It is that time of the year again! The time of year when I tell you my honest review on all of the books that I read this year. I have to be honest, this has been my favorite post to write every year. Even though this is only the third year. Whatever. As always, the books are listed in the order that I read them, because to do otherwise would be to surrender to complete anarchy and I might as well not write anything and we all go home and go to bed, goodnight.
Unfortunately, I had a few books this year that I really disliked for one reason or another. Usually when I don’t like a book, I abandon it after 50 pages or so. But there were a couple that I read to the end, either hoping they would get better or too lazy to go to the library for something else, or both. In response to this situation, I have added a poop emoji to my five-star scoring system. Because I couldn’t warrant giving even one star. Not even one. Just poop.
Let me know if you have read any of these picks, and what’s on your list for next year!
Claire of the Sea Light–Edwidge Danticat ⭐️⭐️⭐️ 1/2
Ever since I went to Haiti, I have been so interested in reading Danticat’s works (who is a Haitian-American author). As I mentioned in my review of Breath, Eyes, Memory last year, this author excels at painting a picture of the culture that the characters inhabit, which is of great interest to me.. The story is interesting in that it introduces many different characters of different classes, and weaves their individual stories together in a way that leads back to Claire. The story starts and ends with her, on her birthday, and the conflicting joy and pain that is present on that yearly anniversary. However, at the end of the book I felt a little unsatisfied. Just as I was getting to know each character, the story ended. I felt like the opportunity for a deep dive was lost because there were so many characters who needed attention. I did like it, and I still want to read more of Danticat’s works, as her voice is unique.
Little Fires Everywhere–Celeste Ng ⭐️⭐️
This is the story of a mysterious single mother and her teenage daughter who move into an idyllic neighborhood, disrupting the seemingly perfect facade of a family with whom they become friends. I give this one a “meh”. I could take it or leave it. I know that there are many who would like this book, and there isn’t necessarily something majorly wrong with it, it’s just not my taste. Maybe a beach read for someone who enjoys this type of fiction.
Goodbye Lupus: How a medical doctor healed herself naturally with supermarket foods — Dr. Brooke Goldner ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
I read this book very early in the year and I am glad that I did! This book is written by a doctor (yes, she is a real doctor) who was diagnosed with severe lupus in her teens. She was on chemo and in and out of the hospital for many years. She was able to fulfill her dream of becoming a doctor, despite suffering several mini-strokes during her residency, among other things. She met the love of her life during her residency who happened to be a personal trainer, and they decided to get married, even though her doctors told her that she probably wouldn’t live past the age of thirty due to the severity of her illness. She asked her fiancé to help her get in shape for their wedding, and he put her on a whole food plant based diet with tons of greens. She had previously been a vegetarian but he had her cut out all processed foods and animal products (she described herself as a “cheesetarian” prior to that). Several months in, she was not only looking great but her lupus markers had disappeared when she visited her doctor for routine followup and blood work. They had stumbled upon something that actually has put her into full remission and given her excellent health. She now has been able to help many people with a variety of autoimmune disorders (lupus, multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, etc.) greatly improve or completely heal their conditions. I have psoriasis (which is autoimmune) and have had a smattering of strange autoimmune things come and go over my lifetime (iritis when I was in elementary school, anti-thyroid and anti-cardiolipin antibodies when I was pregnant) and a family history of multiple sclerosis. I have always been concerned about developing psoriatic arthritis. I decided to give her program a try. I was already on a plant-based diet so I added the green smoothies and omega-3’s as she suggested (and tried to eliminate my cheats–tortilla chips, chocolate–still working on that!), and my psoriasis is 80% clear! Sure, I am now the weird crunchy granola hippie that everyone likes to make fun of, and I get a few looks when I carry my huge green smoothie into work, but I don’t care. For me, it’s better than the alternative. If you have any kind of autoimmune disease, you may want to check it out! She is not selling any gimmicks, just using ordinary supermarket foods. Shout out to the Ian Cramer podcast, which is where I first learned about Dr. Goldner. You can listen to that episode here.
Lilac Girls–Martha Hall Kelly ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
This book is insanely popular for good reason. There are so many novels written around the events of WWII that this specific brand of historical fiction has almost become a genre unto itself. I almost did not want to read it for this reason. But I saw it in the library before I went on vacation, and it was a really thick book. I love really thick books. I feel so accomplished after reading them! Anyhow, I am so glad I did read it. Set within the context of Germany’s invasion of Poland in 1939, the author tells the stories of three women–a young Polish girl sent to a German concentration camp after being caught assisting the Polish underground resistance, an ambitious German doctor who ends up working in the same concentration camp, and a French socialite living in New York City who finds her own personal and professional life forever altered after the Germans move through Poland and invade France. The story is beautifully written, each character well developed, and the weaving together of their stories is thoughtful while also appearing to be organic. Highly recommend.
