Best books to give for Christmas presents
WHETHER you're scrambling for last-minute Christmas gifts or browsing for titles to fill your summer reading list, everyone's after a good book recommendation at this time of year.
The big releases this year were true crime blockbusters, emotional memoirs and political reads inspired by or about a certain US President.
In this list, I've picked out the books I most enjoyed reading and couldn't put down - just the kind of titles you want to take on holiday or give as a present.
Chuck these in your beach bag, on your Kindle, or under the tree for literary loved ones.
IF YOU SUFFER MASSIVE FOMO
Normal People by Sally Rooney
This is the book everyone's talking about, and with good reason. Sally Rooney's second novel has all the ingredients of one you're going to hate, but it's actually brilliant and addictive. A millennial author who writes from the female perspective, Rooney somehow makes you deeply care about annoying and ultimately unlikeable characters.
Her subjects are young, privileged, educated student types whose relationship transitions and grows from high school to university and beyond, yet the truths she manages to capture and the pairings' issues she exposes speak to every relationship.
When I finished this book, I couldn't stop thinking about the characters and wondering how they'd be faring in the days that followed. If you haven't already read it, this book will make you want to immediately pick up Rooney's first and equally impressive novel, Conversations with Friends.
IF YOU'RE OBSESSED WITH TRUE CRIME
I'll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara
In this age of worldwide cold case obsession and podcasts, it's tricky for one true crime story to break through and stand out. Michelle McNamara's posthumous publication blew all the genre's other offerings out of the water and was not only the standout read, but made a massive impact.
A journalist and crime blogger, McNamara spent years investigating the man she called the Golden State Killer - previously known as the East Area Rapist and Original Night Stalker before her relentless research linked the same offender to murders all over the state. Completed with the help of the journalist's actor husband Patton Oswalt and a team of writers and researchers, I'll Be Gone in the Dark was released to sensational sales and reviews in February, and led to an arrest over the decades-old crimes only weeks later.
Be assured this gripping book isn't spoiled by knowing what happened after it came out. We still don't know if the suspect will be convicted or what details will come out in his trial, plus the best bits of the story are in the incredible detail McNamara digs up.
IF YOU'RE AFTER A GRIPPING PSYCHOLOGICAL THRILLER
Lullaby by Leila Slimani
This truly horrific, emotional and almost perfect thriller isn't so much a whodunit as a whydidthey?
Revealing that Slimani's lead character, a seemingly perfect nanny, murders the two children in her car is not a spoiler.
The book is more about the twisted motivations and what leads her to carry out the act. Even still, knowing what's ahead, Slimani manages to build enough tension for it still to be a huge shock when the deed comes to be done.
This gripping thriller is in another league to blockbusters Gone Girl, The Girl on the Train and The Woman in the Window, but it's a must-read for anyone who's enjoyed them.
IF YOU WANT TO READ SOMETHING THAT WILL BECOME A CLASSIC
Educated by Tara Westover
Gaslighting became a buzzword in 2018. The term was introduced almost 75 years ago in the black-and-white thriller Gaslight, and became shorthand for slowly manipulating someone in a relationship, convincing them they're at fault, until they're completely controlled, broken down and dependent on their abuser. For whatever reason, this year everyone became obsessed with the phenomenon and it was tricky to avoid headlines containing the word. But no story better or more disturbingly showcases the horrific process than Tara Westover's Educated.
Raised in an ultraconservative American Mormon family with a paranoid, survivalist father and abusive brother, Westover writes of being brought up almost completely isolated from the mainstream. Her parents didn't pay taxes or even access healthcare or allow any of their children to enter the school system.
From being denied these rights to being bashed, Westover writes of how she was unknowingly abused (or gaslit) from all angles, and against all odds managed to independently obtain a formal education at the highest level, going on to earn degrees and a doctorate from Cambridge and Harvard. This memoir is gripping, disturbing, and surprisingly hopeful. It's hard to believe it's the author's first book, and that it's written by the same young woman it features.
