WSIRN Ep 304: Your trusty list of bookish gifts

photo of hands holding a book wrapped in brown paper with a white postcard that says "from the library of" and a red ribbon

Readers, while it’s hard to believe, it’s time to start thinking about holiday gifting! Today’s episode is our sixth annual holiday gift giving guide for the readers in your lives, and as always, it’s been a treat to create.

I loved hearing all of your questions about how you can gift a little more bookish delight this season, and I hope my answers help make it a little easier to pick that perfect gift.

I always team up with another professional book lover for this annual episode, and today I’m chatting with Valerie Koehler of Houston’s Blue Willow Bookshop. I had the chance to visit Valerie’s shop back in 2018 when I was on tour for I’d Rather Be Reading, and I was thrilled to see how they devote equal shelf space and attention to both adult and children’s books. I knew Valerie would be a perfect partner to help recommend the perfect book for readers of all ages and interests.

You can listen to What Should I Read Next? on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or your preferred podcast app—or scroll down to press play and listen right in your web browser.

Looking for even more gift ideas? Don’t miss our 2021 MMD gift guide for bookish kids, the 2021 MMD gift guide for book lovers, and check out our previous holiday gifting episodes linked below!

What Should I Read Next #304: Your trusty list of bookish gifts, with Valerie Koehler of Blue Willow Bookshop

Connect with Valerie and the Blue Willow Bookshop on Instagram at @bluewillowbooks. Don’t miss out on the incredible events (both in-person and virtual) they host—more information is available on their website, where you can also find their recent Best Books of 2021 post.

ANNE: Hey readers. I’m Anne Bogel, and this is What Should I Read Next? Episode 304.

Welcome to the show that’s dedicated to answering the question that plagues every reader: What should I read next?

We don’t get bossy on this show: What we WILL do here is give you the information you need to choose your next read. Every week we’ll talk all things books and reading, and do a little literary matchmaking with a guest—or in the case of today’s episode, we are sharing a whole lot of literary recommendations to help you find the perfect gifts for all the readers on your list this season.

We are back today with our sixth annual holiday gift giving episode! This is always such a fun conversation, when I partner up with an independent bookseller to help you match the readers you love with books we hope they’ll be delighted to receive. As always, we asked you to submit your bookish gift buying questions, and as always, you showed up with so many fun requests!

Today I’m joined by Valerie Koehler of Houston’s Blue Willow Bookshop, which I had the pleasure of visiting back in 2018 during my book tour for I'd Rather Be Reading. I love Blue Willow’s devotion to both adult and children’s books, and am thrilled to welcome Valerie onto the show today to help me answer your requests for recommendations for readers of all ages and interests.

Let’s get to it!

Valerie, welcome to the show.


VALERIE: Thank you, Anne. I'm so thrilled to be here.

ANNE: Oh, the pleasure is mine! I have been wanting to talk to you on What Should I Read Next since actually before, but really, high-level wanted to ever since I was at Blue Willow, gosh, I guess it was in 2018 after I'd Rather Be Reading came out.

VALERIE: I think it was.

ANNE: I visited Houston ... I almost said in a hurricane because it was raining so hard, but y'all know hurricanes, [VALERIE LAUGHS] and that was not a hurricane. In the pouring rain, Melissa and I showed up and we met your entire staff it seemed, and I just, you know, each bookstore has its own personality and I just love Blue Willow's so much.

VALERIE: Thank you, Anne. Thank you. That comes as a very high compliment coming from you. You have seen many bookstores over the course of your travels, so I am honored.

ANNE: How would you describe your store? What's the vibe of Blue Willow?

VALERIE: Well the vibe is kinda homey. We have lots of kid's books, fully half kids, half adults. I just like it to feel like you're coming over to visit a friend and we're gonna talk about books.

ANNE: And I mean, talk about books we did! Not just because I was there for an author event, but I mean, I had presents to bring to friends and family and my kids and your staff really ... They did a good job of picking me up. I appreciated that.

VALERIE: They are wonderful.

ANNE: When you walk in the store, it's true that the merchandise is divided in half, equally weighted between kids and adults, and that is not common in bookstore world.

VALERIE: That is correct, but no one told me that. [ANNE LAUGHS] So I just did it.

ANNE: Tell me more about that.

VALERIE: I've been to a lot of bookstores in my travels and I've never seen one that has quite such a large children's section that's not a children's speciality shop.


ANNE: This was not the grand masterplan. I just wanted to talk to you for our 2021 gifting episode [VALERIE LAUGHS] but so many people who don't typically seek out children's books for themselves or others in their lives are in fact doing that this time of year, and I can't think of anyone else I'd rather have our listeners hear right now, so thanks again for coming on.

VALERIE: Absolutely.

ANNE: So what we are going to do here today is something that we have somewhat traditionally, if four years can be a tradition, done with our What Should I Read Next audience. Listeners who are on the hunt for bookish gifts this time of year have written in with, I mean, plenty of listeners know exactly what they want to get for themselves but if you need help choosing the exact right bookish gift for others, well Valerie and I are here to help today. We have emails and voicemails from listeners describing what the people in your life are looking for, or what they tend to like reading wise, and we're going to see what sounds good to us for them and cross our fingers and really hope it hits home.

VALERIE: Let's do it!

ANNE: Let's do it. First we have a voicemail from Jennifer.

JENNIFER: Hi, Anne. I have a one and a half year old who will be almost two come Christmas. He loves construction vehicles, so the Goodnight, Goodnight Construction Site series. He loves farm animals. One of his other favorites is Tractor Pop-Up Peek-A-Boo and so I'm wondering if you have recommendations for either of those things for the toddler set.

ANNE: Jennifer, first of all, this brings back the memories. My oldest was obsessed with construction vehicles and buses. Once when my child was very young, we had a digger parked in our front yard for six weeks, which is most people's nightmare. You don't want a digger tearing up your grass, but it was like the best six weeks of my son's young life. So I want to make sure that she knows about the Construction Site Mission: Demolition! This is a newer book from the author of Goodnight, Goodnight Construction Site. I think that's Sherri Rinker, and I didn't realize this new one was released until I saw it at a literary festival this weekend.

