It was another incredible year of reading in 2019, as I once again made reading a priority and it paid off. How does reading pay off? If you are a reader, you already know, but just to say it, reading makes you grow like a spider plant on a sunny windowsill. Books are chlorophyll for the spirit, spurring your mind, heart, and soul to blossom. Books this year made me laugh and cry and think. My horizons were expanded, I traveled to new countries, and gained shimmering insights, like rubies and emeralds. I am hoarding those treasures, as they have illuminated my life and the lives of my neighbors around the world.
This year, I once again followed my reading structure, intentionally reading one of each of the following four categories every month:
- A classic (something written at least forty years ago, or a new classic, such as Esperanza Rising)
- A diverse read (something written by a person of color or about a race other than my own. I find this way of consuming words and story opens my eyes and hearts to other worlds, cultures, and perspectives.)
- A new, minty, buzzy book (I love to read what everyone else is reading for the community and the camaraderie. Reading is relational!)
- Something from my unread shelf.
Once again, I am delighted to discover that my best-loved books of the year come from all four categories. I read so many jewels this year, it was agonizing to choose just twelve. So I didn’t. I chose fourteen. This year as last, I shopped my own bookshelves and quarried pure gold–two new favorite authors, Eleanor Lipman (The Inn at Lake Devine) and Marisa de Los Santos (Love Walks In).
If any of these books sound luscious/scrummy/tantalizing to you, please do comment! Each comment will be entered in a drawing to win the book of your choice from this list.
Best by or About Lucy Maud Montgomery
House of Dreams
This luminous biography of my writing godmother, Lucy Maud Montgomery, encompasses dark and light, all the colors of Maud. Written for a YA audience, author Liz Rosenberg uses a deft touch but does not shy away from Maud’s growing despair at the middle and end of her life. I read this whole in Bala, Ontario, this summer, and thrilled to the chapter devoted to Maud’s time there. Winsome pen and ink drawings by Julie Morstad enrich the book (I am thinking about cutting out and framing her drawing of Muskoka to commemorate our idyllic holiday there). The writing is gorgeous and witty, much like Maud’s own writing. Essential for kindred spirits of all ages. (2018, Rated G-PG)
The Blue Castle by Lucy Maud Montgomery
Speaking of Bala, Ontario, that’s where Maud set The Blue Castle, a funny, heartfelt, and marvelously written novel penned during a resurgence in her writing life. It was in Canada’s iconic Muskoka cottage country that Maud and her family escaped the heat for a two week holiday in 1922. They were facing a lawsuit over a car accident, and Maud was burned out in many ways. In beauteous Bala, with cool lakes and misty river islands, Maud began to dream again. Today, fans can visit the Bala Museum, an ode to Maud and Anne and Valancy and Barney (Sigh. What a duo!). It is a small but world-class museum in terms of the owners’ fantastic knowledge of all things #lmmontgomery. Treat yourself to a trip to Bala, or simply drop yourself into the enchanted woods of The Blue Castle. It’s a dreamy place to be. (1926. Rated: G/PG)
Best of Classics
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
In addition to rereading, and then listening to The Blue Castle this year, I also reread (and listened to) A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, also one of my life’s most cherished books. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is an American classic, a coming of age story about poverty, class, grit, and how reading can save you. The audiobook is exceptional, too, if you want to read this on the go. Through the compelling narration of actress Kate Burton, we get to know 11-year-old Francie Nolan, her younger brother Neely, and their parents—Irish immigrants who have settled in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. Francie faces grief, loss, hunger, and want, yet she rises up with a determination and grit that have made her a beloved heroine through a century and beyond. Burton handles all the accents—Irish, German, Brooklyn—with style and ease. Jazz music of the era delineates chapters and enhances the storytelling.
