2019: The Year in Reading

Reese Witherspoon
Hey, I read that book too!

If I could magically swap places with any celebrity, I’d pick Reese Witherspoon. Not because I envy her career as a producer and actress, or the way she’s transformed herself into a lifestyle brand; no, I’m jealous of her position as head of Reese’s Book Club. Every month, Reese gets to pick a book she loves, the publisher slaps a special sticker on the cover, and thousands of people read it. That’s the kind of power I wish I had!

I’ve read seven of her 2019 picks, and several of her earlier choices, and while I don’t love all of her selections, I do appreciate that they encompass a broad range of genres, from psychological suspense to romance to historical fiction to self-help.

I may not be a literary tastemaker like Reese, but I did review 57 books this year, and as of this writing, I’ve read 105. All of the most popular reviews on the site are from 2018; The Word is Murder by Anthony Horowitz continues to be a favorite with people searching for information about his fake-but-convincing character Damian Cowper. Amy Bloom’s White Houses is hanging in at number two, thanks to my reference to another made-up character, Roosevelt cousin Parker Fiske (the novel is a fictional recounting of the relationship between Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok). My review of three “Lagom” books comes in at #3. The most popular review from 2019 is Your Second Life Begins When You Realize You Only Have One by Raphaëlle Giordano, a French hybrid of self-help and fiction.

I always check to see what the least-read review of the year was, and this time around, it was Ruth Ware’s Turn of the Key. Oddly enough, Ware’s The Death of Mrs. Westaway was my least-popular post of 2018. Maybe I should just stop reviewing Ware’s novels? (I’m not going to stop reading them!)

Some of my favorite books of the year: I fell in love with Deanna Raybourn’s Veronica Speedwell series. My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite was a fresh, funny and audacious debut. Jennifer Weiner’s Mrs. Everything was the best book yet by an author I’ve been reading for years, and it pleases me no end that someone whose earlier works were frequently dismissed as “chick lit” is now being taken seriously as a writer; novels by women about women’s lives have too frequently been dismissed by the literary establishment, and that can’t change soon enough. Attica Locke’s Heaven, My Home made for a timely and powerful follow-up to her award-winning mystery Bluebird, Bluebird.

I never got around to reviewing it here, but I adored Katherine Center’s Things You Save in a Fire, a lovely and heartwarming novel about a female firefighter trying to survive and thrive in a male-dominated profession.

In nonfiction, Mikita Brottman’s haunting true-crime story An Unexplained Death has stuck with me since I read it back in January. Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup by John Carreyrou is a book that shines a light on the smoke-and-mirrors culture of the startup scene, where it still seems all too easy to pull the wool over people’s eyes (see also: WeWork).

In her monthly newsletter, Deanna Raybourn ran an excerpt of the speech she gave to a Literacy for Life fundraiser, and I particularly liked this quote on the importance of reading:

Reading is our great escape. It is the invitation through the wardrobe door into Narnia or beyond the third star on the right and straight on until morning. It is the walk in a wolfen wood, it is the journey to a distant moon. It introduces us to worlds we cannot imagine on our own. It challenges us to see through the eyes of those who are not like us—who are differently abled or whose sexual orientation or race or gender identity is not ours—and where, for the price of a latte, we can experience life on another planet, in another body, in a different century…

Whatever our fears, our joys, our secret terrors, our deepest loves, there is an author who knows our heart and a character who speaks our language… Reading is, quite simply, the greatest magic we have ever conjured as a species because it holds the ability to break down all barriers if we let it. And to hold a book in your hands is to hold the world itself and everything beyond.

Happy New Year and happy reading, everybody.

“The Whisper Network” by Chandler Baker

The Whisper NetworkA couple years ago, a young female journalist started a Google spreadsheet called “Shitty Media Men,” aimed at warning women about male co-workers with reputations for sexual misconduct. “The anonymous, crowdsourced document was a first attempt at solving what has seemed like an intractable problem: how women can protect ourselves from sexual harassment and assault,” wrote the spreadsheet’s creator in an article for New York Magazine’s The Cut. “One long-standing partial remedy that women have developed is the whisper network, informal alliances that pass on open secrets and warn women away from serial assaulters.”

The problem with Shitty Media Men, of course, is that unlike old-fashioned whisper networks, it was right there in black & white, ready to be screenshotted and shared. There was a swift backlash once the list went viral, with detractors claiming that it would allow vindictive anonymous accusers to derail the lives and careers of innocent men without granting them due process. However, several prominent males did wind up losing their jobs in the wake of the list, most notably New Republic editor Leon Wieseltier.

It seemed inevitable that a fictionalized version of this juicy story would provide material for a novel. In Chandler Baker’s Whisper Network, it’s the “BAD Men” (Beware of Asshole Dallas Men) list which starts the ball rolling. The action takes place at an athletic apparel company called Truviv (think: Nike), where the general counsel, Ames Garrett, seems like a shoo-in to become CEO after the unexpected death of the current chief executive. Sloane Glover, an in-house lawyer at Truviv, adds Ames to the BAD Men list (“Issues with physical and interpersonal boundaries at the office; pursued sexual relationships with subordinate co-workers; sexist”), hoping to derail his rise to the top, but once the names on the spreadsheet are made public, Ames dies, seemingly of suicide. Suddenly, Ames starts being treated as a victim of what one local newspaper columnist refers to as a “feminist witch hunt.”

