Yes, it’s that time. The time of the year that I tell you about all the books I read in the past year! It’s the moooooost wonderful tiiiiiiiime of the year! OK, maybe that’s a little “extra”, as the youths say. But it is fun for us book nerds, yes?
I feel like I did pretty well this year in terms of book enjoyment. In my 2018 book review, I found myself coming up short on fiction books that I had actually enjoyed that year, despite careful vetting prior to reading. I usually try to read some non-fiction books every year too for variety and personal growth, and I did try. Oh, did I try. But something about the non-fiction books this year….I was unable to keep my eyes open. Even though I really wanted to know all about the content that was in the books, I just could not stay awake while reading any of them. I ended up with a lot of partially read non-fiction books. I think this has more to do with my level of fatigue than with the books themselves. Because, let me tell you, fatigue level this year (both physical and mental) was pretty “extra”, and I think we can all agree that there is a certain level of concentration required to attend to a non-fiction book for any length of time. Anyhow, maybe in 2020 I will do a better job expanding my non-fiction horizons; 2019 was almost all fiction, plus a couple of much enjoyed memoirs.
All right, let’s get to it, then. And yes, the books you see below are presented in the order in which I read them. Obviously. If you are not wearing comfortable pants while reading this, go change them now, because that’s how we roll here, and you should not read books, or even read about reading books, in uncomfortable pants.
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas–John Boyne ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
This book was both beautiful and tragic in its simplicity. Written from the point of view of a little boy, Bruno, who moves to a new, unfamiliar place with his family, full of curiosities but devoid of any playmates. While exploring, Bruno meets a little boy about his age on the other side of the tall fence. They find many similarities between them, but neither of them completely understand why each of them is on their respective side of the fence. A very sad yet poignant book; highly recommend.
The Boat People–Sharon Bala ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
The Boat People is a compassionate look at the refugee crisis, and is thus an extremely timely and compelling work. When Mahindan and his young son flee their home country of Sri Lanka to escape the violence of a civil war, their boat of refugees land on the shores of British Columbia. Instead of walking out of the boat and into safety, the “boat people” find themselves in a government detention center and become subject to intense scrutiny, including accusations that they are part of a terrorist group. As the days and months creep along in the detention center, Mahindan’s hopes for safety and freedom for himself and his son slowly crumble, culminating in his son being taken from him and placed in the foster care system. The story is also told from the perspective of Mahindan’s lawyer, and the Canadian judge who must face her own blind spots and come to terms with her own family history as she adjudicates Mahindan’s case.
Educated: A Memoir–Tara Westover ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
I heard a lot of buzz about this book before I finally picked it up and read it, and I have to say that it really did live up to the hype. Educated is the true story of a young woman who grew up isolated from much of society. Her father, prone to violence and conspiracy theories, was opposed to public education, so Tara did not go to school until the age of 17. This is the story of how she overcame the abuse, brainwashing, and gaslighting of her childhood and made her way into a world that her family had demonized and denied her for her entire life. Reads like fiction; I loved it.
Becoming–Michelle Obama ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
I very much enjoyed reading this memoir from the “woman behind the man”. In Becoming, we get to read about Michelle’s childhood, her accomplishments, and the early days of her relationship with Barak. So much of what she writes is incredibly relatable, particularly (for me) her days as a young wife and mother trying to balance it all. We get an interesting inside look at President Obama, who seems to be as intense and thoughtful in his private life as he is in his public life. She is crazy smart, and I enjoyed her reading her reflections on life and her time as First Lady. The book was very well written, with a cohesive narrative and excellent storytelling. When I read memoirs written by famous people, I always wonder if they use a ghost writer. It doesn’t say anywhere in the book that she did. She is obviously extremely smart and well spoken, so I don’t doubt that she could write this book in its entirety. I just always hear writers talk about how hard it is to write a book, so I imagine it would be even harder for someone who isn’t a writer by trade. What do we all think?
