Holiday Book Recommendations for the Readers in Your Life
I've been so looking forward to this post! In case you missed it, I put out a call for people who wanted book recommendations last week and got some fun submissions, which I've answered below. All the submissions are anonymous so as not to ruin the surprise for the recipients.
I'd love a recommendation for my niece. She loves suspenseful books with a strong female protagonist.
I was so happy to receive this question because I love books with strong female protagonists, too! Not all the books I recommended fit squarely in the Suspense genre, though they do all have elements of suspense, uncertainty, and that heart pounding between-a-rock-and-a-hard-place feeling.
The Woman in Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware
In this tightly wound story, Lo Blacklock, a journalist who writes for a travel magazine, has just been given the assignment of a lifetime: a week on a luxury cruise with only a handful of cabins. At first, Lo’s stay is nothing but pleasant: the cabins are plush, the dinner parties are sparkling, and the guests are elegant. But as the week wears on, frigid winds whip the deck, gray skies fall, and Lo witnesses what she can only describe as a nightmare: a woman being thrown overboard. The problem? All passengers remain accounted for—and so, the ship sails on as if nothing has happened, despite Lo’s desperate attempts to convey that something (or someone) has gone terribly, terribly wrong…
The Passenger by Lisa Lutz
Forty-eight hours after leaving her husband’s body at the base of the stairs, Tanya Dubois cashes in her credit cards, dyes her hair brown, demands a new name from a shadowy voice over the phone, and flees town. It’s not the first time.
She meets Blue, a female bartender who recognizes the hunted look in a fugitive’s eyes and offers her a place to stay. With dwindling choices, Tanya-now-Amelia accepts. An uneasy―and dangerous―alliance is born.
It’s almost impossible to live off the grid today, but Amelia-now-Debra and Blue have the courage, the ingenuity, and the desperation, to try. Hopscotching from city to city, Debra especially is chased by a very dark secret…can she outrun her past?
Swamplandia! by Karen Russell
The Bigtree alligator wrestling dynasty is in decline--think Buddenbrooks set in the Florida Everglades--and Swamplandia!, their island home and gator-wrestling theme park, is swiftly being encroached upon by a sophisticated competitor known as the "World of Darkness."
Ava, a resourceful but terrified twelve-year-old, must manage seventy gators and the vast, inscrutable landscape of her own grief. Her mother, Swamplandia!’s legendary headliner, has just died; her sister is having an affair with a ghost called the Dredgeman; her brother has secretly defected to the World of Darkness in a last-ditch effort to keep their sinking family afloat; and her father, Chief Bigtree, is AWOL. To save her family, Ava must journey on her own to a perilous part of the swamp called the "Underworld," a harrowing odyssey from which she emerges a true heroine.
Don't let this one fool you---it's unexpectedly suspenseful and unravels in a frightening spiral.
A recommendation for a writer who loves Elizabeth Berg's Dream Lover, is very creative and loves to read about other writers lifestyles and struggles. Also she is a fan of Elizabeth Berg, Julia Cameron, Jodi Picoult, and Kate Morton.
I had a lot of fun with this question because I'm a writer who likes reading about other writers and I have read several books like Dream Lover that I enjoyed, too! It sounds like your friend and I are kindred spirits, so I'm really glad I got to put this list together.
First, books like Dream Lover...
Rodin's Lover by Heather Webb
As a woman, aspiring sculptor Camille Claudel has plenty of critics, especially her ultra-traditional mother. But when Auguste Rodin makes Camille his apprentice—and his muse—their passion inspires groundbreaking works. Yet, Camille’s success is overshadowed by her lover’s rising star, and her obsessions cross the line into madness.
Rodin’s Lover brings to life the volatile love affair between one of the era’s greatest artists and a woman entwined in a tragic dilemma she cannot escape.
