Ah, the thematic book list. Nothing makes up leap for a new read like discovering a gem hidden in a historical fiction round-up or psychological thrillers listicle. This year, we even explored new sub-genres like domestic thrillers, historical fantasy and mystery, dysfunctional family dramedies, and even books Stephen King has blurbed. Here are just 10 of our favorite book lists we ran on Off the Shelf this year.
If you love lists as much as I do, here you’ll find links to the following lists:
14 Books You Wish You Could Read for the First Time Again
A Cozy Winter Getaway: 9 Perfect Novels You Need to Bring
Stephen King Recommends: 14 Books He Wants You to Read
7 Domestic Thrillers to Binge-Read Right Now
11 Books That Are Guaranteed Page-Turners
9 International Thrillers to Sink Your Teeth Into
12 Historical Novels to Transport You to Uncommon Eras
The Mister Rogers TBR: 10 Books You’d Find in the Neighborhood Today
9 Beautiful Novels That Will Inspire You to Be a Better Person
Because I read more books this year than I had in any recent year, paring down my list of the year’s favorites was much harder than usual. I always try to reduce the list of 10 best and 5 honorable mentions, but this year I couldn’t decide which should be the final title to get moved from best to honorable mention. I therefore present 11 best and 4 honorable mentions, although the differences between the two groups are indeed very slight.
As always, these are the best books I read this year, regardless of when they were published. They’re listed alphabetically by author’s last name.
Crouch, Blake. Recursion: A Novel
Franklin, Ruth. Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life
Harper, Jane. The Lost Man
Kim, Angie. Miracle Creek
Lippman, Laura. Lady in the Lake
Michaelides, Alex. The Silent Patient
Obama, Michelle. Becoming
Quinn, Kate. The Alice Network
Reid, Taylor Jenkins. Daisy Jones & The Six
Turton, Stuart. The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle
Whitehead, Colson. The Underground Railroad
Berney, Lou. November Road
Dugoni, Robert. My Sister’s Grave
Kushner, Rachel. The Mars Room
McTiernan, Dervla. The Ruin
You can find links to lists of the best books I read each year from 1996 to 2019 on the Year’s Best Books page.
And here’s the list made up from other lists. Literary Hub editor Emily Temple collected every “best books of the year” lists she could find, “tallied up their recommendations, and figured out which books were most often included.”
Amazon’s audiobook giant Audible offers a top-ten list, plus additional lists in a whole bunch of categories such as fiction, memoir, mysteries & thrillers, true crime, young adult, and kids’ audiobooks.
From the folks at CrimeReads, who explain they are “starting here with our choices for best novels from the big “crime” umbrella of crime, mystery, and thrillers. We’ll be back soon with our selections for the best new International Crime Fiction, True Crime, Noir, Psychological Thrillers, Espionage Fiction, and more.”
Those short quotations you often find at the front of books are called epigraphs. Here Ashley Holstrom lists her favorites for the year. “Sometimes the epigraphs are related to content or tone, or just something pretty the writer wants to share along with their work.”
“And You Thought Best of the Year Lists Were Intense?”
Emily Temple of Literary Hub: “I proposed a staff poll, of sorts: I asked each of my colleagues in the Literary Hub office to make a list of the ten books from the last ten years that they thought we’d still be reading—for good or ill—ten years from now, circa 2030.”
Although I’m not—nor have I ever wanted to be—a therapist, I’m interested in psychology. I even went back to school at age 57 and got a Ph.D. in general psychology. I bought a copy of this book because it promises to scratch two of my itches: (1) a look at psychology that can inform my study of literature (fiction), and (2) an effort to read more nonfiction. The book still has a prominent place on my nonfiction TBR shelf.
This book was published only recently (November 5, 2019), so I don’t have a copy and don’t feel too guilty about not having read it yet. Although my first literary love is fiction, my second-favorite type of book to read is memoir (nonfiction). (My focus of study in my Ph.D. program was life stories.) This story of Carmen Maria Machado’s experiences in “an abusive same-sex relationship” has gotten consistently good reviews, so I hope to read it soon.
As a college classics major, I was immediately drawn to this novel featuring a figure from classical Greek mythology. I ordered a copy from Book of the Month Club when this title was chosen as BOTM book of the year for 2018. It still sits on my BOTM shelf along with a few others as yet unread.
This book, originally published in 2015, recently drew my attention when I decided that I should at least try to read and appreciate some fantasy. For the record, I have read and loved Lord of the Rings twice and all of the Harry Potter books. This novel consistently appears on lists of good fantasy, so I’ll start here. I put it on the Christmas book wishlist that my daughter, who LOVES fantasy, requested, so it my show up at my house soon.
