2018: The Year in Reading

This is what typically shows up in my site’s search logs

As I write this on Dec. 28, I’ve finished 97 books. I’ve currently got two in progress, so who knows—I may make it to 100. I reviewed 62 of them. The most popular post by far was my review of Amy Bloom’s White Houses, a fictional retelling of the relationship between Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok. This is because a lot of people have used Google to try to figure out if Roosevelt cousin Parker Fiske, a character in the book, was a real person. He was not. That’s why my review comes up when you search for his name and not a Wikipedia page. The second-most popular post: The Word is Murder by Anthony Horowitz, primarily for the mention of Damian Cowper, an actor who appeared in a couple of “Harry Potter” films. Guess what: he’s fake, too! To boost my readership in 2019, I think I’ll only review novels featuring invented characters who interact with real-life people.

My review of three books about the Swedish concept of lagom did really well, which I’m happy about, as I feel I was pretty qualified to write about that.

The least-popular post: The Death of Mrs. Westaway by Ruth Ware. Oh well. However, I’m a bit sad that this particular review didn’t get a larger readership, considering that I probably spent more time on it than anything I’ve ever written for this site. I read the same book twice, in two different languages!

My favorite books that I reviewed during the past year: The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin was a masterpiece. I don’t read a lot of true crime, but I’ll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara was tremendously compelling (even though I couldn’t get up the courage to read it until after the Golden State Killer was actually caught). Brad Parks’ Closer Than You Know was the best thriller I read in 2018 (and I read a bunch). Marcia Muller’s The Breakers was a joyous return to form from an author I’ve been reading for years. I predict that Lou Berney’s November Road is going to win all the mystery awards next year, and deservedly so. But perhaps the moment of greatest book-related happiness I experienced in the past 12 months was finding out that my beloved Stewart “Hoagy” Hoag was back, and I got to revel in two brand-new David Handler mysteries.

Ordinarily, I would never mention the worst book I read in 2018, because I try to keep it positive in this year-end sum-up, but the author’s dead, so what the heck: A Clubbable Woman by Reginald Hill, which I read for my book group (and didn’t review). I’ve enjoyed other Hill novels, but this one (published in 1970) belongs in a time capsule—preferably one buried so deeply underground that it’ll never be found.

If you’re looking for more recommendations, check out Barack Obama’s reading list, and try to remember what it was like to have a president who actually read books. (His best songs list made me wonder if he’s ever heard Mitski—I think you’d enjoy her, Mr. President!—and his best movies had me dying to know if he caught “Sorry to Bother You.”) And here is a quote from the former Reader-In-Chief:

“At the moment that we persuade a child, any child, to cross that threshold, that magic threshold into a library, we change their lives forever, for the better. It’s an enormous force for good.”

“Nine Perfect Strangers” by Liane Moriarty

Nine Perfect StrangersOne of the “nine perfect strangers” in Liane Moriarty’s new book happens to be a once-bestselling author whose career has fallen on hard times. Frances Welty’s latest book was rejected by her publisher, and perhaps even worse than that, a critic wrote a much-read opinion piece calling her novels “formulaic” and “trite.” Frances finds herself obsessing over it, which made me wonder if Moriarty was working out some of her own issues with negative reviews.

In any case, I found Nine Perfect Strangers to be anything but formulaic and trite, and it kept me awake an hour past my bedtime because I simply had to finish reading it. This is a very entertaining novel, although it’s one that goes off in some rather unexpected directions, so I’ll try to avoid spoiling too much of the plot.

Frances, along with eight other people—a newly-rich couple, an ex-athlete, a couple and their 20-year-old daughter, a woman whose husband has just left her, and a handsome lawyer—have all checked in to Tranquillum House for 10 days of wellness. The resort, in an isolated locale six hours northwest of Sydney, promises to transform its guests through “fasting, meditation, yoga, creative ’emotional-release exercises.”

“Like so many things in life, it had seemed like an excellent idea at the time,” muses Frances. What awaits her at Tranquillum House is a transformative experience, all right—but one that neither she nor any of her eight compatriots could ever have anticipated when they first drove through the gates. Rest and relaxation are definitely not on the menu.

The book has a lot of fun sending up the obsession with self-improvement, but it also tackles some very serious themes, and does so sensitively (as was also the case with Moriarty’s Big Little Lies, which dealt with domestic violence). Nine Perfect Strangers goes down as easily as a mango smoothie.

“The Knowledge” by Martha Grimes

The KnowledgeEvery time I have visited London, I’ve been struck by how vast it is. When I was there last May, I took a walking tour and was amazed at how the guide took us down odd side streets that I would never even have noticed had I been wandering around on my own.

If you want to drive one of the classic London black cabs, you have to acquire The Knowledge—learning all of the city’s 25,000 streets by memory, and having to pass rigorous oral exams, which involve reciting from memory the fastest route from any given point in town to another.