The House of Hawthorne by Erika Robuck
Beset by crippling headaches from a young age and endowed with a talent for drawing, Sophia is discouraged by her well-known New England family from pursuing a woman’s traditional roles. But from their first meeting, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Sophia begin an intense romantic relationship that despite many setbacks leads to their marriage. Together, they will cross continents, raise children, and experience all the beauty and tragedy of an exceptional partnership. Sophia’s vivid journals and her masterful paintings kindle a fire in Nathaniel, inspiring his writing. But their children’s needs and the death of loved ones steal Sophia’s energy and time for her art, fueling in her a perennial tug-of-war between fulfilling her domestic duties and pursuing her own desires.
Spanning the years from the 1830s to the Civil War, and moving from Massachusetts to England, Portugal, and Italy, The House of Hawthorne explores the tension within a famous marriage of two soulful, strong-willed people, each devoted to the other but also driven by a powerful need to explore the far reaches of their creative impulses. It is the story of a forgotten woman in history, who inspired one of the greatest writers of American literature.
You can also check out my review of The House of Hawthorne here.
Call Me Zelda by Erika Robuck
From New York to Paris, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald reigned as king and queen of the Jazz Age, but those who really knew them saw their inner turmoil.
Committed to a Baltimore psychiatric hospital in 1932, Zelda vacillates between lucidity and madness as she fights to forge an identity independent of her famous husband. She discovers a sympathetic ear in her nurse Anna Howard, who finds herself drawn into the Fitzgerald’s tumultuous lives and wonders which of them is the true genius. But in taking greater emotional risks to save Zelda, Anna may end up paying a far higher price than she ever intended.
In this thoroughly researched, deeply moving novel, Erika Robuck explores the boundaries of female friendship, the complexity of marital devotion, and the sources of both art and madness.
Under the Wide and Starry Sky by Nancy Horan
At the age of thirty-five, Fanny van de Grift Osbourne leaves her philandering husband in San Francisco and sets sail for Belgium to study art, with her three children and a nanny in tow. Not long after her arrival, however, tragedy strikes, and Fanny and her brood repair to a quiet artists' colony in France where she can recuperate. There she meets Robert Louis Stevenson, ten years her junior, who is instantly smitten with the earthy, independent and opinionated belle Americaine.
A woman ahead of her time, Fanny does not immediately take to the young lawyer who longs to devote his life to literature, and who would eventually write such classics as Treasure Island and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. In time, though, she succumbs to Stevenson's charms. The two begin a fierce love affair, marked by intense joy and harrowing darkness, which spans decades as they travel the world for the sake of his health. Eventually they settled in Samoa, where Robert Louis Stevenson is buried.
The Last Bookaneer by Matthew Pearl
book'a-neer' (bŏŏk'kå-nēr'), n. a literary pirate; an individual capable of doing all that must be done in the universe of books that publishers, authors, and readers must not have a part in
London, 1890—Pen Davenport is the most infamous bookaneer in Europe. A master of disguise, he makes his living stalking harbors, coffeehouses, and print shops for the latest manuscript to steal. But this golden age of publishing is on the verge of collapse. For a hundred years, loose copyright laws and a hungry reading public created a unique opportunity: books could easily be published without an author’s permission. Authors gained fame but suffered financially—Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, Robert Louis Stevenson, to name a few—but publishers reaped enormous profits while readers bought books inexpensively. Yet on the eve of the twentieth century, a new international treaty is signed to grind this literary underground to a sharp halt. The bookaneers are on the verge of extinction.
The Last Bookaneer is the astonishing story of these literary thieves’ epic final heist. On the island of Samoa, a dying Robert Louis Stevenson labors over a new novel. The thought of one last book from the great author fires the imaginations of the bookaneers, and soon Davenport sets out for the South Pacific island. As always, Davenport is reluctantly accompanied by his assistant Fergins, who is whisked across the world for one final caper. Fergins soon discovers the supreme thrill of aiding Davenport in his quest to steal Stevenson’s manuscript and make a fortune before the new treaty ends the bookaneers’ trade forever. But Davenport is hardly the only bookaneer with a mind to pirate Stevenson’s last novel. His longtime adversary, the monstrous Belial, appears on the island, and soon Davenport, Fergins, and Belial find themselves embroiled in a conflict larger, perhaps, than literature itself.
You can also read my review of The Last Bookaneer here.
And now for books about writers...