On a related note, my own kids favorites which are almost modern classics at this point 'cause he's now in college were Chugga Chugga Choo-Choo by Kevin Lewis. I think I can still recite every line of that book [LAUGHS] and Machines at Work by Byron Barton. They're such fun little board books and even though my kids are grown, they know that we're referencing Machines At Work when we say "Now let's eat lunch!" Valerie, you have kids in the bookstore every day and you have young ones in your life now. What sounds good to you for Jennifer?


VALERIE: I do. I have a new grandson and my son's favorites were Freight Train and you had a digger in your front yard. We had a train tracks very near our house when they were very young and we got to be blocked by that train many times [ANNE LAUGHS] so we got to know our train cars very well, and here's the exciting thing. Just last month, they just republished the book Freight Train by Donald Crews in a lift the flap board book edition, so add that little extra tidbit and that's perfect.

ANNE: That is so fun. Oh man. I wasn't expecting this recording to be so nostalgic but here we are. [VALERIE LAUGHS] This one's from Lois. She writes, "I'd like a recommendation for my husband. He likes the Michael Connelly Bosch series, and he's currently loving The Spy and The Traitor by Ben MacIntyre, which I got him based on a recommendation I heard on What Should I Read Next. He needs something that's not a super long read as his dedicated reading for pleasure time is limited and he likes to be able to finish it without having it take months." Valerie, what comes to mind with Lois's request?

VALERIE: I really enjoyed a book that came out a few years ago by a local author. He's a lawyer here in town. His name's Michael Pullara. He wrote a book called The Spy Who Was Left Behind and it is a true story of him investigating a CIA officer's killing in the country of Georgia. It turned out he actually knew this guy from his hometown in Arkansas. Fascinating, fast paced read in the tradition of Ben MacIntyre.

ANNE: Oh. The fact that she mentioned Ben MacIntyre makes me so happy. I'm wondering if her husband has picked up the Daniel Silva books and his Gabriel Allon series. The 18th book The Cellist just came out this summer, but you don't have to read these in order. I think I started with book 15 myself, but these are compact installments. They're about 400 pages each. There's room to tell a very involved story, but if he's reading Michael Connelly, he'll be fine.

Something Daniel Silva's done in recent years that your husband may really enjoy, or you may think, maybe you want to look for something else, is weave a very current events into his storylines, like Covid is very present in these pages which many readers are finding adds an extra layer of enjoyment.

VALERIE: Staff favorite.


ANNE: I'm happy to hear it. The Cellist specifically, or Gabriel Allon in general?

VALERIE: Gabriel Allon in general.

ANNE: Okay. I mean, it was devoted readers who told me, like, Anne, you have to give these a try, and I'm really glad I did. Okay, this is a voicemail from Meg Lacy Vega.

MEG: I am looking for a book recommendation for my husband who I would describe as a software developer meets mystic. He is really into meditation and body based practices and he also loves coding and reads all things related to computer programming. I don't know. I don't really understand exactly what he reads because it's all literally in another language. But he's really into nonfiction and he reads widely in nonfiction within the areas of kinda mysticism and religion and also computer software development, but he has not been so into fiction these last few years as he's gotten more into his craft as a developer and I feel like he misses fiction, so I'm looking for a fiction book that you think would be good for someone who's into these kind of topics. So I don't know what that would be. He used to love science fiction and fantasy, but the last few things I've given him that I thought would fit the bill just haven't worked out very well, so really am interested in your suggestions.

ANNE: Meg, I love that request and actually all kinds of novels are coming to mind. Many of them are set in academic, laboratory kind of setting. I'm thinking of the new Richard Powers, called Bewilderment, Lost and Wanted by Neil Freudenberger ... That one's set a MIT. The Richard Powers is a set in a lab, I think, at the University of Washington. It's out in Seattle. But the one that's really jumping to mind right now is The Unseen World by Liz Moore. When I think of this book, what I really picture is looking for more laundry to fold because I wanted to hear what was happening next, and that's the only reason I really listen to audiobooks like that during the workday is if I'm folding laundry on my lunch break.

It's about a young girl solving a mystery that her scientist father left her. He knew that he would not be with her forever, for reasons that the book gets into, and he's left her behind a message and when she reaches a certain age she realizes the puzzle he has left for her. And of course the stakes are incredibly high, like this is the only means she has of really getting her father's communications as an adult woman because he's gone. Oh, it's a really touching father/daughter story, but also just a gripping mystery and a really tender coming of age story. That's The Unseen World by Liz Moore. Valerie, what comes to mind for you?


VALERIE: I read this book right when you started talking about it! I was like this sounds so familiar, so of course I popped over in my screen to look at the cover because sometimes that reminds me. We did this for book club. I love this book so much. It is a great book. I can see him liking this.

ANNE: It would be an amazing book club ... Well I don't have to tell you. But it was. There's so much to talk about.

VALERIE: I just wanted to recommend a book that my brother has bought by the dozens to give to friends. It's called Sacred Numbers, and my brother's not a coder. He is a lawyer by profession, but he just thinks anybody who likes anything to do with numbers would love this. It's nonfiction. History.

ANNE: I think any book a devoted reader feels compelled to buy by the dozens, it ... Wow. That is [LAUGHS] that is a serious recommendation. And that's not one I've heard of before.

VALERIE: It's his jam.


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ANNE: Next one from Megan. She says, "I am looking for a book recommendation for my husband Jim. He had an accident in February and currently spends one to three hours a day on PT. That means right now good audiobooks are a must. They really help pass the time while he does his exercises. He gravitates towards science fiction and fantasy. Some favorites are The Martian by Andy Weir, Pandora's Star by Peter F. Hamilton, and the Discworld series by Terry Pratchett. He loves characters who are sarcastic and funny, but he doesn't like reading books about truly unlikeable characters. It is okay for there to be villains, obviously, but he wants to be able to root for the main characters.” What do you think, Valerie? What would you recommend for Jim?


