© 2020 Iowa Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Books to Give, Receive, or Escape with This Holiday Season

Emily Woodbury
Tim Budd and Charity Nebbe sifting through some of Tim's favorite books of the year.

If you're looking to update your reading list or need gift suggestions for friends & family, this annual holiday book show has got you covered.

On this edition of Talk of Iowa, host Charity Nebbe talks with Jan Weismiller and Tim Budd of Prairie Lights Books in Iowa City and Hunter Gillum of Beaverdale Books in Des Moines. They share their top picks for fiction and non-fiction books released this year.


Artemis by Andy Weir

Weir is the author of The Martian. His latest book is “basically a conspiracy thriller set on a lunar colony on the moon in the 2070s,” says Budd. “It is filled with science, as The Martian was, but in terms that if you’re a scientist you understand, or if you’re a layman like me, you understand the concept.”

Less by Andrew Sean Greer

In this novel, “Less is turning 50, midlife crisis; the man he had been dating for nine years suddenly announces he’s marrying someone else,” says Budd. “So he decides to take this opportunity to cobble together a trip around the world, so he won’t be in town for the wedding.”

“It’s for anyone who’s approached 50, and for anyone who likes a good laugh.”

American War by Omar El Akkad

Omar is a journalist who covered the war in Afghanistan, the Arab Spring in Egypt, the Ferguson riots, as well as the trials in Guantanamo Bay.

“This is his first novel, and he basically took all that knowledge he learned as a journalist and set what’s happening in the Middle East in an American context,” Budd says. “You can always say, ‘Oh that would never happen in America,’ and he’s giving you an example of, perhaps it probably could.”

Into the Water by Paula Hawkins

This is a mystery novel by the author of The Girl on the Train. It’s set in the rural British town of Beckford, which has a long history of women falling off, stepping into or otherwise dying via the town’s cliffs, bridge, river, or drowning pool.

“The narration travels between 6 or 8 townspeople in this village,” says Budd, “so you have a lot of conflicting voices about the place, the time; you even get some flashbacks to the so-called alleged witches that were killed here. It’s a fascinating portrait of small town life. And the secrets, oh the secrets these people will keep.”

The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

Set in the fourteenth century during a bitter Russian winter, this novel focuses on Vasya Petronova, a girl who grows up with a secret affinity for the sprites and demons that live in and around her village.

“It was one of the best fantasies I read last year,” says Budd. “You learn a lot about Russian history and a lot about folklore. It’s a fascinating mix of fantasy and history.”


Always Happy Hour by Mary Miller

“This is a gritty collection of short stories, written in a Southern Gothic style. The stories take place in the south and deal with flawed women and their more flawed male counterparts.”

Encircling by Carl Frode Tiller

“This is the first book in the Encircling trilogy. David lost his memory, so he puts an ad in the paper encouraging people to write him letters to help him piece his past together,” says Gillum. “What follows are the letters from those that are responding to the ad and flashbacks to their past with David. The letters and the flashbacks are conflicting.”

Broken River by J. Robert Lennon

This is a novel made for true crime podcast listeners.

“Karl, Eleanor, and their daughter Irina move from New York City to upstate New York. The house they move into was the location of a double homicide. Eleanor, Irina, and seemingly the entire town of Broken River, are obsessed with this cold case. As the story unfolds more people get swept up in the cold case, including those involved in the crime,” says Gillum.

“It reads like a thriller, but then the prose is almost comedic at times.”

Stephen Florida by Gabe Habash

This book is about a wrestler in Wisconsin determined to win a championship in his senior year of college. He slowly loses his mind due to his obsession with winning state.

“I think this is the best book about sports since The Art of Fielding,” says Gillum.

My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent

This is a coming of age story following Turtle, who has lived an isolated existence since the death of her mother. She lives in northern California with her abusive father, a survivalist preparing for an environmental catastrophe. Turtle is headed to high school and doesn’t really have any friends until she meets Jacob. He lives a life completely different from her own, and they forge a close friendship.

“It’s very powerful and his descriptions of the Northern California terrain and the scenery were very beautiful,” says Gillum.


Crimes of the Father by Thomas Keneally

Keneally is the author of Schindler's Ark. His latest novel features the story of Father Frank Docherty, an ex-priest, who works to confront those involved in the abuse and cover-up of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. Goodreads calls it, “A timely, courageous and powerful novel about faith, the church, conscience and celibacy.”

Impossible Views of the World by Lucy Ives

Ives is a poet; this is her first novel. Goodreads calls it, “A witty, urbane, and sometimes shocking debut novel, set in a hallowed New York museum, in which a co-worker's disappearance and a mysterious map change a life forever.”