Starting Out in the Evening by Brian Morton
An aging author -- now out of print and barely remembered by the literary world that once fleetingly embraced him -- is courted by a brash young graduate student who wants to write her thesis on him. What ensues is a story that is at once comical, sensitive and sharply insightful.
Our Tragic Universe by Scarlett Thomas
If Kelsey Newman's theory about the end of the time is true, we are all going to live forever. But for Meg - locked in a dead-end relationship and with a deadline looming for a book that she can't write - this thought fills her with dread. Stuck in a labyrinth of her own devising, Meg knows that there must be a way out.
Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon
Chabon presents a hilarious and heartbreaking work—the story of the friendship between the "wonder boys"—Grady, an aging writer who has lost his way, and Crabtree, whose relentless debauchery is capsizing his career.
Am I Alone Here?: Notes on Living to Read and Reading to Live by Peter Orner
“Stories, both my own and those I’ve taken to heart, make up whoever it is that I’ve become,” Peter Orner writes in this collection of essays about reading, writing, and living. Orner reads—and writes—everywhere he finds himself: a hospital cafeteria, a coffee shop in Albania, or a crowded bus in Haiti. The result is “a book of unlearned meditations that stumbles into memoir.” Among the many writers Orner addresses are Isaac Babel and Zora Neale Hurston, both of whom told their truths and were silenced; Franz Kafka, who professed loneliness but craved connection; Robert Walser, who spent the last twenty-three years of his life in a Swiss insane asylum, “working” at being crazy; and Juan Rulfo, who practiced the difficult art of silence. Virginia Woolf, Eudora Welty, Yasunari Kawabata, Saul Bellow, Mavis Gallant, John Edgar Wideman, William Trevor, and Václav Havel make appearances, as well as the poet Herbert Morris—about whom almost nothing is known.
An elegy for an eccentric late father, and the end of a marriage, Am I Alone Here? is also a celebration of the possibility of renewal. At once personal and panoramic, this book will inspire readers to return to the essential stories of their own lives.
You can also read my review of Am I Alone Here? here.
For this next one I can tell you who it's from because the recipient is too young to read my blog. My soon-to-be sister-in-law requested book recommendations for her baby daughter, Melanie, who's just under a year old. She specifically wanted books about people of diverse people and experiences.
Most of the baby books (board books) I found were about animals, but I found a couple that, while a little old for her now, will be good for her parents to read to her. And before we know it she'll be able to read them herself.
The Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Peña
Every Sunday after church, CJ and his grandma ride the bus across town. But today, CJ wonders why they don't own a car like his friend Colby. Why doesn’t he have an iPod like the boys on the bus? How come they always have to get off in the dirty part of town? Each question is met with an encouraging answer from grandma, who helps him see the beauty—and fun—in their routine and the world around them.
All Kinds of Families! by Mary Ann Hoberman
With irresistible, rollicking rhyme, beloved picture book author Mary Ann Hoberman shows readers that families, large and small, are all around us. From celery stalks to bottle caps, buttons, and rings, the objects we group together form families, just like the ones we are a part of. And, as we grow up, our families grow, too. Mary Ann Hoberman gives readers a sense of belonging in this all-inclusive celebration of families and our role in them.
I, Too, Am America by Langston Hughes
The poetic wisdom of Langston Hughes merges with visionary illustrations from Bryan Collier in this inspirational picture book that carries the promise of equality.
I, too, sing America.
I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.
Langston Hughes was a courageous voice of his time, and his authentic call for equality still rings true today. Beautiful paintings from illustrator Bryan Collier accompany and reinvent the celebrated lines of the poem “I, Too,” creating a breathtaking reminder to all Americans that we are united despite our differences.
Mixed Me! by Taye Diggs
Mike has awesome hair. He has LOTS of energy! His parents love him. And Mike is a PERFECT blend of the two of them.
Still, Mike has to answer LOTS of questions about being mixed. And he does, with LOTS of energy and joy in this charming story about a day in the life of a mixed-race child.
I can also tell you who this next recommendation came from since she submitted it for herself. My grandmother is the one who taught me how to read, bought me books growing up, and fostered my intense, lifelong love of reading. She's had some foot problems lately and is soon to have surgery where she'll be laid up, mostly unable to walk for the following six weeks, so she wanted some book recommendations for herself.