The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in an Age of Colorblindness–Michelle Alexander ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
The New Jim Crow is an incredibly insightful, well researched, and important book for our time that I think should be required reading. It discusses in great detail the evolution of civil rights in America, and argues quite effectively that we have not come as far as a society as some would like to think we have in regard to racial equality. The author looks at the history of segregation in America, and how African Americans have gone from being sold as slaves, to experiencing segregation in the era of Jim Crow laws, to our current time where the criminal justice system perpetuates racial caste by with its disproportionate incarceration of African Americans. She discusses how so many of our systems are set up to target and discriminate against people of color, and how the “War on Drugs” declared in the 1980’s has facilitated the mass incarceration of African Americans and the school to prison pipeline. Eye-opening. It reads like a text book, so though the info is excellent, it’s not a huge page turner in the way a novel would be. So while it is a must-read, do not read when drowsy.
Behind Closed Doors–B.A. Paris 💩
I don’t like to be too harsh with my criticism toward any book, because I imagine that behind every book is an author who labored to bring the story into the world. However, with no disrespect toward the author, I really hated this book. I’m not even sure why I finished it. I guess I was hoping it would redeem itself toward the end with some sort of interesting twist. (Spoiler alert–it didn’t). The story is about a woman who unsuspectingly marries a sociopath after he swiftly works his way into her heart by showering both her and her special needs sister with affection. The moment they say “I do”, he flips his sociopath switch on and locks her away, abuses her in various ways, and keeps her isolated from the outside world, threatening harm to her sister if she tries to tell anyone or escape. There was absolutely no mystery or nuance in this book. The antagonist just blurts out his motives when explaining to his wife/captive the reasons for his new behavior (He likes the smell of fear. Eyeroll!). He turns out to be a completely one-dimensional and predictable character. The plot and resolution were also predictable and, at times, just too cheesy for words. It was like one of those melodramatic movies on the Lifetime channel that you are not enjoying but also can’t look away from. I half expected Valerie Bertinelli to jump out of the pages as the protagonist. Thumbs down.
My Name is Lucy Barton–Elizabeth Strout ⭐️⭐️⭐️
This is an interesting book in that it doesn’t seem to have much of a plot. The book centers around a series of conversations between Lucy Barton and her estranged mother, who comes to visit her when Lucy is stuck in the hospital for an extended period of time. Watching their relationship shift through these conversations within the context of her illness was interesting. Moves kind of slow. I give it a so-so.
The Polygamist’s Daughter–Anna LeBaron ⭐️⭐️⭐️
This is a memoir written by Anna LeBaron, the daughter of the infamous polygamist Ervil Lebaron. She details the horrors of her life growing up in a polygamist cult and her subsequent escape at the age of thirteen. It is a haunting to read, but also an eye-opening look into the world of a radical Mormon cult. Interesting factoid–Anna is related to Ruth Wariner, the author of The Sound of Gravel, which was one of my favorite books from last year. But they never met each other until after they both published books about their lives in the same cult! Their fathers were brothers, and Ervil, Anna’s father, ordered the hit the lead to the subsequent murder of his brother, who was Ruth’s father.
This is How it Always Is –Laurie Frankel ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
THIS BOOK IS AMAZING! This is my pick of the year! The story is about an absolutely normal and completely endearing family with three boys. Their youngest son, Claude, identifies as a transgender female very early in his childhood. The story follows the family as they learn to love, accept, and navigate the complications and family dynamics that come about as Claude grows up. This book is beautiful, funny, smart, sensitive, and I loved it. A must read!
The Distance Between Us: A Memoir–Reyna Grande ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
This is a fascinating memoir about family, poverty, illegal immigration, and generational trauma. The author, who grew up in Mexico, recounts in vivid detail the instability and poverty of her childhood. Her father crosses the border illegally to make money so that he can build his family their dream home, promising to come back soon. Reyna is left with her cruel and abusive extended family, sustained by the hope of her father’s promises that he will return. When she finally does get the opportunity to cross the border into the U.S. (illegally), she faces a whole new set of challenges, a different kind of poverty, and the continuation of a painfully abusive legacy in her family. This is a difficult yet beautifully written and timely memoir. Required reading for our time.