IF YOU'RE PREPARED TO HAVE YOU FAITH IN THE JUSTICE SYSTEM SHATTERED
Eggshell skull by Bri Lee
It's almost disappointing that this incredibly moving and fascinating memoir came out in the wake of #MeToo, because while it deals with women's rights, abuse and empowerment - and its success was probably buoyed by current interest in such issues - it definitely stands on its own.
Recounting her first year as a judge's associate in the Queensland court system, Lee's insight into the way our legal system works - and how it is stacked against women, particularly victims of sexually based crimes - is fascinating and at time disgraceful. Some of the cases she goes into are shocking, but the storyline that will blow you away is Lee's own experience of sexual assault, which she can't escape and is prompted to tackle by the injustice she witnesses.
The experience in the justice system Lee writes about prompted her to lose faith in her chosen career and abandon it. But thank God she went there in the first place and came out with this page-turning, touching and important read.
IF YOU'RE UP FOR AN EMOTIONAL ROLLERCOASTER
One Hundred Years of Dirt by Rick Morton
Writing about this beautifully written, moving, funny memoir is just about the toughest journalistic task I've set for myself, because I just can't come close to what Rick Morton does with words.
There are few 30-year-olds whose memoirs would be worth picking up, but this one isn't to be missed. It's an exploration of social mobility in Australia told through the life of this impressive, talented, slightly angry and fearful young man growing up in outback Australia surrounded by a complicated family and a tendency to get into whatever sort of trouble is available.
Morton's adoring relationship with his mum is the book's hinge, and her character is, quite honestly, the greatest hero I can remember in any piece of Australian writing - fiction and nonfiction.
IF YOU CAN BRING YOURSELF TO JUST TRUST ME ON THIS ONE
Small Fry by Lisa Brennan-Jobs
This was the book I just couldn't be convinced to read this year. No matter how many rave reviews I came across, I couldn't find a reason to pick up this memoir from the daughter Steve Jobs denied. That changed when I heard a New York Times book reviewer say on a podcast when asked to name her five favourite nonfiction books of the year: "Can they all be Small Fry?"
This isn't a book about Steve Jobs, nor is it another fame-grab by a famous guy's kid. Brennan-Jobs is a brilliant writer with a fascinating story. She's said this was the story she didn't want to write, but "had to get out of the way", which indicates she has even better work to come.
FOR A RIPPING HOLIDAY READ YOU CAN'T PUT DOWN
The Lost Man by Jane Harper
Journalist turned author Jane Harper has been touted as Australia's Gillian Flynn (author of Gone Girl), but better. Like her first two thrillers, Harper's third novel takes place in a uniquely Australian setting and features characters any Aussie will recognise and relate too.
Opening on a dead body found by a lonely tombstone in the middle of sparse and searing Australian desert, Harper builds tension from the first page and takes the reader on the most unexpected of twists in this mystery whodunit.
This is the perfect book to take on holidays and throw in the beach bag.
IF YOU WANT SOME MAGIC IN YOUR LIFE
Boy Swallows Universe by Trent Dalton
A story of a young boy living in a fractured family with drug-dealers parents in a poor suburb and a murderer for a best friend doesn't exactly sound full of hope, but The Australian journalist Trent Dalton's debut novel is the most uplifting piece of literature released this year.
Dalton's literary novel has elements of fantasy, action, searing realism and drama, at the same time as being laugh-out-loud funny.
Along with other readers I've discussed this novel with, I initially dismissed it as a blokey read that wouldn't do it for me, but it's a brilliant page turner and a masterclass in beautiful storytelling.
Fear by Bob Woodward
While Fire and Fury by Michael Wolff was the book that had Washington watchers racing for the bookshops in January, the best book of the year on the man in the White House actually arrived in September.
Veteran journalist Bob Woodward, whose reporting on the Watergate scandal helped bring down president Richard Nixon, systematically examines Donald Trump's first two years in office and what he finds is nothing short of shocking.
Using high-level sources and impeccable research, Woodward provides stunning detail on White House conversations and machinations, and exposes how Trump's staff are desperately attempting to save the President from his most destructive impulses.
The page-turner paints an unforgettable picture of a President who really has no idea what he's doing as he reels from temper tantrum to crisis and back again.
As a close-up look at the state of politics in the world, it's absolutely devastating.