This book hits two of my sweet spots: it’s a novel about life stories:
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is a letter from a son to a mother who cannot read. Written when the speaker, Little Dog, is in his late twenties, the letter unearths a family’s history that began before he was born — a history whose epicenter is rooted in Vietnam — and serves as a doorway into parts of his life his mother has never known, all of it leading to an unforgettable revelation. At once a witness to the fraught yet undeniable love between a single mother and her son, it is also a brutally honest exploration of race, class, and masculinity. Asking questions central to our American moment, immersed as we are in addiction, violence, and trauma, but undergirded by compassion and tenderness, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is as much about the power of telling one’s own story as it is about the obliterating silence of not being heard.
This book is also on just about everybody’s list of the best books of 2019, which makes it call my name even more loudly.
All This Could Be Yours is a timely, piercing exploration of what it means to be caught in the web of a toxic man who abused his power; it shows how those webs can tangle a family for generations and what it takes to—maybe, hopefully—break free.
A dysfunctional family with hidden secrets: how could I resist? I recently bought the Kindle edition when it was on sale.
This is another title that comes up on almost all the best books of 2019 lists:
Ask Again, Yes is a deeply affecting exploration of the lifelong friendship and love that blossoms between Kate Gleeson and Peter Stanhope, born six months apart. One shocking night their loyalties are divided, and their bond will be tested again and again over the next 40 years. Luminous, heartbreaking, and redemptive, Ask Again, Yes reveals the way childhood memories change when viewed from the distance of adulthood—villains lose their menace and those who appeared innocent seem less so. Kate and Peter’s love story, while haunted by echoes from the past, is marked by tenderness, generosity, and grace.
This promises to be a psychological thriller that deals in suspense and features family secrets along with an examination of the meaning of motherhood: “The Need is a glorious celebration of the bizarre and beautiful nature of our everyday lives.”
I had this novel, translated from Polish, on my radar even before it received the Nobel Prize in Literature.
A deeply satisfying thriller cum fairy tale, Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead is a provocative exploration of the murky borderland between sanity and madness, justice and tradition, autonomy and fate. Whom do we deem sane? it asks. Who is worthy of a voice?
I bought a hardcover copy soon after the English translation was published in August 2019, and it still has a place of honor right at the end of my TBR shelf.
You’ve still got almost a month to hammer away at your reading goal for 2019. Here’s a list of short works (around 200 or fewer pages) that I’ve collected. And below my list you’ll find a list of other lists.
Good luck. Read on!
As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner
Can You Ever Forgive Me? by Lee Israel
The Deal of a Lifetime by Fredrik Backman
The Mezzanine by Nicholson Baker
Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss
Sweet Days of Discipline by Fleur Jaeggy
An Untouched House by Willem Frederick Hermans
The Hole by José Revueltas
The Dry Heart by Natalia Ginzburg
A Week at the Airport by Alain De Botton
I Am Sovereign by Nicola Barker
The Grownup by Gillian Flynn
The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon
Sweet Days of Discipline by Fleur Jaeggy, translated by Tim Parks
Lamenting that her reading time is often confined to weekends, Lorraine Berry here offers a list of books that can be finished over a weekend, which “means a book that clocks in with fewer than 300 pages — and sometimes, even fewer than 200.” An added bonus is the wide variety of titles here.
This list will help me tick off two categories on my reading plan for this year: (1) total number of books read and (2) translated works. Pierce Alquist says she has included here books of “less than ~200 pages.”
From The Washington Post. At the bottom of the page you’ll find links to the Post’s list of best books in the following categories: thrillers & mysteries, romance, science fiction & fantasy, children’s books, poetry, nonfiction, audiobooks, graphic novels, memoirs, and story collections.
“In our efforts to increase and diffuse knowledge, we highly recommend these 45 titles released this year,” declare the editors and writers of Smithsonian Magazine. Their subject matter includes “science, history, art, world cultures, travel and innovation.”
Because 2019 is the final year of the decade, there’s also an emphasis on “best books of the decade” among the lists.
Editors at BookBub present one book from each year, 2010-2019, “that resonates deeply — the book that caused a sensation, revolutionized a genre, established a cultural touchstone, or launched itself into the zeitgeist.”
The characters in “you can’t go home again” novels discover that going back home can often be a mistake because the secrets, lies, and betrayals they had hoped to leave behind are still there waiting to suck them back in.
The characters in domestic thrillers often share backgrounds similar to their counterparts in “you can’t go home again” novels. But instead of venturing back home, they have tried to construct a fortress in a different home to protect their families by shutting out past events.
