includes transcripts of some of the voicemails left about beloved books, literary travel destinations, and lists of independent bookstores…all organized like a phone book (and including phone numbers to call to hear recorded voicemails about each book or destination). The Tiny Beautiful Things voicemail (ext. 6059) made me tear up and one of the To Kill a Mockingbird (ext. 6346) voicemails was a heartfelt testament to how this book helped a black woman understand race in her Southern hometown. This would make a great gift for the prolific reader who you can’t fathom choosing a “regular book” for…or for your favorite English teacher!
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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