VALERIE: I'm a huge audiobook listener. Ready Player One by Ernie Cline. The sequel, Ready Player Two, and it is my understanding that the new Andy Weir, Hail Mary, is super good.

ANNE: I can vouch for that one. I really enjoyed that. I mean, a middle school science teacher saves the world, so you definitely have a character who you can root for. And I haven't read Ready Player Two, but Ready Player One and Hail Mary were so good on audio. I was also thinking about the Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells. This is a series and the books keep getting longer, which I think is a good thing for Jim, given his love of audiobooks here. They're narrated by a snarky murderbot, an A.I. machine designed to kill, but really instead of doing the job, this murderbot would really rather be watching human TV. The constant tension between these two competing priorities makes for humorous situations and those are very good on audio as well. Most importantly, we hope Jim finds some books he loves and we wish him well on his recovery.

This next one is so fun. This is from Alice. She says, "A close friend of mine just started fostering to adopt two wonderful girls ages 10 and 9. I don't know them well yet. Please help me figure out where to get started on my mission to find them the perfect books. The 10 year old loves Godzilla, sports, especially basketball, and graphic novels. Reading level is about third grade. The 9 year old loves gymnastics, dance, JoJo Siwa," I actually know who JoJo Siwa is now. This is a new development in my household. "Her reading level is about kindergarten. Both girls love animals and definitely nothing scary."

Okay, Valerie, I know half the bookstore’s kids books, you have so many great suggestions, but oh, I want to call a few sleepers. Most of all, Alice, as these girls get older, there are also so many YA books that they will age into very soon. For sports of all types and all kinds of formats in books, and I'm just really excited about the good stuff that your young readers have to look forward to. Oh, gosh. Sports, gymnastics, animals. There's so much good stuff here.

Babymouse by Jenny and Matthew Holm, perpetual crowd pleaser. The Tapper Twins by Geoff Rodkey is another really fun illustrated series, and I want to throw in a book that ... The second book came out in the pandemic and didn't get the attention I think it deserved because of its release date, but LuLu the Broadway Mouse. Two book series so far by Jenna Gavigan. So fun and adorable. What comes to mind for you, Valerie?

VALERIE: Well there's so many wonderful graphic novels. The kids are really living in what I've been telling people is the golden age of graphic novels.


ANNE: Yes!

VALERIE: And I do want to stress that those are novels. They have a story arc to them. They're not lesser reading, and I have to convince sometimes teachers and parents [ANNE LAUGHS] of that, but I find them very, very, very gratifying. I was thinking for the older girl, Raina Telgemeier, Shannon Hale, you mentioned Jenny Holm, and I thought of another great ... a four book series. Especially if they like sports, it's the Ghost series by Jason Reynolds and it's four different stories about kids on a co-ed track team, so lots of fun. Short, easy to read. Not intimidating.

For the younger one, I'm thinking one of our very favorite books. This is not a new book, but it's called The Doll People. There's nothing scary in it. It's funny. It has animals in it. It's just one of our very favorite go to books and definitely not scary. I also would like to suggest nonfiction books about animals. We have a very broad nonfiction section for kids. I think nonfiction can be just as important as a novel for kids.

ANNE: I think as adults, some of us tend to read nonfiction as our more serious, like edifying reading and the novels are fun, like it doesn't have to be like that. Books about stuff kids are interested in can be so wonderful for them. Okay, Valerie, you reminded me of the two basketball books that were on the edge of my brain. Pippa Park Raises Her Game by Erin Yun and The Great Wall of Lucy Wu by Wendy Wan-Long Shang. Highly recommended for your young basketball fan.

Okay, I love this question from Jen. This is not a specific book recommendation but something that I hope many of you can use as you are giving ebooks and audiobooks this season. So Jen asks, "I have a few book people in my life that are devoted ebook people. Would you have some recommendations on how to gift an ebook so they have something special to open on the holiday and don't receive it early? I need a little creative help this holiday season."

Jen, this is such a great question and we're glad you asked it because so many people are wanting to give readers books in the format they prefer. If you have someone like Jim, who's doing PT and he does need to listen on audiobook, so if you are giving ebooks and you can even do that through your local indie at many places through the Kobe and Hummingbird platforms, or through LibroFM, the audiobook platform. Here is my advice to give a thoughtful gift that is actually fun to open. This is two parts, but really what I want to urge you to do is think about your giftees reading experience, both enhancing that reading and the reading experience that you are hoping they will have, especially if you're giving them a specific book and it does sound like that's what you have in mind, Jen.

For thinking about the reading experience you hope they have, a handwritten note, and this applies to so many gifts, not just ebooks and audiobooks, but a handwritten note that says, "This is what I was thinking of. This is why I chose this book. This is why I hope you enjoy it, and I'd love to hear what you think," would really make your reader feel like they are loved, they are thought of, and that you have put some thought into this book.

And then the flipside is to think about their actual, concrete, where might they read this book reading experience? Do you want to give them coffee? Or tea? Or reading snacks or candles? Or a bookmark that they could use in paper books? But something that says I know you. I'm thinking of you. Even if you wanted to do something like give them an ebook cover that's especially fun or interesting, or a blanket they can put on their favorite reading chair, something that really helps makes that ebook or audiobook experience a little more tactical. If they need a new tool or a new, like, pair of headphones, that could be a perfect addition for the right reader.


VALERIE: I love all of those suggestions, Anne. You are giving me so much to go back to the store with to talk to customers, but you're right, that's perfect. We do have people come in and they are a little hesitant to buy sometimes a book because they don't know if their good friend has bought it or not. Of course we allow them to do exchange if they have, but I like the idea of adding a little something else with that, like you said, the blanket or the tea or something like that.

ANNE: Also, Jen, investigate. Many ebook platforms let you buy a book now and choose a delivery date for down the road. So it's worth knowing that that is possible. Next we have a voicemail from Austin.

