Two years ago, as I was sitting in a hospital waiting room as my father was having same-day surgery, Virginia reached out to me and asked me to put together a list of some of the best books I had read that year. Her suggestion was a godsend. It kept me busy as my mother and I waited. It gave me something to think about and reflect upon. Hence, I decided to do a similar article last year and now here were are at the end of the decade and I’ve put together another list. I’ve linked the books or authors on it to their Verona Public Library catalog page, where available, to make for easy borrowing and reading or listening.
As I write this I’ve “devoured” 71 books this year. This count does not include my re-read of half of Dorothea Benton Frank’s works. After her untimely death this September, it felt right and necessary to re-read her works. I re-read 10 and then felt like I needed a break as the summer turned into late autumn. My plan is to go back and re-read the rest over the summer months, because summer is not the same without Dorothea Benton Frank. And I highly recommend that in the summer of 2020 (if not before) you get your hands on one of her novels and enjoy. I especially recommend sitting outside in an Adirondack chair with a libation of your choice to sip as you do this.
But now on to the 10 best books I read in 2019 (reviewed in the order in which I happened to read them):
- A Hundred Summers by Beatriz Williams: So I started the new year with a “summer” book? Well, it’s not a beach book; it’s an excellent story. A period piece (set in the 1930s) that is well-written and pays good attention to detail. It is historical. It is romance. It is suspense. It is all that and so much more.
- Becoming by Michelle Obama: As a contemporary of the former first lady, I wanted to know what her life was like prior to politics so I could see where our lives paralleled. What I found was an extremely well-written autobiography that fascinated me. She made me think about things that I wouldn’t have given a second thought to; and yet now I will not forget. I found her to be honest, refreshing, hopeful and inspiring. It really doesn’t matter where you fall on the political spectrum; this is worth a read.
- Ordinary Grace by William Kent Kruger: A tale of the time (1961) and of a young boy on the brink of adulthood and the summer that changed his life and his family. The author paints a wonderful portrait of a family that is not unlike so many others; with its secrets and problems. It is the tale that we can all relate to as the main character goes from boyhood to adulthood; making decisions about life and understanding that it’s not all black and white.
- All We Ever Wanted by Emily Griffin: An amazing, moving, and culturally relevant novel. (The “elite” versus the “wrong side of town” and a photo that ends up on social media…this IS a story for our time!) As I read more and more, I couldn’t put it down. As I got closer to the end, I could barely hold back the tears. This book should be read by parents, young adults, teachers…heck it should be read by just about everyone. Because not only does it cover important subjects that hit closer to home than any of us might want to admit, but it is also an EXCELLENT story.
- The Silver Star by Jeannette Walls: I’ve read The Glass Castle and Half Broke Horses and they were excellent, but this one puts them to shame (at least in my mind). It is a beautiful story…told in the tradition of “To Kill A Mockingbird” (which is mentioned in the book). The story is NOT the same, but it has that same lilt to it. I read this one in under a day…it was so intoxicating I couldn’t put it down.
- The Fisherman by John Langan: Stephen King look out; there’s a new storyteller in town! It’s a tale of horror, but not horror. It feels all too real as two widows who love to fish search for an elusive body of water. Scary and somehow completely believable. Don’t eat while you read this…and keep the lights on! (Note: This one is not yet in the Verona Library’s PALSPlus collection.)
- Born a Crime: Stories From a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah: I know very little of Trevor Noah, but when my son chose to read this as part of his summer reading, I decided to give it a go. I’m glad I did. His life is so different than mine. I cannot conceive of some of the things that he went through and witnessed as not-black-yet-not-white person in South Africa. (How is that possible? It’s possible!) He opened my mind to a way of life that I couldn’t imagine. I was left asking many questions, like when will there be another book? But what I did learn from this book is that faith, a sense of humor and quick wit can get you through just about anything. That is a lesson well worth learning.
- The Institute by Stephen King: Stephen King might NOT be the best author in the world, but he is certainly one of the best storytellers ever. I haven’t read everything he’s written nor have I like or enjoyed everything he’s written, but with this novel once again, he drew me and I couldn’t stop. Yes, I managed to find places to put the book down, and I had to force myself to do so, otherwise I would have kept going and going and going…This story is total fiction…right? With Stephen King you don’t really know. And with the crazy way of the world…who can say? Frightening as a hell…and yet hopeful.
- Elsewhere by Gabrielle Zevin: A beautifully written novel on the afterlife as experienced by a Liz, a teen, who is rightfully angry that she is dead and will never have the chance to get a driver’s license. Although supposedly YA fiction, I think just about anyone over the age of 12 would enjoy it and benefit from its wisdom. This is one of those rare books that makes you day better just because you have read it.
- A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman: I waited a long time to read this. (It had been recommended to me by several friends.) I wanted the perfect time and place to read it. Thanksgiving weekend was that time. I am so glad I waited. So glad I could delve into this story, especially at the time of year when we are in the darkness and longing for the light. Now was the time I could see parallels in my own life and appreciate this story. I have read other Fredrik Backman novels and none have disappointed, but this is by far the best.
Honorable Mention (Because I read a lot of good books and even though these weren’t the absolute best of the best in my opinion, they were really quite good):
- The Music Shop by Rachel Joyce: If you love music, you must read this book. It doesn’t matter what kind of music you love, just that you love it. If you love(d) record shops or playing vinyl, this is for you. It’s not just about a record shop; it’s about people and music and it’s all so very perfect.
- Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout: Olive Again is getting all the buzz now, but this collection of short stories/chapters are slices of life that are not always pretty but are true. Elizabeth Strout captures the lives of “ordinary” people and makes us realize that we are all extraordinarily ordinary.
- Lock Every Door by Riley Sager: Ira Levin inspired every bit of this book (or at least that’s how I see it). If you like Levin’s style, you’ll LOVE this. Is the literature? Heck no. Is it a compelling read? HECK YES!
- Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom: A Story by Sylvia Path: I didn’t count this in my book tally above because it really is just a short story written when the author was at Smith College and it won’t take long to read. This tale was worthy of Shirley Jackson or Stephen King…and will leave you wishing there was more. (Also not in the Library collection.)
- Bright As Heaven by Susan Meissner: At times depressing (and reading part of this truly changed my mood); at times uplifting. This is an excellent view into life in the early 20th century and the incredible impact the Spanish influenza (and World War I) had on the lives of those in Philadelphia. As the author herself says in her notes at the end, it’s astonishing that the pandemic (which happened over a century ago) has been an untold story. She tells it in terms that are painful and tangible.
Beth Shorten is a life-long resident of Verona. For six years, she has been chronicling life here on her personal site, Bfth’s Boring Blog. You can read her best books for 2018 here, and her best books list for 2017 here.