But even characters who don’t have significant pasts to hide discover that, no matter how hard they try, they can’t always protect those they love from trouble, because sometimes trouble enters the seeming stability of home through the front door (or the back door, or a window. . .).
Never Have I Ever by Joshilyn Jackson
Jackson, Joshilyn. Never Have I Ever Harper Audio, 2019 Narrated by Joshilyn Jackson ISBN 9780062933546
This is the novel that prompted me to make this list. It’s the story of Amy Whey, who has built the perfect life: a loving husband, a burbling baby boy, a young teenage stepdaughter with whom she shares a loving relationship, a best friend named Charlotte, and a close-knit neighborhood social network.
Then one night, just as the monthly book group gathering is about to start, Amy’s doorbell rings. A sultry, fashionably dressed woman offers wine and asks to join the book group. She’s just moved into the empty house on the cul-de-sac, she explains. Her name is Angelica Roux: “Just call me Roux.”
Roux makes sure all the wine glasses stay full and engages the group in “never have I ever,” a party game that involves the spilling of secrets. Everyone else sees the drunken game as harmless fun—except for Amy. She realizes that Roux’s questions are aimed at her. When the two women are alone together, Roux warns that if Amy doesn’t give her what she wants, Roux will make her pay.
Who exactly is this woman, and what soes she know? More importan, what’s her endgame?
When Roux’s teenage son, driving a red sports car, begins to hit on Amy’s stepdaughter, Amy comes to rue the day she opened her front door to this intruder. For, Amy realizes, Roux’s threats apply not only to herself, but also to those she loves—her family, her friends, the entire life she’s built for herself. The only way to protect it all is to beat Roux at her own dangerous game of digging up past secrets and answering threats with even bigger counter-threats.
Burke, Alafair. The Wife HarperAudio, 2018 Narrated by Xe Sands
Angela met Jason Powell while catering a party in East Hampton. She assumed their romance would be just a summer fling, like most other affairs between locals and the wealthy summer visitors. But the relationship blossomed, and they were married a year later.
The marriage to Jason, a well-known economics professor at NYU, allowed Angela a new start. She and her son moved to Manhattan, and the three of them built a happy life together. But six years later, Jason’s best-selling book brings them media attention. When a college intern accuses Jason of inappropriate behavior, another woman, Kerry Lynch, steps up with her own allegation. Jason insists he’s innocent, and Angela believes him. But when Kerry Lynch disappears, Angela must rethink her position.
But this is not just a case of a woman having to decide whether to stand by her man, because Angela has her own reasons for needing to avoid the spotlight. The strength of this novel lies in the way Angela weighs her moral options as her situation changes.
Clara Solberg, holding her four-day-old infant in her arms when she answers the door bell, can’t believe what the police are telling her: her husband, Nick, has been killed in a car crash, though their four-year-old daughter, who was in the back seat, is unhurt.
As Clara faces the first few days of a life without Nick, paranoia threatens to overwhelm her. She can’t believe the investigators’ conclusion that Nick simply took a dangerous curve too fast. Another car must have been chasing Nick. Who? And why? There must be some explanation for what happened. Random accidents don’t simply happen and shatter one’s world, do they?
Finn, A.J. The Woman in the Window HarperCollins Audio, 2018 Narrated by Ann Marie Lee ISBN 9780062678430
Anna Fox is a child psychologist recovering from a personal trauma. She drinks heavily and suffers from agoraphobia so crippling that she can’t even step outside her front door. One day she looks out her window and sees a confrontation taking place in the window across the courtyard. When the teenaged boy who lives in that house visits her to bring a gift, she begins to sympathize with him.
So she begins to monitor what goes on inside the house across the way. As long as she stays inside her own house, nothing can harm her. Right?
Jewell, Lisa. Then She Was Gone Dreamscape Media, 2018 Narrated by Helen Duff ISBN 9781520098289
In this novel Lisa Jewell puts her own spin on the standard missing child trope. Laurel Mack is trying to put her life back together 10 years after the disappearance of her 15-year-old daughter, Ellie. In those 10 years Laurel and her husband have divorced and Laurel has grown distant from her other daughter.
What Jewell does so well is flesh out the characters so that readers become engaged in their lives. Jewell is also adept at creating plot points that go beyond the standard bare-bones formulas to produce surprising but credible events. It’s impossible to say much more about this novel without spoiling it, so sit back and appreciate how Lisa Jewell pulls off this domestic thriller.
Recently my husband and I traveled back to our neighboring hometowns for a family funeral. We’d been back for visits periodically, of course, but we haven’t lived there for 50 years.