AUSTIN: I am looking for a book recommendation for my mom. She loves reading, which is probably why I love reading. She especially enjoys classics and books with characters to root for and redemptive arc with some hopefulness at the end. Some books she loves are anything by Elizabeth Goudge, but especially Green Dolphin Street, Maisie Dobbs by Jacqueline Winspear, and My Ántonia by Willa Cather. A book she didn't love was Pachinko by Min Jin Lee. She said there wasn't really enough hope at the end. She just felt depressed when she got to the end of it although she found it interesting. So any recommendations would be great.

ANNE: Valerie, what do you think Austin's mom may enjoy?


VALERIE: I had a couple of suggestions. Our Maisie Dobbs readers also love Louise Penny and they have read every one of them and can't wait for the next Louise Penny to come out. Maybe she could try Exiles by Christine Baker Klein who wrote The Orphan Train, a great historical fiction set in both England and Australia. I also thought The Love Story of Missy Carmichael, one of our staff favorites.

ANNE: Ooh, I like all of those suggestions. I'm going to go in an older vein, just to pile it on for Austin's mom. I was wondering about Mary Stewart's novels. She writes romantic mysteries that are at this point, oh gosh, maybe 50 to 75 years old? Her heroines are smart and daring for their times and they get into troubles and they get ... It's fun to see how they get out of it. They often get out of their troubles with the help of a man. That's how her romantic mysteries often resolve. She ties up her endings with a bow. Some readers are thinking, get me anything but a Mary Stewart novel, but some readers are furiously scribbling down her name right now, and based on her love of Elizabeth Goudge, I think she might be one of them.

VALERIE: Oh, I think so too. I read every Mary Stewart when I was in high school. [ANNE LAUGHS] I love her. If you like Mary Stewart, definitely Kate Morton.

ANNE: Yes! I was ... Whenever anybody says tied up with a bow, now I think Kate Morton, which for some is yes please and for some [BOTH LAUGH] is not.

VALERIE: Well, it's that sweeping driveway down to that gothic mansion with somebody in the attic and I just ... I love them and oh my gosh, I love Mary Stewart so much. Definitely.

ANNE: I'm happy to hear it. And then two beloved older favorites that your mother may or may not know. You may or may not know. I'm thinking of The Blue Castle by L.M. Montgomery, a standalone about a young woman and a writer, and I Capture The Castle by Dodie Smith. Lots of British books for Austin's mom.

This one's from Jennifer: "Last year my dad Doug and I decided to exchange books for Christmas at his suggestion, which I loved because he is notoriously hard to buy for." Oh, Jennifer. I know that's relatable to so many readers. [LAUGHS] And so many of their fathers. "He is an avid reader and loves historical fiction, biography, mystery and suspense, and narrative nonfiction. Authors he enjoys include Doris Kearns Goodwin, Tony Hillerman, John Grisham, Patricia Cornwell, and Erik Larson. Once he finds an author he likes, he tends to read all their titles. He's not a fan of science fiction or fantasy. I'd love to send him a couple of books he might not pick up on his own." When I hear the list of authors that Jennifer's dad Doug enjoys, my brain goes straight to Candice Millard and Nathaniel Philbrick. I think anything they write sounds like it would nestle in nicely with the books he has already enjoyed. Those two authors are well known, so I want to also recommend a book that's not as commonly on bestseller tables and the specific book I'm thinking of is by William Geroux. It came out maybe five years ago. It's called The Matthews Men. Seven brothers and the war against Hitler's U-Boats. Previously untold story written by a newspaper journalist and it focuses on the small community of Matthews County, Virginia in the Chesapeake Bay and they're unique and little known contribution to World War II.

I have 20 minutes left in the audiobook of How the Word is Passed by Clint Smith, the poet Clint Smith, and oh, does this man have a way with words, but this is nonfiction and the concept is he visits I believe it's eight locales and what he's doing is unearthing the history and the legacy of slavery here in the United States. He does it in an almost travelogue kinda way where he visits sights are a historically and culturally significance to slavery, like the first place he goes in the book is Jefferson's plantation, Monticello. He goes to the ... He goes to a prison in Louisiana. He goes to a plantation an hour outside New Orleans. He goes to the African burial ground in lower Manhattan. He goes to all these places and says what they meant in the past and what they have come to mean today and oh, it is riveting. That is How The Word is Passed by Clint Smith. Audiobook fans, it's so good on audio.

Next we have an email from Jacqueline. She says, "Hi. I'm looking for an idea for my son. I just love these kid requests. "He's 6 years old, in first grade, and he loves to read. He really enjoys Magic Tree House, my husband's collection of old Looney Tunes comics and the Redwall series which we have been reading aloud together. He's also interested in battles, battleships, the Titanic, the Bismarck, and things like that. I honestly don't know what he doesn't like because he likes most things we've read. I think he's like me. He just devours the written word. So I'm looking for something that's at his reading level that'll interest and challenge him, that's maybe a series that he can enjoy for a while with appropriate content for a first grader."

Now, Valerie, I know you have all kinds of wonderful suggestions, so I want to slide in one, maybe two, that might not come immediately to mind when you hear the words ravenous reading six year old. And that is Calvin and Hobbes. These books are so much fun for readers even beginning at this young age. Those treasuries are enormous, but you can read them over and over and over and over again. Highly recommended. Also these don't stand up to quite as many re-readings, but your son likes Looney Tunes comics, the old ones. There is a Snoopy series of comics. One of the titles is called Snoopy Cowabunga! that is very much fun and can well be enjoyed by a six year old. Now Valerie, for the children's books, what comes to mind for Jacqueline's son?


VALERIE: So he's reading Magic Tree House and if he is moving on and if you've read Magic Tree House, either with your children or read about them, you know they get increasingly a little bit more involved as the series goes on. So if he is reading those, let's think about I Survived. That's Lauren Tarshis. It's going to be a little bit more than Magic Tree House, but we put a fictional character into a true historical event because it sounds like he loves things that have to do with true history and there are battles in some of the I Survived.

A new series this year is by Kate Messner. It's called History Smashers. It's kinda a cross between a graphic novel and a novel. I think those would be as great too, and Mom, Jacqueline, you may have to help him out a little bit there, but there's nothing wrong with helping a little bit. And then I was thinking for reading aloud to him, one of my favorite authors who writes historical fiction is Christopher Paul Curtis, and the reason that I really like Christopher Paul Curtis is some of his books, The Watsons go to Birmingham, has humor in it. He has some humorous books and then he has some more serious novels, but I think it opens up a conversation and I don't think it's too early to open up some certain conversations with our children.