The Alice Network –Kate Quinn ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
I almost didn’t want to read this one because it was a Reese Witherspoon book pick. No offense, Reese, but it just seemed to me like you stole that whole idea from Oprah and I’m not down with that. Anyhow, this was again another situation in which I had nothing to read and this book was lying around, another hand-me-down from my mom. I really liked it, so it turns out Reese has good taste and now maybe I will cautiously trust her judgement with future book recommendations. Anyhow, The Alice Network has two story lines, the first of which is based on a true story of a network of female spies who were instrumental in providing intelligence about the Germans during WWI. The other story line, set in England in 1947, revolves around Charley, a young woman from a wealthy and reputable family who becomes pregnant out of wedlock and is sent away to London to “take care of her little problem”. In an act of rebellion she skips out on her “appointment” and romps around to try to find her missing cousin, Rose. As she begins to uncover what happened to Rose, she crosses paths with Eve, one of the former members of the Alice Network. As the truth about Rose emerges, Eve has to come to terms with her painful history as a spy in WWI. I loved Eve’s story line from the WWI era. Charley’s story seemed like more of a filler that served to advance Eve’s story. Overall a good book, though I didn’t care for the Charley story line as much.
An American Marriage–Tayari Jones ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
This book could be considered the fictional equivalent of The New Jim Crow, reviewed above. A successful, professional African-American man, in the wrong place at the wrong time, is accused for a crime he did not commit and subsequently goes to prison. His wife is left behind to deal with the emotional turmoil and loneliness left in the wake of his conviction. Years pass, and he gets out of prison to find that not only has life has gone on without him, but he has suffered loss upon loss. Loss of his old life, of his reputation, his friends, even the ones he thought would be most faithful. This book is about racial injustice in America, but also about marriage, loyalty, and love. Not an uplifting story, as you can imagine, but an important one. Very well done.
Stay With Me–Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀ ⭐️⭐️⭐️
This book is about Akin and Yejide, a young, educated, married Nigerian couple who are very much in love. When they have a difficult time conceiving a child, they not only suffer all of the heartbreak that comes from infertility, but they also have to deal with Akin’s meddling family, who are very invested in Akin producing an heir. Akin gets strong-armed into taking a second wife (or, you could argue that he just needed to grow a pair and stand up to his mother), in spite of the fact that the couple had previously agreed that they would not practice polygamy, a common practice in their culture. What ensues is a series of lies, deceptions, and tragedies. Lots of twists, but pretty dark. Even for me. Stay with Me got a lot of five-star reviews on Goodreads, but I’m not sure I agree. It wasn’t my favorite.
There There–Tommy Orange ⭐️⭐️⭐️
I have never read a book like this before. This is a story the revolves around multiple characters within a Native American community. As their individual stories intersect, culminating in a tragic event at a local Powwow, the author weaves for us a bleak picture of the social and relational issues that plague this community. This was the third book in a row of very bleak, sad, dark books that I read over the summer. So though I appreciated the issues that the book addressed, I felt utterly depressed afterward (though I think that may have been the point of the book). I do not recommend reading this trio of books (An American Marriage, Stay with Me, and There There) in succession as I did. I was so bummed out at the end that I was almost ready to pick up something by Nicholas Sparks just to lighten the mood. Luckily, I came to my senses and stopped myself. Phew!
The Flight Attendant–Chris Bohjalian 💩
My mom read this one first and passed it along to me. I had nothing to read one day, so I picked it up. The time I spent reading this book– I will never get back. If I was in prison and this is the only book that was available to read, I would rather do endless push-ups or accept solitary confinement. In brief, this book is about a woman who is a binge-drinking alcoholic who works as a flight attendant (comforting thought!). She wakes up one day with a dead man in her bed, but can’t remember much from the night before because she blacked out after drinking. In an attempt at self-preservation, she flees the scene and tries to piece together what happened, while simultaneously trying to weave together a series of lies about her whereabouts that night. I have enjoyed this author’s other works in the past, namely Midwives, which I read in 1999 and loved. This one, not so much.
The Sacred Enneagram–Christopher L. Heuertz ⭐️⭐️
I really wanted to like this book, since I am a little obsessed with the Enneagram. I had high hopes, based on the title and description, that this book would enhance my understanding of Enneagram principles and discuss practical application in the areas of spiritual growth and personal development. However, I found this book really difficult to slog through (read: boring). Usually I am fascinated by this stuff, so I am not sure if it was the organization of the book or the writing itself–it just didn’t hold my attention. There were some gems of wisdom here and there, but the book was also really heavy on the history of the Enneagram, with lots of name dropping. I have heard this author speak on a podcast in the past and was completely transfixed by his knowledge and depth of insight. I think he comes off better as a speaker than as a writer. If you are interested in the Enneagram, I suggest starting with The Road Back to You by Suzanne Stabile and Ian Cron.
