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.