She likes Maeve Binchy, Belva Plain, Anne Carroll George, and generally loves books set in the South since she's an Alabamian. She has also enjoyed literary fiction books I've given her in the past, like All the Light We Cannot See and Go Set a Watchman.
Imogene in New Orleans by Hunter Murphy
At the ripe age of 73, Imogene Deal McGregor has a penchant for following her own instincts, as well as more grit and spunk than her hypochondriac son, Billy McGregor, and Billy's impulsive partner Jackson Miller can handle. The boys take Imogene to New Orleans with their devilishly handsome English bulldog Goose, hoping to visit friends and attend a second line parade, but moments after arriving in the French Quarter, they find their friend Glenway Gilbert murdered in his art gallery. Immediately, Imogene and the boys run into a temperamental and ethically-challenged lieutenant who appears hell-bent on neglecting the crime, compelling them to seek answers themselves. As they delve into Glenway Gilbert's murder, Imogene and the boys realize the deceased artist was surrounded by suspicious friends and lovers. With Goose the bulldog by their side, Jackson and Billy seek answers among old friends and new enemies, while Imogene follows her own ideas on the case. But the sooner they solve the murder, the sooner they can get back to catching beads and eating pralines.
Tru & Nelle by G. Neri
Long before they became famous writers, Truman Capote (In Cold Blood) and Harper Lee (To Kill a Mockingbird) were childhood friends in Monroeville, Alabama. This fictionalized account of their time together opens at the beginning of the Great Depression, when Tru is seven and Nelle is six. They love playing pirates, but they like playing Sherlock and Watson-style detectives even more. It’s their pursuit of a case of drugstore theft that lands the daring duo in real trouble. Humor and heartache intermingle in this lively look at two budding writers in the 1930s South.
Crapalachia: A Biography of a Place by Scott McClanahan
When Scott McClanahan was fourteen he went to live with his Grandma Ruby and his Uncle Nathan, who suffered from cerebral palsy. Crapalachia is a portrait of these formative years, coming-of-age in rural West Virginia. Peopled by colorful characters and their quirky stories, Crapalachia interweaves oral folklore and area history, providing an ambitious and powerful snapshot of overlooked Americana.
You can check out a post I wrote about Crapalachia here.
Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
The unforgettable New York Times best seller begins with the story of two half-sisters, separated by forces beyond their control: one sold into slavery, the other married to a British slaver. Written with tremendous sweep and power, Homegoing traces the generations of family who follow, as their destinies lead them through two continents and three hundred years of history, each life indeliably drawn, as the legacy of slavery is fully revealed in light of the present day.
Effia and Esi are born into different villages in eighteenth-century Ghana. Effia is married off to an Englishman and lives in comfort in the palatial rooms of Cape Coast Castle. Unbeknownst to Effia, her sister, Esi, is imprisoned beneath her in the castle’s dungeons, sold with thousands of others into the Gold Coast’s booming slave trade, and shipped off to America, where her children and grandchildren will be raised in slavery. One thread of Homegoing follows Effia’s descendants through centuries of warfare in Ghana, as the Fante and Asante nations wrestle with the slave trade and British colonization. The other thread follows Esi and her children into America. From the plantations of the South to the Civil War and the Great Migration, from the coal mines of Pratt City, Alabama, to the jazz clubs and dope houses of twentieth-century Harlem, right up through the present day, Homegoing makes history visceral, and captures, with singular and stunning immediacy, how the memory of captivity came to be inscribed in the soul of a nation.
The next book recommendations question isn't much of a secret either since the recipient is probably too young to care about reading blogs. My soon-to-be mother-in-law often babysits the 9-year-old boy next door who loves to read. He has especially enjoyed Harry Potter and the Percy Jackson series lately, but he also enjoys books about Indiana Jones, Star Wars, and baseball. He's also black and reads a lot of books with white boys as the protagonist, so books that make him feel like he can be the hero, too, are important.