Small Great Things—Jodi Picoult ⭐️⭐️⭐️
This book that explores the subject of racial injustice and privilege in America. This seemed to be the theme for the books I read this year, though it was unplanned. The main character, Ruth, is an experienced labor and delivery nurse who is good at what she does and takes pride in her work. She also happens to be the only African American in her workplace. On a seemingly routine shift, Ruth finds herself taking care of a white supremacist and his wife, who promptly speak to her supervisor to request that she not be allowed to care for them or touch their baby for the duration of their stay. When a tragedy ensues, Ruth finds herself facing a court trial and possible jail sentence. I enjoyed this book. It was well paced and kept me engaged the whole time. Ruth is a character who is easy to sympathize with. Interestingly, the author was able to make the white supremacist in the book very human as well. In spite of the serious subject matter, this has a little bit more of a chick-lit feel than a literary one. However, it was a page turner and I would recommend it if you are keen on this genre.
The Middle Place –Kelly Corrigan ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
The Middle Place is a smart, funny, and beautifully written memoir which is at once a tribute to the author’s beloved father, and a chronicle through her diagnosis and treatment of breast cancer in her late 30’s. Kelly shares childhood memories and lets us in on her special relationship with her dad, who also happens to be an unfailing optimist, her biggest cheerleader, and her soft place to land. As Kelly is in the thick of her cancer treatment, her father is diagnosed with cancer as well. She subsequently struggles with the possibility that her father won’t always be there for her, and the strangeness of being in “the middle place”–the middle of life where she is at once a daughter and a wife/mother, a patient and a caretaker, both grieving and grasping on to joy where it presents itself. I loved this book. It is honest and raw, and Kelly unapologetically says all of the things that I have felt in times of pain and suffering, without any of the platitudes, cheesy advice, or false assurances. Just her honest journey. She is also wickedly funny with a little bit of an edge, which just made me love her more. Highly recommend.
Half of a Yellow Sun–Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie ⭐️⭐️⭐️
This book is a very interesting historical fiction novel set in the late 1960’s in Africa during Nigeria’s Biafran war. If you are like me, you perhaps have never heard of the State of Biafra, which was birthed in 1967 when the minority Igbo people (who were significantly outnumbered by the Hausa people) declared independence from Nigeria. What ensued was a bloody 2.5 year war that left the country devastated and completely obliterated Biafra. The story is set around fraternal twin sisters from a wealthy family who, for various reasons, have never been terribly close. Olanna (the pretty one) is attached (but not married) to a University professor and Biafran revolutionary, Odenigbo. Her twin sister Kainene (the gritty, cynical one) is involved with Richard, a white British author who moves to Nigeria to write a book. The cast of characters seems to be held together by Ugwu, Odenigbo’s houseboy, who comes of age as the political conflict escalates and progresses through the war. I liked this book in that it brought my attention to a time in history that I would not have known about otherwise. The first two-thirds of the book really dragged for me, and I had trouble slogging through. However, in the last third the pace picked up and the pieces started to come together. Not an uplifting tale. A few of the characters irritated me, particularly Olanna, who we were told over and over was beautiful, smart, and kind, and yet didn’t seem to have enough self-respect to leave her cheating, lying, live-in boyfriend. Don’t get me started on that. Really the only likable character for me was Ugwu. Cast of characters aside, it gets 3 stars, mainly for the historical subject matter.
Sharp Objects–Gillian Flynn ⭐️⭐️
I closed out the year with this psychological thriller by Gillian Flynn. I read Gone Girl a few years back and it blew. my. mind. Sharp Objects was her first novel, and it was a decent escape from reality for a few days and kept me turning the pages. It didn’t have the same kind of unexpected twists, turns, and breath holding moments like Gone Girl, and I was able to guess the ending about half-way through the book. I have heard that the HBO series is really good, so I am a little interested in seeing that, but I give the book a “meh”.
So what’s on my list for next year? Here are a few I have my eye on. Let me know what you plan to read, or any of your favorites from this year that you recommend!
Pachinko–Min Jin Lee
Educated: A memoir–Tara Westover
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas–John Boyne
The Heart’s Invisible Furies–John Boyne
The Orphan’s Tale–Pam Jenoff
The Tattooist of Auschwitz–Heather Morris
The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma–Bessel A. van der Kolk
Braving the Wilderness–Brene Brown
Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith–Barbara Brown Taylor
The Boat People–Sharon Bala
Thanks to my sister who filled me in on her favorite books from last year so that I could compile some of my 2019 list. I have about 50+ books that I have gradually collected on my Goodreads “want to read” list, and I get lost in indecision every time I look at it!
Ok, your turn! Tell me your hits and misses, and happy reading in 2019!