I read 60 books last year. I know compared to some that number is paltry, but 60 seems huge to me. More than one a week, even with a full time job and a (maybe somewhat lame) social life. I read some really great books, and much more diverse than it felt like at the time. These definitely aren’t going to be the books on all the fancy NPR or NYT lists, but they are the books I enjoyed the most and the ones that have stuck with me long after I closed the back cover. Got a new year’s reading challenge? Get started with one of these I know you’ll love.
The Secret Place by Tana French
You can give me a book about a murder at a boarding school any day and I know I’ll love it, but it won’t have the brilliance of French’s The Secret Place. While simultaneously following the murder investigation of a teenage boy and the lead up to his murder, you’re really reading a smart and unexpected look at friendship, loyalty, ambition, and growing up. I loved the cast of characters and couldn’t get enough of French’s spot-on teenage dialogue.
The Magician’s Land by Lev Grossman
On the blog, I try very hard to either review a series as a whole or not at all. Most of my favorite series are not ones you can simply pick up in the middle, but I can’t not put The Magician’s Land on this list. The Magicians series follows Quentin, a brilliant debbie-downer of a guy, as he enters the world of magic, first at an exclusive school and then in the magical world of Fillory. Imagine a mix of Harry Potter and Narnia, narrated by Holden Caulfield. If you are AT ALL a fan of the fantasy genre or books with magic (I clearly am), the series is well worth your time, especially the final installment, which perfectly wraps up the magic.
Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell
I’m not known for choosing books that really push my boundaries — I have a few genres I like and tend to color within the lines. Vampires in the Lemon Grove is so far out of the lines for me, but Karen Russell’s writing is absolutely captivating. I have never been a fan of short story collections, usually the characters and descriptions fall flat for me in their brevity, but there wasn’t a story in Vampires that I didn’t like. From the eponymous vampires of the title to women who turned into silkworms, each story is surprising and supernatural and full of smart and quirky storytelling. Seriously, I can’t choose a favorite, even months later.
Overwhelmed by Brigid Schulte
Find yourself wanting to slow down and cut back on the busy this year? PLEASE pick up Overwhelmed. Brigid Schulte looks at how we balance (or don’t balance) our work, family, and play time in this book and I think it is an essential read for anyone who feels like they are too busy to have any fun. I’ll admit I’m not the busiest person (I did read 60 books this year after all), but that is by design. I hate feeling busy, which is, as pointed out in this book, different from actually being busy. I believe in policies that enable more flexible workplaces and love Schulte’s emphasis on finding and making time for meaningful play — the thing that makes us human and able to do everything else that much better. The strategies laid out are easy to implement and make a huge difference!
The Art Forger by B.A. Shapiro
I am 100% this book’s demographic. Art? Yes. History? Yes. Mystery and theft? Yes and yes. Love story? YES. Three stories weave together in this gripping and twisty-turny read: our heroine Claire’s present-day story, her past, and the history of a Degas’ masterpiece that was stolen from the Gardner Museum in 1990. As Claire begins to forge the Degas, she begins to doubt its authenticity and the tangled web begins to weave. As an art history lover, I couldn’t get enough of this book. I said in my review that Shapiro’s writing is excellent, the mystery of the painting is enthralling, and the suspense of will-they-or-won’t-they-be-caught keeps you turning the pages well into the night and I stand by all of it months later.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
All I can say is this book though. It’s just so beautiful — both the story and the prose. A Tree Grows is the only classic I read this year (reading a few more is a goal for this year) and I didn’t write a review of it this summer because it’s so hard for me to put into words what this book means to me. I am SO glad I read it now and not in high school when the husband did (for the record: he loved it too) because it felt like it came to me at the most perfect moment. Both heartbreaking and heartwarming, the story of Francie Nolan reminds us how complicated and beautiful this life we have is.
The Intern’s Handbook by Shane Kuhn
Are you a fan of Dexter? Yes? Go get The Intern’s Handbook. Now. It’s got all the makings of a fun thriller (I know, kind of an oxymoron there.): a sarcastic and witty assassin-turned-intern as a narrator, a plot that moves at breakneck speed, and twists and turns on every page. Plus a love story and a brilliantly designed cover (a skull and crossbones made out of office supplies! gah!) for some extra goodness. Both the husband and I couldn’t put this book down. Trust me, it’s no literary masterpiece, but it reads like an exciting screenplay (it’s already being adapted for a movie!) and is pure entertainment.
The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes
OMG this book. If you’re looking for a literary masterpiece, The Shining Girls is not it. If you’re looking for a very creepy and deeply engrossing thriller about a time-traveling serial killer and the one who got away, hot on his heels in investigation, this is definitely it. Beukes’ characterizations are remarkable – I don’t know that I’ve ever encountered a more evil or gruesome character than Harper. You’ll love the quick pace and suspense, dotted with the interactions with the “shining girls,” which act like short stories within the narrative and are a haunting look at women through history.
Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty
Every list needs a little chick lit yes? Big Little Lies is chick lit done right. This schoolyard drama following three women’s daily lives leading up to a shocking murder keeps you on your toes until the very end. As I said in my full review, you never know who has been killed and the storytelling effortlessly jumps from funny to dark and back again. It’s a fun read that has it all: humor, well-drawn characters, high-speed plot, and emotional depth.
The Astronaut Wives Club by Lily Koppel
As I mentioned in my full review of The Astronaut Wives Club, I really knew nothing about the early astronauts, much less their wives, and I completely gobbled this book up. I loved reading about the lives of these women, how they coped with the highs and lows, and how they used their positions of popularity and power to make a little history themselves. Koppel’s book is a little bit history and a little bit gossip and a completely fun way to learn a little American history. There’s also going to be a TV show based on it released this year and you better believe I will glued to my seat when it starts!
Honorable mentions: The Vacationers by Emma Straub, Missing Microbes by Martin J. Blaser, 11/22/63 by Stephen King, and The Girl You Left Behind by Jojo Moyes (like she wasn’t going to be on the list).
Fun fact: Least favorite books of the year were Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel (ungodly boring), Swamplandia! by Karen Russell (funny how she can be on both of these lists – this book I just did not get), and Tenth of December by George Saunders (awful). All of these have either won or been nominated for book awards like the Booker Prize and the Pulitzer. I don’t want to know what that says about me…
What was your favorite book you read last year?