Sasquatch in the Paint (Streetball Crew series, book 1) by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
Theo Rollins is starting eighth grade six inches taller, and his new height is making everyone expect more from him. Coach Mandrake wants to transform him from invisible science geek into star basketball player, even though Theo has little experience with the game. When Theo tries to hone his skills by playing pick-up ball in the park, kids are eager to include him at first; then they quickly see that he has no control of his gangly body. A girl named Rain even dubs him "Sasquatch." To make matters worse, all his time spent on training is starting to hurt his science club's chances of winning the "Aca-lympics," the school's trivia competition. Just when Theo thinks he can't handle any more pressure, he's accused of stealing. Can he find the real thief before he is kicked off the basketball and science club teams, or will his attempt at sleuthing be yet another air ball?
Loosely based on challenges that NBA legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar faced while growing up, Sasquatch in the Paint is a slam dunk for fans of basketball action and absorbing mysteries.
The Sword of Summer (Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard series, book 1) by Rick Riordan
Magnus Chase has always been a troubled kid. Since his mother’s mysterious death, he’s lived alone on the streets of Boston, surviving by his wits, keeping one step ahead of the police and the truant officers.
One day, he’s tracked down by a man he’s never met—a man his mother claimed was dangerous. The man tells him an impossible secret: Magnus is the son of a Norse god. The Viking myths are true. The gods of Asgard are preparing for war. Trolls, giants and worse monsters are stirring for doomsday. To prevent Ragnarok, Magnus must search the Nine Worlds for a weapon that has been lost for thousands of years.
When an attack by fire giants forces him to choose between his own safety and the lives of hundreds of innocents, Magnus makes a fatal decision. Sometimes, the only way to start a new life is to die.
The Watsons Go to Birmingham--1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis
Enter the hilarious world of ten-year-old Kenny and his family, the Weird Watsons of Flint, Michigan. There's Momma, Dad, little sister Joetta, and brother Byron, who's thirteen and an "official juvenile delinquent." When Momma and Dad decide it's time for a visit to Grandma, Dad comes home with the amazing Ultra-Glide, and the Watsons set out on a trip like no other. They're heading South to Birmingham, Alabama, toward one of the darkest moments in America's history.
Wonder by R.J. Palacio
August (Auggie) Pullman was born with a facial deformity that prevented him from going to a mainstream school—until now. He's about to start 5th grade at Beecher Prep, and if you've ever been the new kid then you know how hard that can be. The thing is Auggie's just an ordinary kid, with an extraordinary face. But can he convince his new classmates that he's just like them, despite appearances?
R. J. Palacio has written a spare, warm, uplifting story that will have readers laughing one minute and wiping away tears the next. With wonderfully realistic family interactions (flawed, but loving), lively school scenes, and short chapters, Wonder is accessible to readers of all levels.
Stella by Starlight by Sharon M. Draper
When the Ku Klux Klan's unwelcome reappearance rattles Stella's segregated southern town, bravery battles prejudice in this Depression-era tour de force from Sharon Draper.
Stella lives in the segregated South; in Bumblebee, North Carolina, to be exact about it. Some stores she can go into. Some stores she can't. Some folks are right pleasant. Others are a lot less so. To Stella, it sort of evens out, and heck, the Klan hasn't bothered them for years. But one late night, later than she should ever be up, much less wandering around outside, Stella and her little brother see something they're never supposed to see, something that is the first flicker of change to come, unwelcome change by any stretch of the imagination. As Stella's community--her world--is upended, she decides to fight fire with fire. And she learns that ashes don't necessarily signify an end.
Last but not least, I've got a recommendation for everyone who wants to read a cozy, holiday-themed book and isn't sure what to read. Murder On the First Day of Christmas, a novel by Billie Thomas. When a Santa turns up dead in his sleigh, it's up to the mother-daughter interior decorator duo, Chloe and Amanda, have to solve the mystery before the killer strikes again. With romance and humor, this holiday whodunit is just delightful.
I'll also be sharing a best of 2016 list on the last Monday of 2016, so keep an eye out for even more great recommendations then.
Missed out on the book recommendations fun? Leave your recommendation requests in the comments below and I'll do my best to answer them all in a timely fashion.