ANNE: Those are such good suggestions, and I have to say as an adult the idea of reading Christopher Paul Curtis again today sounds amazing to me. Actually if you all are listening, if you don't have a six year old in your life, highly recommend Christopher Paul Curtis and Calvin and Hobbes to all of you.


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ANNE: Next we have a voicemail from Sue.


SUE: I would love some book recommendations for my dear stepmom. She is really struggle with the isolation that the pandemic has created and I try to maintain a steady flow of book mail to her. Recent favorites have been Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk, The Stationery Shop, and Nobody Will Tell You This But Me. Not for her so much Red, White, and Royal Blue. Maybe a bit too heavy on the romance. I stay away from heavy sci-fi, fantasy, and straight mystery, and lean into compulsively readable literary fiction, historical fiction, and memoir. With an emphasis on not too heavy or depressing as she still misses with missing my dad who passed away six years ago. Stories with an older woman protagonist would be great for her as well.

ANNE: What do you think, Valerie? What sounds good for Sue's stepmom to you?

VALERIE: Helen Simonson's Major Pettigrew's Last Stand, older protagonists, wonderful book. Celine by Peter Heller and I have him for someone else's dad, Peter Heller, but this one is kinda special to him. This is about a woman who … It finds an old woman who is kinda a detective. She's not really a detective, but if you go to her and there's a missing person, she can help you find it. Great story.

ANNE: The books that come to mind for me are Haven Point by Virigina Hume. This is historical fiction and it's a multigenerational story. It's set on the coast of Maine. Haven Point is the small, [SIGHS] sometimes cozy, sometimes insular, depending on your perspective, community where the generations of this family live. So over the course of the novel you hear from the granddaughter, her mother, and her grandmother, and the family's secrets that have interfered with their relationships for going on 50 years now, and of course set on the coast of Maine, a hurricane is on the way and they are dealing with their emotional junk as well. Also when you said Major Pettigrew's Last Stand, a book that really makes me think of now is Miss Benson's Beetle by the author of The Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, whose name I cannot remember. Who ...


VALERIE: Isn't that Rachel Joyce?

ANNE: Oh, yeah, it is Rachel Joyce. Thank you very much. Miss Benson's Beetle is not a Volkswagen, it is an insect. In this book a woman who is in her early 40s, which is very over the hill in the climate in which this book is written. She reaches her breaking point and decides, you know what, I am going to set off on an adventure out into the world. I think she might be in Australia to discover the beautiful, golden beetle that she got a glimpse of once as a child with her scientist father. She's going to go find it, but there are a whole lot of obstacles in her way. It's a little bit of a Hairbrained adventure. Sad things happen, but the general tone is very lighthearted, and I'm not sure if this is a good pick for your stepmom or not, but Sue you can listen and see what you think. I'm wondering about Hala Alyan. Her debut was Salt Houses. It's quite good. It's shorter, but my favorite is her newer book, The Arsonist City.

It has Stationery Shop vibes, but it's a little bit darker and there's some sex and some drug use. There's nothing explicit, but I would want you to know that's present because giving [LAUGHS] giving books to family members, it can be good to know that thing but it is a multigenerational family saga that spans the globe. It's set in the United States, in Brooklyn and Portland, but also Lebanon and Syria and it unfolds in time timelines. I know some readers are over the two timeline historical fiction sagas, but oh man, it works in this story. I just couldn't wait to find out what was going to unfold in the sibling and parent relationships in the present day, and then we went back and forth into the past to find out the really original story in this family that the children do not know, but is crucial to the parents' life. That story's unspooling as well. It's set up in that way similar to the Stationery Shop. It hits different but similarly deep places emotionally.

Alright, Valerie, the submission made me really happy. This is from Kaylee. She says, "My father is an 82 year old" all caps "READER. We have been gifting each other books for as long as I can remember and it has become a special part of our relationship. Although our reading taste is not exactly the same, we have a lot of overlap. He used to primarily read and love historical fiction and westerns, like Larry McMurty, Cormac McCarthy, A.B. Guthrie Jr, but I've been introducing him to literary fiction the past few years with mixed success. He loved East of Eden, Plainsong, and The Night Watchman. He did not like Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Any suggestions for the holiday season would be greatly appreciated. He has had a tough year."

I am not surprised to hear this recurring theme. Paulette Jiles would nestle in so nicely with the books that your father loves, Kaylee. I would read these in order. The first one in this loose series of interconnected novels is News of the World, the second is Simon the Fiddler that came out more recently. The characters populate each other's novels but they're not, it's not a true series. I hope he finds these books hit the tone he's looking for. What do you think, Valerie?


VALERIE: I love Paulette Jiles, and that ... News of the World is a huge, all-time staff favorite. Set in Texas of course, so we love that about it. [ANNE LAUGHS] If he liked Plainsong, which I love Plainsong, read everything by Kent Haruf. Give him the whole series. Well they're not really a series, they're loosely connected, the first three, his first three titles that he wrote, and then he kinda went on in another little direction, but his writing is so wonderful and he writes about the plains of Colorado in such a beautiful and meaningful way. Peter Heller, also from Colorado, The River, The Guide is his newest one. He writes not really action. Just really good setting, the atmosphere of the west.

ANNE: The problem, Valerie, with recording this episode is I get so excited for all these reading experiences these readers may have and I want to have them myself. Ugh. I guess that's not so bad. It's not bad to be excited about the books you could read.

VALERIE: Right. [ANNE LAUGHS] Absolutely. There's always a book to read.

ANNE: I need some reassurance here. Okay, this one's from Ava. She says, "My teenage sister recently came out as a lesbian and I'd like to get her a few books for Christmas that make her feel supported and reflect her own experiences. She's 17 and a mature reader, so I think both YA and adult fiction could work for her. I know she has read The Miseducation of Cameron Post. She liked it, but said it was a little sad. One Last Stop by Casey McQuiston. She loved the romance, and Everything Leads to You by Nina LaCour. I think this one was her favorite because it's a love story set in the movie making world."