Somehow I missed this sumptuous, page-turning middle-grade novel when my kids read it in middle school. With a hint of magical realism, this novel set in 1930 captures a Mexican girl’s fall from riches and her immigration to California. The title says it all: Esperanza does rise, and so can we all, through the most difficult and heartbreaking circumstances. It won every award possible when it came out, and in resilient Esperanza, aspiring heroines of all ages find an extraordinary role model. This read ticks off two boxes for me–a modern classic and a diverse read. (2000, Rated G)
Which brings me to…
Best Diverse Reads
Dominicana by Angie Cruz
One of the most highly-rated novels of the year, Dominicana took me by surprise with how readable and riveting it was. Sometimes “literary novels” can be a bit of a slog, like drinking wheatgrass for the mind. But there was accessibility, brightness, and shimmer to this story of fifteen-year-old Dominican immigrant Ana Cancion, who must put family and duty over love to secure a better life for all of them. Ana also inspires with her resilience and rise, from a desperate, cold, confused immigrant girl to someone tougher who finds her own voice in the world. (2019, Rating PG-13, R)
A Woman is No Man by Etaf Rum
To be a newcomer in a strange land is hard, complicated, and confusing. Add to this the trauma of displacement and war, and the immigrant’s life becomes more harrowing. Rum, the daughter of Palestinian immigrants, artfully braids the stories of three women: the vulnerable Isra; her domineering mother-in-law, Fareeda; and Deya, Isra’s daughter who chafes at the constraints of her harsh cultural confines. All three women are told that marriage and motherhood are a “woman’s only worth.” This book increased my empathy for those affected by the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories—their humiliation and misery was made real to me. As a Christian, I found it valuable to learn about conservative Muslims. Through my reading, Isra, Deya, and the rest became not just “other” and “them,” but image-bearers of their creator. Essentially, A Woman Is No Man ponders a woman’s worth. What will it mean for these characters to realize their intrinsic value? The answers to this question kept me turning the pages far into the night. (2019, Rated PG, but PG-13 for scenes of domestic violence)
Best of Historical Fiction
The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek by Kim Michele Richardson
I am recommending this to everybody these days. If you are standing still, I will tell you about this book! “…a hauntingly atmospheric love letter to the first mobile library in Kentucky and the fierce, brave packhorse librarians who wove their way from shack to shack dispensing literacy, hope, and ― just as importantly ― a compassionate human connection,” said Sara Gruen, author of Water for Elephants. I concur. I was transfixed by Cussy Mary Carter, one of the “Blue Carters.” Even though I was enthralled with the whole packhorse librarian story, with its real-life bookish heroines, my favorite element was that Cussy Mary was blue. Her singular hue made her one of the most fascinating heroines I’ve read in forever. (2019, Rated PG except for the assault scenes, which are harrowing yet not graphic.)
The Address by Fiona Davis
I love New York in the springtime, don’t you? An April trip with my family yielded several silvery memories–including listening to a busker sing “Yesterday” by the Beatles at Strawberry Fields in Central Park, while staring wistfully at John Lennon’s old home, The Dakota. That grande dame of a building, with its gables and peaks and magical presence, always captivates me. So I drank in this engrossing historical fiction about a young British woman “in service” who rises from her lowly, limited station to become an immigrant and the building’s first “managerette.” Bonus: Nelly Bly makes a cameo! If you love Victorian New York, enchanted old buildings, or sweeping, romantic historical novels with clever twists, The Address is for you. Twas wonderful to discover fellow Canadian ex-pat Fiona Davis in 2019. (2017, Rated PG-13)
Love and Ruin by Paula McLean