The Great Alone–Kristen Hannah ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
My sister said she wouldn’t be my friend anymore if I didn’t like this book. Luckily, it was a good one! Phew. Set in the 1970’s, Ernt Allbright moves his wife and daughter to Alaska to live off the grid. Ernt, having recently served in the Vietnam war, is unstable and paranoid. Leni and her mother Cora find out that learning to live with Ernt’s demons may be even harder than learning to survive in the harsh Alaskan landscape. Well paced and suspenseful, it made for a very compelling and entertaining read.
The Heart’s Invisible Furies–John Boyne ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
This was one of my favorites this year. Set in Ireland, this is the story of Cyril Avery, born in the 1940’s to an unmarried teenage girl and adopted by a wealthy but eccentric couple. As the story of his life unfolds, we get to watch as Cyril discovers and comes to accept his true identity. Central to this unfolding is his friendship with rich, charismatic Julian Woodbead, who becomes a touch point for Cyril as he navigates life and comes to terms with the fact that he is homosexual. I just could not put this down. It was so good. Nothing I could say by way of synopsis or praise could ever put into words the richness of this story and its complicated, affecting characters. Read it.
The Home for Unwanted Girls–Joanna Goodman ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Set in the 1950’s in Quebec, the powerful novel is the story of a young woman, separated from her daughter at birth by the hands of her parents, who are determined to erase all evidence of their teenage daughter’s indiscretions with a poor farm boy and give her a fresh start.
Maggie’s is told that her child, Elodie, has been adopted. In actuality, Elodie is raised by nuns in the Quebec orphanage system. As a result of a terrible law enacted in the province, Elodie’s orphanage is converted into mental hospitals in order to continue receiving government funding, and Elodie’s living conditions go from bad to worse as overnight she is suddenly declared a mental patient.
Haunted by her loss, Maggie spends years trying to find her daughter and overcome the shame and pain of her past. Though the story is fictional, the historical detail about the conversion of Quebec orphanages to psychiatric hospitals in the 1950’s-60’s is true. A very good read overall, though the ending is perhaps a little unrealistic.
Behold the Dreamers–Imbolo Mbue ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
In NYC in 2007, Jende and his wife Neni have big dreams. Recently immigrated from Cameroon, Jende worked for years to save enough money to bring his wife and son to live with him. While Neni attends school, Jende gets a very lucrative job as a driver for a senior executive at Lehman Brothers. It seems that all of the pieces start to fall into place for them as Jende’s work gains him the respect and trust of his employer. However, Jende and Neni’s hopes for a piece of the American dream start to crumble as the recession hits, with Jende’s employer at the center of a financial scandal. Beautifully done. Oprah was right again.
State of Wonder–Ann Patchett ⭐️⭐️⭐️
I came away from this book with mixed feelings. I truly enjoyed reading it. Then after it was over, I considered the sheer unbelievability of such a tale and felt less keen to recommend it (I know it’s fiction, but really…). It was well written, as one would expect from Ann Patchett. The story is about a young doctor/researcher at a pharmaceutical company, Marina, who travels to the Amazon after her colleague, Anders, dies while on a work assignment. Marina’s journey into the Amazon to find out the truth about Anders’ death unearths some completely unexpected findings. I would say that it was a good paced read that held my interest. It’s just that when it was over, I found myself saying, “wait, what?” If you are OK with the fact that this is a story that is in no way realistic or believable, then you will probably enjoy it for its entertainment value.
The Seven or Eight Deaths of Stella Fortuna–Juliet Grames ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
In a word: Whoa. This book was completely absorbing. I would say this was another of my favorites this year. It was also a nice, thick (464 pages!), sink-your-teeth-into-it-on-vacation kind of read. The book follows the Fortuna family through five generations, starting with the birth of the main character, Stella, in the village of Calabria, Italy. As Stella comes of age, the family immigrates to America. Stella is a force to be reckoned with, but life as a woman within the constraints of her patriarchal, Italian family is an uphill battle. I loved it!