Ava, I really like your question. I hope you can find something great for your sister. The book that springs immediately to mind are Fingersmith by Sarah Waters. Often described as a female Oliver Twist, but it's not a retelling precisely but it's definitely Dickensian. It's a Victorian heist. It's a 500, 600 pager. It's a big sprawling story.

If your sister enjoys that and I hope she does, and then the one that really jumps out at me because you said that she really loved the love story set in the movie making world is Let's Give Them Something to Talk About by Meryl Wilsner because it has a lot of overlap with that same setting that she enjoyed so before and it is a love story. Valerie, what do you think for Ava's sister?


VALERIE: I think that there are some wonderful YA that has come out in the last couple of years. Lies We Tell Ourselves was historical fiction. Talley is an exceptional writer, so everything that she writes, and another one that I had a great occasion with is Leah Johnson's You Should See Me In a Crown. Set in high school about a girl who has to join a beauty contest. Lots of fun and I think her sister would enjoy it.

ANNE: Well I'm taking notes because I loved You Should See Me In a Crown, but I haven't read Robin Talley yet. This one's from Allie. She says, "My husband is a voracious reader. He loves nonfiction. He loves to read nonfiction, World War II and the Civil War are two of his favorite topics. He loves Erik Larson and David McCoullough. He's been working on reading a biography of every president, but not in order. He's missing some of the lesser known presidents and some of those guys have very short, very boring books written about them." Oh, Valerie. "He loved Destiny of the Republic by Candice Millard." What do you think Allie's husband may like based on that?

VALERIE: I listened to this book a few years ago and I became just this little know it all about the presidents and it's called The Presidents by Brian Lamb. It's put out by CSPAN and apparently if you Google this on CSPAN, you'll see that ... I think they do this every ... I don't know how many years but they've done it maybe four or five times where they rank the presidents and then they talk about the presidents. It is a book where he is going to get every single president the book version of ... This only goes through the Obama presidency. It's fascinating, so maybe something like that.

ANNE: That does sound fantastic to me. Well, we have to of course mention Doris Kearns Goodwin for Allie's husband, How The Word is Passed by Clint Smith that I referenced earlier for another nonfiction lover because his book is about the legacy of slavery, the Civil War is constantly in the pages of that book and I think would be of interest to him. And then for something that's not front and center in every bookstore these days, I'm wondering about Assassination Vacation by Sarah Vowell.

VALERIE: I listened to it and she's fabulous. Always listened to Sarah Vowell read her own books.

ANNE: I haven't listened to Sarah Vowell. I didn't know that.

VALERIE: She is hilarious.

ANNE: It's a really interesting way to dig into the history and she really touches on the topics that you expect but also a whole lot that readers don't expect to find in the pages of this book which I think makes them even more interesting.


VALERIE: And don't forget that she has done other history so our history buffs, she did The Unfamiliar Fishes, The Wordy Shipmates, which is probably the most hilarious history of the Mayflower [ANNE LAUGHS] and Plymouth Rock that you'd ever read. She's quite good.

ANNE: And she has wonderful titles like The Partly Cloudy Patriot. Valerie, we have a voicemail from Jen.

JEN: I'm calling to get gift ideas for my husband Brennon. He is a voracious sci-fi and fantasy reader, but his favorite authors are notoriously slow at publishing the next installment in their series. I'm looking at you, George R. R. Martin. His favorite series is The Kingkiller Chronicles by Patrick Rothfuss. he also enjoyed The Red Rising series by Pierce Brown, The Mistborn Trilogy by Brandon Sanderson, and The Foundation series by Isaac Asimov. He also recently enjoyed Ready Player Two. In contrast, he didn't love All Our Wrong Todays by Elan Mastai or Dark Matter by Blake Crouch. What would you suggest to tie him over until the next Kingkiller Chronicles or Song of Ice and Fire books come out?

ANNE: Valerie, what does this make you think?

VALERIE: Oh my God, he's killing me. [ANNE LAUGHS] Patrick Rothfuss. Please write another one! Now when the second book came out, I believed that one of my nephews called me almost every week to ask me [ANNE LAUGHS] if his new book was out yet and I told him I will call you when his next book comes out, so he needs to write another one for sure. But also try for that fantasy, kinda in that vein, V.E. Schwab's Darker Shade of Magic series. Great worldbuilding fantasy. She's fabulous.

ANNE: What I really want to do is point Brennon in the direction of series that can keep him happy for a long time. Neal Stephenson, I think, would be amazing. Cryptomicon would be a wonderful place to start if he hasn't read Neal Stephenson yet. Also I just love to put another good, long series in Brennon's path. There's even excellent YA series like I'm thinking of Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi or N. K. Jemisin The Hundred Thousands Kingdom would be a good pick I think given his taste.

Next we have Sarah. This is a fun one. "I'd like a recommendation for my sister. She's a college professor in forensic science and only likes nonfiction books. I can hardly get her to read fiction. Her favorites are books that are science or Native American-adjacent." What comes to mind immediately is the Val McDermid nonfiction. McDermid is a crime writer, but she has written a nonfiction book about forensic science. What she's learned, what it means for her writing, but mostly what these means tell us about crime. In fact, the subtitle is What Bugs, Burns, Prints, DNA and More Tell Us About Crime. This came out maybe six, seven years ago, but Sarah, if you want to be sneaky, a possible way in here for you is she could read the Val McDermid nonfiction and perhaps she'd be curious to see how the author would apply these concepts in the pages of her novels of which she has many. Valerie, what comes to mind for you?


VALERIE: Newly out by Mary Roach who wrote Stiff and many other books about quirky, science --

ANNE: [LAUGHS] Her titles just make me cringe-laugh every time.