Two years ago, The Paris Wife by Paula McLain made my Top Reads of 2017. I didn’t think I would find another of Hemingway’s wives as compelling as his first, Hadley. But a third jaunt this summer to Michigan’s magical Hemingway country–Lake Walloon, Horton’s Bay, Petoskey–stirred the embers of my EH fascination and I picked up Love and Ruin. I learned about the Spanish Civil War, World War 2, and Ernest Hemingway himself. Mostly, I was mesmerized by Martha Gellhorn, his third wife, and the only woman to land at Normandy on D-Day. In McLain’s skillful hands, I understood fierce, talented, intrepid Martha, and admired her ambition and fearlessness as a journalist. There is love here, a passion that burned brightly and was snuffed out, and there is ruin (see “snuffed out”). You won’t forget either anytime soon. (2018, Rated PG-13)
Best from my Unread Shelf
The Inn at Lake Devine by Elinor Lipman
I can’t say enough about this funny, sweet, clever and tart novel about a funny, sweet, clever and tart heroine named Natalie trying to figure out her identity as a Jew in a sometimes anti-semitic world. I adored the main setting of the book in a sort of shabby chic summer resort in Vermont. I am overjoyed too, in 2019, to discover this 20-year-old book and its witty, Nora-Ephron-ish author, Elinor Lipman. (I literally bought this at a garage sale!) In our troubled age of almost daily acts of anti-semitism, I believe reading a book like this is one small curative. It’s a wounded world out there; let’s heal it through reading. (1999, Rated PG-13? I can’t remember! :))
Love Walked In by Marisa de Los Santos
I bought this one at a garage sale on the prompting of a #12daysofannestagram participant who posted about this sparkler on the prompt: If you love Anne, you will love… And WHOAH JOSIE PYE, did I ever! Author Marisa De Los Santos is a kindred spirit, to be sure. She mentions Anne of Green Gables about 10 times, so bonus points for that alone. This is my favorite kind of book–seemingly frothy, fun, and cuddly, but with hidden depths. Jennifer Weiner adds this book is “bewitching, warmhearted, a grown-up fairy tale.” (2006, Rated PG, PG-13)
Best New Books of 2019
(The Bookwoman of Troublesome Creek, A Woman Is No Man, and Dominicana were all released in 2019 but filled other spots on my list, such as diverse reads and historical fiction.)
How Not to Die Alone by Richard Roper
If The Office (British version) and the smash hit novel Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine had a book baby, it would be How Not to Die Alone, a debut novel from English writer Richard Roper.
We meet Andrew Smith, the main character, at a funeral he is attending for his work. That is his work—or a part of it. Andrew, a quiet, kind, single man works for the Death Administration. His coworkers are not exactly kindred spirits, and there is a workplace secret that keeps Andrew and his coworkers even more separate: Andrew, seriously lacking in social confidence, accidentally falls into a giant fib on his first day—that he has a wife and two children at home—and he has no idea how to get out of. At its core, this is a book about loneliness, grief, and how vital human connection is. As we cheer for Andrew to find love and liberty, we consider anew the things that haunt us and hold us back. Like Love Walked In, How Not to Die Alone is deceptively light but studded with gems of insight. 2019, Rated PG-13)
Favorite Fiction of the Year:
Evvie Drake Starts Over by Linda Holmes
If Gilmore Girls could somehow be novelized, then Evvie, a young widow who was about to leave her husband when he died in a car accident, would be Lorelei, and Dean, a washed-up pro baseball player, would be Luke. (GG fans: I know, Dean and Luke are confusing!) This endearing read seems sunny and sprightly, but Linda Holmes can write like a house on fire. There are hidden depths of perception and vision here that take you by surprise. Written by NPR Pop Culture Hour’s Linda Holmes, “Evvie Drake” is, in the words of Rainbow Rowell, “great company.”
Best Non-Fiction Book of the Year/Best Book of 2019
Inheritance by Dani Shapiro
“This searing memoir will make my Best of 2019 Best Of Books list, no doubt in my mind,” I said on Instagram in January. I found myself in this exquisitely written book about a woman who finds out, via a casually taken DNA test, that her beloved, dead, Jewish father is not her biological father after all. There were shocking parallels to my own adoption story and a birth father who, like Shapiro’s, referred to me at first as a “situation.” I wholeheartedly recommend if your life has been touched by adoption or some other kind of parental ambiguity. The best books serve as windows and mirrors, and this masterpiece helped me understand both others and myself better.
Which of my 2019 Best Of Books entices you, bookish friends? Comment below for a chance to WIN! After all, Amber won “Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine” in my last #Bookcrush blog!