Alan Cheuse Picks The Best Books To Give As Gifts

He's made his list and checked it twice: Critic Alan Cheuse recommends the best books to give as gifts in 2011. This year, it's mostly fiction — books that will light up dark winter nights with warm stories, large characters and beautiful language.

The Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt by Caroline Preston
This intensely visual coming-of-age novel is made up of scraps of another age — 1920s diary entries, mementos, notes and memories. This hybrid between a conventional novel and a graphic novel tells the story of a young New England woman who takes a daring solo trip to New York City, Paris and back again — and discovers her talent for writing.

Queen of America by Luis Alberto Urrea
Queen of America is the sequel to the fiery story Urrea began in his 2005 novel, The Hummingbird's Daughter. It's about an ancestor of his — Teresita Urrea, a miracle-working Yaqui Indian woman from northern Mexico who changes the political course of her home country and then emigrates to the U.S.

The Complete Record Cover Collection by R. Crumb
Artist R. Crumb's collection of album covers — his jazzy and bluesy interpretations of the music of an era — is a neat gift for anyone who remembers the '60s.

Also recommended: The Tiger's Wife by Tea Obreht, and The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach. Get details about those books and more fiction recommendations from Alan Cheuse below.

Plot Driven: Alan Cheuse's Top 5 Fiction Picks

Illustration: Books, coffee and glasses
Priscilla Nielsen for NPR

This is always a promising season for readers. As leaves fall, good books pile up on your winter reading stack. But is my good your good? Most of the time when I read, I know almost immediately whether a book will represent only a pleasurable few days or something I'll want to return to again someday.

As a child, I knew what I liked to read: adventure, sea stories, space-travel tales, mysteries. And even as my tastes have broadened, my palate seems to have remained true. Although I love the wit and mood of introspective (and lyrically composed) fiction, I'm nearly always drawn to thoughtful, well-plotted books — everything from Ulysses to The Man Without Qualities, Cervantes to Murakami, and Faulkner and Hemingway and Woolf in between. Given all this, 2011's best books made me a happy reader.

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