VALERIE: Fuzz is about animals and what we don't know about animals and the things that animals do. It gets a little wild out there, if you will, because they're wild animals, but really great fun. Another book I absolutely loved. It's an older title, but has come back in a strong way and is now a bestseller for over a year, and that's Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer where she matches her love of the natural world, you know, Ojibwe Indian, but she's also a trained botanist and teaches at the University level. It is a fascinating book that I think anybody who likes nonfiction would love.

ANNE: Sounds good to me and I'm so happy to hear that it's selling so well. It deserves it. Valerie, closing question. This is from another Sarah. She writes, "I love a recommendation for my mom. She seems to only listen to books by James Patterson. Her favorite series of his are The Women's Murder Club series and The Alex Cross series. Her reading is done exclusively via audiobook. I'd really like to get her another option not written by James Patterson for a change. Can you help?" Can you help, Valerie?

VALERIE: I most certainly can, Anne, because I have listened to all of these. Anthony Horowitz, he writes contemporary mysteries where he is a character. They are so much fun and then he also has written several books within books, books about mysteries about books, so Anthony Horowitz writes for kids and he writes for adults. He's written books with the James Bond character. He just ... The man does not stop writing. They are great audios. The narrator is perfect.

The other one that I wanted to bring up is The Thursday Murder Club. The new one I believe, the second one has come out, this is about a cast of older characters in a somewhat, like not a nursing home, but a retirement facility and they solve mysteries.


ANNE: Valerie, it's so interesting that you bring up Anthony Horowitz who fits this perfectly, but also the universe is telling me to read The Magpie Murders. I don't think a day has gone by this week where someone has not told me to read that book.

VALERIE: Fabulous.

ANNE: Is that a good place to start with Anthony Horowitz?

VALERIE: That's perfect because that's going to be your first one in that series, so that's a book within a book where there is a suspicious death, but there's also a closed room mystery set in a quaint English village where the person possibly died when the house is completely locked from inside. A great start, and then you can segue over into his contemporary ones where we have this curmudgeonly police detective who talks Anthony Horowitz, the author Anthony Horowitz, into helping him solve mysteries and write about them. All fictional of course.

ANNE: [LAUGHS] I like that you had to give that caveat. Alright, Sarah, get that book for your mom and she and I can talk about it book club together. Valerie, this has been a delight. Thank you so much for coming on and lending your bookseller expertise to our listeners so that they could just really give their family friends and loved ones the books they need [LAUGHS] to get us to the end of 2021 and beyond. We really appreciate it and everything you do at Blue Willow.

VALERIE: Thank you, thank you. I appreciate it. Like I said, it is a honor to be here and hopefully share ... You know me. I love books. I talk about books all the time and I'm just thrilled to be with someone like you who's a voracious reader as well and loves to share our knowledge.

ANNE: Well the pleasure is mine. Thanks for talking books with me today.


Hey readers, I hope you enjoyed my discussion with Valerie, and that our recommendations today will help you check some names off of your holiday gift list. You can find a full list of all the titles we recommended today in our show notes, at

Follow Valerie and the Blue Willow Bookshop on Instagram at @bluewillowbooks, and be sure to check out their recent blog post featuring their picks for the Best Books of 2021. Find them online at


We’re back next week with another very special episode, where I’ll be sharing a deep dive into my new book journal, My Reading Life. If you’re interested in hearing more about book journaling in general, or my book journal in particular, you won’t want to miss it. You can subscribe now in Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Overcast and more. We will see you next week!

Keep up with the latest happenings by following along on instagram at annebogel and at whatshouldireadnext, or subscribe to our newsletter by visiting Either way, you will stay in the loop on upcoming events, opportunities to be a part of our shows (like today’s reader recommendation requests), and more.

Sharing this podcast with a friend or leaving a review on Apple Podcasts are some of the easiest ways to support our show. We will consider that a gift. Or, pick up a copy of my new book journal, My Reading Life, from your local indie. If you grab your copy before next week, you’ll be even more prepared for my deep dive next episode!

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Thanks to the people who make this show happen! What Should I Read Next is produced by Brenna Frederick, with sound design by Kellen Pechacek.

Readers, that’s it for this episode. Thanks so much for listening.

And as Rainer Maria Rilke said, “ah, how good it is to be among people who are reading.” Happy reading, everyone.

Books mentioned:

Recommendations for Jennifer’s son

Construction Site Mission: Demolition! by Sherri Duskey Rinker
Chugga Chugga Choo-Choo (Board Book) by Kevin Lewis
Machines at Work by Byron Barton
Freight Train Lift-the-Flap by Donald Crews

Recommendations for Lois’s husband

The Spy Who Was Left Behind: Russia, the United States, and the True Story of the Betrayal and Assassination of a CIA Agent by Michael Pullara
•Ben Macintyre (Try The Spy and the Traitor)
•Daniel Silva’s Gabriel Allon series (Try The Cellist)

Recommendations for Meg’s husband

Bewilderment by Richard Powers
Lost and Wanted by Nell Freudenberger
The Unseen World by Liz Moore
Sacred Number and the Origins of Civilization by Richard Heath

Recommendations for Megan’s husband

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline (Audio)
Ready Player Two by Ernest Cline (Audio)
Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir (Audio)
•The Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells (#1 All Systems Red) (Audio)

Recommendations for Alice’s friend’s girls

•The Babymouse series by Matthew & Jennifer L. Holm (#1 Queen of the World!)
•The Tapper Twins series by Geoff Rodkey (#1 The Tapper Twins Go To War (With Each Other))
Lulu the Broadway Mouse by Jenna Gavigan
•Shannon Hale (try Real Friends)
•Raina Telgemeier (try Drama)
Ghost (Track Series) by Jason Reynolds
The Doll People by Ann M. Martin
Pippa Park Raises Her Game by Erin Yun
The Great Wall of Lucy Wu by Wendy Wan-Long Shang

Recommendations for creative ebook gifting for Jenn


Recommendations for Austin’s mom

•Louise Penny (Try Chief Inspector Armand Gamache #1 Still Life)
The Exiles by Christina Baker Kline
The Love Story of Missy Carmichael by Beth Morrey
•Mary Stewart (try Nine Coaches Waiting)
•Kate Morton (try The Lake House)
The Blue Castle by L.M. Montgomery
I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith

