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.

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.”

2017: The Year in Reading

I read 85 books in 2017, and reviewed 57 of them. The most popular posts (in terms of page views) were reviews of Our Secret Better Lives by Matthew Amster-Burton, a book I reviewed in December of 2016, and Commonwealth by Ann Patchett. The least popular post: The Widow by Fiona Barton. Hey, I really enjoyed that book!

My five favorite books that I reviewed during the past year, in no particular order: Born a Crime by Trevor Noah, Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz, The Long Firm by Jake Arnott, Celine by Peter Heller and The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid. One of my happiest reading memories from 2017 is sitting in the outdoor garden at Julie’s in mid-August, eating an heirloom tomato sandwich and enjoying Evelyn Hugo. There’s nothing like the combination of sunshine, summer produce and a good book.

One of the highlights of the year is my client (and, I dare say, friend) William Kent Krueger‘s fifteenth Cork O’Connor mystery Sulfur Springs hitting the New York Times top ten bestseller list in September. It was Kent’s first time in the top ten! He’s a great guy and a relentlessly hard worker—his touring schedule would exhaust many writers half his age.

The end of December brought some sad news: the death of Sue Grafton, a genuinely lovely person as well as a wonderful writer. Her alphabet mysteries have played an important role in my life, and I admire the ambition that led her to attempt longer, more complex plots over the course of her long-running series. She never took the easy route, and that fierce integrity means the alphabet will stop at Y; she didn’t complete Z, and insisted no ghostwriter would finish her work. Grafton’s sleuth Kinsey Millhone will not celebrate her 40th birthday in print, but as long as people continue to read mysteries, she’s guaranteed to live forever.

I only reviewed eight nonfiction books, one fewer than last year. I did finally read a classic novel, Jane Eyre, and enjoyed it a lot, so I’ll have to see what else is out there that I probably should have read years ago. Escaping into the past holds a lot of appeal these days.

And now, a quote from E.B. White:

A library is a good place to go when you feel unhappy, for there, in a book, you may find encouragement and comfort. A library is a good place to go when you feel bewildered or undecided, for there, in a book, you may have your question answered. Books are good company, in sad times and happy times, for books are people—people who have managed to stay alive by hiding between the covers of a book.

Happy New Year—and keep reading!

2016: The Year in Reading

I read 66 books in 2016, and reviewed 52 of them. I decided right away that I would not review any books written by my clients, to avoid any possible conflicts of interest, so I had to make sure I read some extra books so I wouldn’t be caught short. (I work for a lot of really fantastic authors! I was especially proud of my longtime client Susan McBride for topping the Amazon bestseller lists with her thriller Walk Into Silence.)

The most popular posts (in terms of page views) were reviews of Act Like It by Lucy Parker (thanks to a retweet by NPR podcast host Linda Holmes) and Scientology: A to Xenu by Chris Shelton (which experienced a spike in views after Shelton appeared on Leah Remini’s A&E docuseries about Scientology). The least popular post: The Killing Kind by Chris Holm. I think the only people who read that one were my three most loyal readers: my mom, my husband, and my friend Vallery.

My favorite books that I reviewed during the past year? In no particular order: Emma Straub’s Modern Lovers, Laura Lippman’s Wilde Lake, Elizabeth McKenzie’s The Portable Veblen, Henning Mankell’s Italian Shoes, and Ruth Ware’s The Woman in Cabin 10.

I only reviewed nine nonfiction books, and four of those were about Scientology. Considering the enormous popularity of Remini’s TV show, I’ll bet there will be more to come in 2017, though it might be harder to find a fresh angle on the “church” at this point. (For up-to-the-minute Scientology news, Tony Ortega’s Underground Bunker is always the first place to look.)

Sometimes I look back on what I read and chastise myself a bit for not reading more serious books—the timeless classics and big, important works of nonfiction—but considering everything that’s going on in the world right now, it seems like a pretty good time to stock up on escapist fare. Here’s a lovely passage by Neil Gaiman (author and former Scientologist!):

I’d like to say a few words about escapism. I hear the term bandied about as if it’s a bad thing. As if “escapist” fiction is a cheap opiate used by the muddled and the foolish and the deluded, and the only fiction that is worthy, for adults or for children, is mimetic fiction, mirroring the worst of the world the reader finds herself in.

If you were trapped in an impossible situation, in an unpleasant place, with people who meant you ill, and someone offered you a temporary escape, why wouldn’t you take it? And escapist fiction is just that: fiction that opens a door, shows the sunlight outside, gives you a place to go where you are in control, are with people you want to be with (and books are real places, make no mistake about that); and more importantly, during your escape, books can also give you knowledge about the world and your predicament, give you weapons, give you armour: real things you can take back into your prison. Skills and knowledge and tools you can use to escape for real.

As JRR Tolkien reminded us, the only people who inveigh against escape are jailers.