Pachinko–Min Jin Lee ⭐️⭐️
I really wanted to love this one, but I just didn’t. It started out strong, but then it just slogged along. It was slow. It was bleak. And then it got sadder. And sadder. I have nothing against sad books, as you can see from my general reading choices. But this one….I needed my meds adjusted after this. I can appreciate why this book earned praise, but it just was not my favorite. I’m not going to give you a synopsis of this one because I’m just glad it’s over and I don’t want to talk about it anymore, OK?
The Girls–Emma Cline ⭐️
Ugh, why did I finish this one? I don’t know. I kept hoping it would get better. I was intrigued by the story line of a young girl from a loveless home who gets caught up with a group of older girls during the summer in the 1960’s. The girls end up being part of a cult, with a gross skeevy guy, Russell, as the leader. Evie is obsessed with Suzanne, an older girl who is beautiful and seems mysterious. As she spends more and more time with “the girls” she starts to lose her grasp on reality. The description of cult life seemed weak. I wasn’t really sure what the whole premise of the cult was, other than the fact that Russell was the object of all the girls’ attention. It wasn’t really clear to me what kind of dogma Russell was peddling, only that all the girls in this commune setting worshiped him in some way, and he had his choice of sexual partners. It sounded like they didn’t bathe very often, so….yuck.
The Last Romantics–Tara Conklin ⭐️⭐️
The first half of this novel was solidly enjoyable. The Skinner siblings grow up mostly by themselves. Their father dies, and their mother subsequently slips into a deep depression, not leaving her room for months on end. They are left to fend for themselves most of the time. This bonds them together and affects each of them in different ways, and as the story progresses, we see how this shared history shaped each of them differently. The first part of the book where the story focuses on their childhood was quite engaging and I enjoyed it. The second part of the novel when we see the siblings as adults…..not as good. The character development takes a strange, unsavory turn, particularly with the main character, Fiona.
The Only Woman in the Room–Marie Benedict ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
I enjoyed this book very much. It is a fictional biography, based on the life of film star Hedy Lamarr, who was not only a beautiful screen siren in her day but who also possessed a brilliant mind. Of (somewhat covert) Jewish descent in war-torn Austria, she married a wealthy and powerful munitions dealer, whose work supported the Nazis during WWII. Her husband was controlling and abusive, and Hedy was expected to give up her acting career and any thoughts of independence to be his trophy wife. Within this stifling environment, Hedy found herself in the company of powerful leaders (e.g. Hitler, Mussolini) who discussed technology and war strategy in her presence during meetings and social dinners, and who obviously assumed that she had fluff for brains and could never understand such topics (science is HARD, right ladies?). She became a self-taught scientist and used the information she learned from these encounters to develop technology for alternating radio frequencies, which allowed for remote control of torpedoes and was later used against the Nazis. Her work also laid the groundwork for GPS and cell phone technology, as I understand it. In reading some of the reviews on the book, it seems that some have suggested that this is a rather watered down version of Hedy’s story, and that later in life she turned into a meth-head and went the way of many troubled Hollywood stars. The book highlights the fact that she did not receive the recognition she deserved for her inventions . In my opinion, the ending was kind of abrupt, though overall I did enjoy this book.
Where the Crawdads Sing–Delia Owens ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
I snuck this last one in just before the New Year, and I’m glad I did. The author tells us a story about Kya Clark, a girl living on the marshy shores of North Carolina. Abandoned by her family at a young age, Kya lives a reclusive life in the marsh, fending for herself, and somehow eluding social services. She never goes to school, but possesses a brilliant mind, and learns as much about science and nature from her natural environment as many spend a lifetime trying to learn from books. As she comes of age, she meets a boy who teaches her to read and opens whole new worlds for her–one of books and words, and the other of love and connection with another human being, something she had never experienced to that point. I loved it. The writing was beautiful, the story compelling, and I blew through it in about 4 days.
So that’s it for this year! Tell me what you read and what you loved! Give me your suggestions for this year! So far I have nothing specific in my roster, so I would love to hear what you have enjoyed. Happy reading in 2020!