Baker smartly adds several complicating factors to the story: for instance, Sloane and Ames had had a sexual relationship at one point. Ames had just hired a new, pretty young female attorney, and Sloane is pretty sure he’s intent on making her his next conquest. In one particularly inspired touch, Sloane and her two best friends at work, Ardie and Grace, conduct clandestine meetings in the legally-mandated private room in which new mom Grace pumps breast milk.

The novel is told in the voice of an omniscient narrator, who makes statements about the general plight of women in modern America which female readers will no doubt find highly relatable: “We had guilt of every flavor: We had working-mom guilt, childless guilt, guilt because we’d turned down a social obligation, guilt because we’d accepted an invitation we knew we didn’t have time for, guilt for turning away work and for not turning it down when we felt we were already being taken advantage of.”

Whisper Network is an honest-to-goodness page turner (I stayed up past my bedtime in order to finish it, because I simply had to find out what would happen next), as well as a book I’d place in a time capsule to show what life was like for women in as the first fifth of the 21st century comes to a close. Would a female reader in 2039 feel satisfied that the lives of working women have improved significantly during the past 20 years? Let’s hope that’s the case.

“Blue Moon” by Lee Child

Blue MoonWhenever Jack Reacher steps off a Greyhound bus, mayhem is sure to follow, and that is certainly the case in Blue Moon, the 25th novel in the series. A fellow passenger, an elderly man with a thick envelope in his jacket pocket, catches Reacher’s eye. Then he notices another rider, a young man, staring hungrily at the envelope. So when the elderly man gets off the bus, followed by the younger man, Reacher decides to disembark too, figuring he may needed to foil a mugging.

That’s exactly what happens, and Reacher finds out that the elderly man needed that cash in order to pay off a loan shark. The unnamed city he lives in is controlled by the Eastern European mob, which has neatly divided the territory into two equal parts: “The west of the city was run by Ukrainians. The east was run by Albanians. The demarcation line between them was gerrymandered as tight as a congressional district.”

The arrangement may work for the mobsters, but it’s making a lot of other people in town miserable. But can Reacher take on two well-armed organized crime factions all by himself and live to tell the tale? If your answer to that question is “No way, that’s insane!” then you’ve obviously never read a Lee Child novel before.

Reacher does team up with a handful of locals, including a beautiful waitress, but Reacher himself is always at the center of things, and Blue Moon’s body count ultimately reaches stratospheric levels, to the point where it becomes mordantly comical. It’s always fun to see how Reacher manages to get himself out of a jam, but in this case, the answer is usually “grab a gun from a bad guy and kill a whole bunch of people.” If this Grand Guignol adventure is ever filmed for Amazon’s upcoming Reacher series, the fake-blood budget will be off the charts. All in all, I greatly preferred the previous novel in the series, Past Tense; this one is for Reacher completists only.

“To the Land of Long Lost Friends” by Alexander McCall Smith

To the Land of Long-Lost FriendsMany years ago, I raced through the first half-dozen Stephanie Plum books by Janet Evanovich before deciding that I never needed to read another one. “They’re all the same!” I thought. “She’s always going to destroy her car, and her love triangle with Morelli and Ranger will never be resolved!”

Somehow, though, I have persevered through all 20 of Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency novels, despite the fact that they are just as similar to one another as Evanovich’s books are. However, for some reason, I still look forward to my annual visit to Botswana, perhaps because Mma Ramotswe, proprietor of the agency, is such wise and delightful company. I don’t think it’s possible for anyone to read these books without wishing they could spend an afternoon in her presence, enjoying a leisurely chat while sipping bush tea.

To the Land of Long Lost Friends has a typically thin plot, but it does find Mma Ramotswe in a reflective mood, as she runs into an old friend at a wedding. For years, she had thought Calviniah Ramoroka was dead, but it turns out that the newspaper made a mistake—a different woman named Calviniah Ramoroka had been killed in an accident, but the photo printed alongside the article was of the still-living one.

At lunch a few days later, Calviniah happens to tell Mma Ramotswe that her adult daughter Nametso suddenly stopped speaking to her, and she has no idea why. Business is slow at the detective agency (as it often is—it’s kind of a wonder they manage to keep the doors open), so Mma Ramotswe decides to investigate. Meanwhile, Mma Makutsi is looking into the case of a man whose wife had believed he was cheating on her; the case had been closed (the ladies’ associate detective, Charlie, had determined that the husband had simply been visiting a female mathematics teacher for lessons), but Mma Makutski is convinced that something fishy is going on. “Most men are up to something, Mma. This is something I have learned as a woman. Most men are up to something—and it is the job of us women to find out what that is.”

There’s a little detecting, a lot of philosophizing and tea-drinking, and it’s all as relaxing as a cool breeze on a warm day; a subplot about a young orphan named Daisy does provoke genuine feelings of sadness in the reader, but even this heartbreaking storyline ultimately has a positive outcome.

“The world can be a place of suffering and conflict, but that’s not the only part of the world,” McCall Smith told the Deseret News in a recent interview. “There’s another part of the world where people are good to each other and kind to each other. The danger is that we become so accustomed to entertaining ourselves with violence that we think that’s reality. It’s not.” Whether your tastes run to female bounty hunters in New Jersey or lady detectives in Botswana, it’s nice that there are still some series out there that reliably provide a few hours of escape into a pleasantly familiar world.