“It is sort of an art mystery,” says Weismiller. “It is actually much more nuanced than many other books in that art mystery genre.”

Young Jane Young by Gabrielle Zevin

In this book, the main character runs from her past, but the past comes back to haunt her.

“Her past resembles that of Monica Lewinski,” says Weismiller. “It’s kind of a nice way to look at that whole thing. It sort of takes the heat off it, and you sort of read it as a human story.”

The Girls by Emma Cline

This is Cline’s debut novel. It concerns the members of a cult that resembles the Manson Family.

“You do get to see the leader, the Manson character, fairly well drawn and in a downward spiral,” says Weismiller. “What was amazing to me when I read it was that somebody could really get the feel of that time period, in terms of the differences in parenting, the differences in freedom that kids have, and the different way that they view the world without social media.”


The World of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Marta McDowell

This book takes a look at the natural world of the Wilder books.

“There’s lots of maps, lots of photos, and she talks about all the food, the flora, the fauna, everything in those Wilder books,” says Budd. “The second half of the book deals with the places you can go today […] and also places you can go in your area to see what the Wilder family would have seen.”

Obama: An Intimate Portrait by Pete Souza

This book contains photographs of President Obama during his administration, by the chief White House photographer.

“It’s just a wonderful book of photographs; not too formal, as many of them are very candid,” says Budd. “It’s just very refreshing, and no matter your political persuasion, it gives you a little bit of a behind the scenes view at the White House.”

Places to Visit Before They Disappear by Jasmina Trifoni

Trifoni is a journalist specializing in tourism. This coffee table book features photos of places like the Barrier Reef and Aleppo - places endangered because of pollution, climate change, war, or tourism.

“It gives you a good overview of these places that are disappearing before our eyes,” says Budd.


Stranger in the Woods by Michael Finkel

Finkel tells the story of Christopher Knight, who drove his car until it ran out of gas, got out and walked into the woods. He would call the woods of Maine home for the next 27 years. He was returned to civilization when he was caught stealing from nearby cabins, which he had been doing for years.

“Finkel tells the story of Christopher, but he also talks about hermits on a larger level,” says Gillum. “It was very interesting to learn about the way he led that life.”

History of the Future by Edward McPherson

This is a collection of essays, ranging from the discovery of the world’s first subway tunnel in Brooklyn to the Bakken oil fields of North Dakota to atomic bomb test sites in New Mexico.

“What struck me most about these essays is how McPherson weaves past and present so beautifully,” says Budd.

The Long Haul: A Trucker's Tales of Life on the Road by Finn Murphy

In this memoir, Finn Murphy tells stories from his life as a Long Haul mover.

“You learn all the trucker lingo, as well as getting an eye at the stratification of the trucking industry,” says Budd.


James Wright: A Life in Poetry by Jonathan Blunk

James Wright was a poet that was “very famous in the 1960s, early 1970s,” says Weismiller. “It was wonderful to me to go back and reread all of James Wright’s poetry in light of knowing a lot more about his life.”

“His poems were very accessible,” says Weismiller, who recommends reading his work as well as his biography. She suggests his collection, Above the River.

The Fearless Benjamin Lay: The Quaker Dwarf Who Became the First Revolutionary Abolitionist by Marcus Rediker

In this biography, Rediker details the life of Benjamin Law, who “wrote over 200 pamphlets about his views, studied philosophy deeply, lived in a cave with his 200 books, and knew Benjamin Franklin,” says Weismiller. “He is a hero.”

Fire on the Track: Betty Robinson and the Triumph of the Early Olympic Women by Roseanne Montillo

At the Amsterdam Olympics in 1928, Robinson became the inaugural Olympic champion for the 100 meter competition. Those were the first Olympic Games that women were allowed to compete in. Montillo tells Robinson’s story in this biography.

“Betty was in a bad accident after the Olympics,” says Weismiller. “It takes her two years to learn to walk again, but she gets back into the Olympics in 1936 and wins another gold. It’s an amazing story.”

Bound by James McKeen

Bound is a collection of essays about some of the remarkable women in McKeen’s family.

“It’s a great gift because anyone could read it and realize that they could do this,” says Weismiller. “They could write essays about the lost women in their families.”

Grant by Ron Chernow

Chernow is the Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer of Alexander Hamilton, George Washington, and John D. Rockefeller. In Grant, he recounts the life of one of the most complicated generals and presidents in U.S. history, Ulysses S. Grant.

“I think Adam Gopnik says something really perfect about this book,” says Weismiller. “He says that Chernow ‘unpejoratively, has a great talent for the higher gossip of history.’”

Charity Nebbe is the host of IPR's Talk of Iowa