Recommendations for Jennifer’s dad

•Candice Millard (Try The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey)
•Nathaniel Philbrick (Try In the Heart of the Sea)
The Mathews Men: Seven Brothers and the War Against Hitler’s U-Boats by William Geroux
How The Word Is Passed by Clint Smith (Audio)

Recommendations for Jaclyn’s son

•Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson (Try The Essential Calvin and Hobbes: A Calvin and Hobbes Treasury)
Snoopy: Cowabunga!: A Peanuts Collection by Charles M. Schulz
•I Survived Series by Lauren Tarshis (#1 I Survived the Sinking of the Titanic, 1912)
•History Smashers Series by Kate Messner (#1 The Mayflower)
•Christopher Paul Curtis (Try The Watsons Go to Birmingham–1963)

Recommendations for Sue’s stepmom

Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson
Celine by Peter Heller
Haven Point by Virginia Hume
Miss Benson’s Beetle by Rachel Joyce
The Arsonists’ City by Hala Alyan

Recommendations for Caylee’s dad

News of the World by Paulette Jiles
Simon the Fiddler by Paulette Jiles
•Kent Haruf (try Eventide)
The River by Peter Heller
The Guide by Peter Heller

Recommendations for Ava’s sister

Fingersmith by Sarah Waters
Something to Talk about by Meryl Wilsner
Lies We Tell Ourselves by Robin Talley
You Should See Me in a Crown by Leah Johnson

Recommendations for Ali’s husband

The Presidents: Noted Historians Rank America’s Best–And Worst–Chief Executives by Brian Lamb
•Doris Kearns Goodwin (Try Team of Rivals)
How The Word Is Passed by Clint Smith (Audio)
Assassination Vacation by Sarah Vowell (Audio)
Unfamiliar Fishes by Sarah Vowell (Audio)
The Wordy Shipmates by Sarah Vowell (Audio)
The Partly Cloudy Patriot by Sarah Vowell (Audio)

Recommendations for Jenn’s husband

A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab
•Neal Stephenson (try Cryptonomicon)
Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi
The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N. K. Jemisin

Recommendations for Sarah’s sister

Forensics: What Bugs, Burns, Prints, Dna, and More Tell Us about Crime by Val McDermid
•Val McDermid (Try Inspector Karen Pirie #1 The Distant Echo)
Fuzz by Mary Roach
Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer

Recommendations for Sarah’s mom

Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz (audio)
The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman

Also mentioned:

Previous gifting episodes:
WSIRN Ep 56: There’s nothing like a bookstore at the holidays
WSIRN Ep 107: Bookish gifts for everyone on your list
WSIRN Ep 161: Books on the Nightstand and on your wishlist
WSIRN Ep 210: Book gifts are the BEST gifts
WSIRN Ep 257: Let’s build your holiday book list

Thanks to this week’s sponsors:

For every Bombas item sold, they donate one item to those experiencing homelessness. But Bombas didn’t stop at just socks—they expanded to super-soft and long-lasting underwear and t-shirts, too. There’s so much more comfort to have, and so much more to give with Bombas! Go get twenty percent off your first order at

Brooklinen’s home goods are just the thing when it comes to that happy, holiday, hygge feel. Check out the Brooklinen gift guide to find the perfect present at every price point. Go to and use promo code READNEXT to get $20 off your first order.

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Leave A Comment
  1. Barbara S Snyder says:

    Per a friend’s suggestion, I did NOT start with “Still Life” by Louise Penney. I started with “Glass Houses”, and completely fell in love with the books. The NEXT book in the series I read “Still Life”. It did not have nearly the punch that I was expecting. Not sure I would have continued with the series had I read “Still Life” first. The books just keep getting better and better.
    I just finished “How the Light Gets In”. I was gobsmacked, to say the least. SOOO GOOOOD!!!

  2. Sue Duronio says:

    Thank you SO MUCH for putting my submission in the show! I was thrilled to see and hear me! I’ve only ever given my step mom one of those books in the past,
    Miss Bensons Beetle and she loved
    It! I will look into the others. So fun and thank you!!

  3. Miranda Indrigo says:

    Ahhh, The Blue Castle! My FAVOURITE book. (I think it even beats out Anne from the LM Montgomery catalogue for me, although it’s very hard to say that!) Just a delight, as is I Capture the Castle. Love these both!

    • Patricia says:

      “The Warmth of Other Suns” is my favorite suggestion for historical fiction fans.

      My daughter is 17 and a lesbian. She asked me to read the novelization of “The Prom” and it was surprisingly affecting! We weren’t fans of the movie but I actually cried a bit while reading. Also, “We are Okay” (another Nina LaCour) is excellent. It is largely a book about grief but ends with love and hope.

      6 year old – my son is now 8 but we both love love love “The Wild Robot” and it’s sequel. There is some fear/peril but my son handled it just fine.

  4. Ella says:

    Loved this episode!

    I have a couple recommendations for Meg if she sees this. My husband and I were both comp sci majors. I’d recommend Recursion by Blake Crouch (recursion is a big concept in programming). If he hasn’t read Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy he should as that is a big cultural touchpoint for programmers.

  5. Lois Williams says:

    Thanks so much for the recommendations for my husband – a book AND a series! That will keep him going for a while. I’ve just placed an order with Blue Willow Bookshop.

  6. Natalie says:

    For Jaclyn’s son:
    The Castle in the Attic (Book 1) and The Battle for the Castle (Book 2) by Elizabeth Winthrop; these would work as read alouds now or save for him to read on his own at about 8 or 9.

    Daniel at the Siege of Boston, 1776 by Laurie Calkhoven (Boys of Wartime historical fiction series); might want to save this one for a read aloud at around 8 or to read on his own around 10. More books in the series if he enjoys it!

  7. Lisa says:

    Suggestions for Caylee’s Dad
    Kent Krueger “This Tender Land “ and “Ordinary Grace”
    Sue’s Stepmom
    Jan Karon’s Mitford Series. I know it is Christian but also very entertaining.
    “The Giver of Stars” by Jo Jo Moyes

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