The idea of a mystery novel centered around The Knowledge struck me as a great idea, and it had been a few years since I’d last read anything by Martha Grimes. But The Knowledge, in which a cab driver witnesses a murder in the book’s opening pages, actually has fairly little to do with taxis or drivers. Much of the action takes place in Kenya, and involves a 10-year-old girl, an orphan who survives by her wits. It’s quite an odd book.

Grimes’ long-running series character Detective Superintendent Richard Jury is on the case of who killed a glamorous couple in front of one of London’s most exclusive clubs, a casino/art gallery. Unbeknownst to Jury, little Patty Haigh has managed to follow the suspect from London to Nairobi. (Yes, this part of the story requires some suspension of disbelief.) Armed with a mobile phone, different-colored wigs and a selection of fake IDs, she’s akin to a 21st-century version of one of Sherlock Holmes’ Baker Street Irregulars. Meanwhile, back in London, Jury is trying to figure out a possible connection between the murders and a rare-gem smuggling scheme.

There are some wryly funny moments in this book, which has a plot that sometimes seems as convoluted as a route from Islington to Isleworth, many of them involving a pub called The Knowledge “that only London’s black cab drivers could patronize… [it] would be otherwise unlocatable: untraceable, unfindable, unmappable.” The Knowledge itself didn’t prove to be a totally satisfying novel, but I’d love to read more about that fictional pub and the cabbies that hang out there.

“The Red Address Book” by Sofia Lundberg

The Red Address BookWhen I was a child, I remember driving past the local cemetery with my grandmother and she’d often make a comment along the lines of, “I have so many friends in there.” At the time, it struck me as a terribly morbid thing to say, but now that I’m older and have lost some people who meant a great deal to me, I understand. My grandmother joined her friends a few years ago, so I can never tell her that I now know how she felt.

Doris, the protagonist of Sofia Lundberg’s The Red Address Book, is 96 years old, and was inspired by a real person: Lundberg’s great-aunt Doris, whose address book she discovered after her aunt had passed away. “She had crossed most of her friends’ names out and had written the word ‘dead’ next to them,” recalled Lundberg in an interview published on her book’s Amazon page. “It broke my heart to realize how lonely she must have felt. Her death was very painful for me, as we were so close. I couldn’t stop thinking about it.”

The fictional Doris is paging through the address book she received as a tenth-birthday gift. The crossed-out names inspire her to write down her recollections for her great-niece Jenny, who lives in California with her husband and three children, half a world away from Doris’ Stockholm apartment. Doris’ father died when she was a young girl, and at the age of 13, her mother sent her off to work as a servant in the home of a wealthy woman. After a year, her employer, Dominique, moves to Paris, bringing Doris along with her. But that is only the beginning of Doris’ adventures, which will eventually lead her back to Stockholm.

There was a lot in this book that hit me pretty hard—I am sure that The Red Address Book may strike many readers as too sentimental by half, but as for me, I was reading it in the waiting area of a Toyota dealership as my car was being worked on, and at one point I had to get up and go outside because I felt self-conscious about the tears in my eyes. It’s an international sensation, published in over 30 countries so far, and I can see why, as it deals with universal topics like life, love and loneliness. Doris’ life story kept me captivated from start to finish, and I suspect many American readers will embrace this book once it is published here next month.

The Red Address Book will be published on Jan. 8, 2019. Thanks to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt for the advance copy (via NetGalley).

“An Anonymous Girl” by Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen

An Anonymous GirlWhen I was in my 20s, I would frequently make a little extra cash by participating in studies and focus groups. All you have to do is spend an hour or two answering a few questions, and you walk away with a nice wad of cash. I never thought twice about it—but I guarantee that anyone who reads An Anonymous Girl will never approach a psychological study quite so cavalierly.

Jessica Farris wasn’t even supposed to be participating in Dr. Shields’ research into “ethics and morality.” A freelance makeup artist living in Manhattan, and thus perpetually in need of extra cash, Jessica learns about the study from one of her clients, who states her intention to blow it off, not wanting to show up at 8 AM on a Sunday morning: “I’m not going to set an alarm to go to some dumb questionnaire.” Once she finds out that it pays $500, Jessica decides to go in her place. A bit ironic for a study of morality, perhaps, but she’s got rent to pay.

Before long, Jessica has become the mysterious Dr. Shields’ favorite subject, and the research takes a strange turn—but the amount she’s being paid increases as well, and with her father out of a job and her disabled sister in need of expensive care, she finds she’s caught up in a situation that is quickly spinning out of her control.

Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen wrote one of my favorite thrillers of 2018, the bonkers-but-entertaining The Wife Between Us, and I expected An Anonymous Girl would be another crazy thrill ride of twists upon twists. Much to their credit, the authors have produced a work of more straightforward psychological suspense that does have plenty of surprises, but their priority here is to tell a solid story, not just to keep tricking the reader with misdirection.

An Anonymous Girl will be published on Jan. 8, 2019. Thanks to St. Martin’s Press for the advance copy (via NetGalley).