Each time we visit, I feel a distinct sense of dislocation. The adage “you can’t go home again” is true for two reasons:
Your hometown is not the same place as it once was.
You are no longer the same person you used to be.
Most “you can’t go home again” novels I can think of involve small towns. I grew up in a small town in New England. With only one elementary school in the town, I knew all the kids in the same grade with me, and I knew just about everybody, and all their siblings, in the entire school as well. Our parents all knew each other, and many of us had grandparents who knew each other. Some of the roads in the town were named after prominent multi-generational resident families, such as Lyons Road. Janie Lyons was a couple of years younger than me, and her mother and my mother had gone to school together.
All of this intergenerational overlapping within the same limited geographical boundaries makes privacy nearly impossible. Anybody who had a deep, dark secret in their past that they wanted to keep hidden would have to leave such a small town and start a new life somewhere else. This is probably why the protagonists of “you can’t go home again” novels come predominantly from small towns rather than from big cities. And it’s also probably why most such novels have at their heart some damning action or traumatic event from the past.
Here are five “you can’t go home again” novels that illustrate the Big Three of mystery/thriller tropes: secrets, lies, and betrayals.
All the Missing Girls by Megan Miranda
In this prototypical “you can’t go home again” novel, Nicolette Farrell returns to the home town she left 10 years ago to help care for her aging father who exhibits early signs of dementia. Now engaged and working in a city, she returns to the place where everyone knew her as Nic and remembers that she, her brother, and her hometown boyfriend were involved in the unexplained disappearance of her best friend back then.
Soon after Nic returns, another girl vanishes under similar circumstances, and suddenly Nic and those around her are once again under suspicion. To understand what is happening now, Nic begins to try to understand what happened to her friend all those years ago. But does she really want to know the answers to all the questions that her previously unexamined memories turn up?
The Dry by Jane Harper
In Harper’s stunning debut novel, federal investigator Aaron Falk travels from Melbourne back to the small Australian farming community where he grew up to attend the funeral of his childhood best friend, Luke Hadler, and Luke’s wife and six-year-old son. The Hadlers were shot in their home, with only infant Charlotte left alive. The working theory is that Luke, under significant financial pressure, killed his wife and son before turning the gun on himself.
But Aaron doesn’t believe Luke would have killed either his family or himself. Back in their teenage years, Aaron and Luke came under suspicion for murder, but the case was never solved. Now Aaron begins investigating the Hadlers’ murders, wondering if this case could be related to that earlier one. What he learns solves both cases and explains why Aaron’s father moved his teenage son to Melbourne, a lifestyle change that young Aaron hated and resented.
Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn
Before Gillian Flynn wrote Gone Girl, she wrote Sharp Objects, the story of troubled reporter Camille Preaker. Camille has just returned from a stay at a psychiatric hospital to her job at a city newspaper when two young girls are murdered in her small, rural home town. When her editor tells her to go visit her family and report on the crime, Camille tries to get out of the assignment, which will reunite her with the domineering, narcissistic mother who never loved her and the much younger half-sister whom Camille barely knows.
But keeping her job depends on her compliance, so Camille goes back to the poisonous environment she’s been trying all her life to escape. The assignment forces her to experience some of her childhood pain all over again but also suggests she may begin to find a pathway toward healing.
The Lying Game by Ruth Ware
This novel (my least favorite of Ruth Ware’s novels so far) illustrates a variation on “you can’t go home again” novels: the return not necessarily to home, but to a place where a significant childhood action or event occurred. The crucial location here is Salten, a girls’ boarding school in a small English village near the cliffs of the English Channel. Four girls—all misfits for various reasons—meet here as teenagers and form an exclusive clique. They alienate everyone else by their constant lying game, unending attempts to pass off outlandish claims as true. The main rule of the lying game is that they are never to lie to each other.
Seventeen years later three of these women, now in their 30s, receive a text message from the fourth, Kate: “I need you.” The three women, all living near London, drop their professional and family lives to run back to Salten, no questions asked, to help Kate. The novel then proceeds in two separate strands, one the present time and the other in the past, the year the girls spent at school together. Kate is still living in the home she shared with her father, the school’s art instructor, during that year, and much of the backstory focuses on how much idyllic time the four girls spent together in that house, a kind of surrogate home for the other three with unstable family lives, before their antisocial behavior got them all expelled.
As the complex mystery unfolds, the changed situations of the adult characters strain relationships formed around such a tenuous bond so long ago. As the women come to understand how both their schoolmates and the village residents viewed them back then, they discover that they truly can’t go home again.
The Chalk Man by C.J. Tudor
This novel illustrates another variation on the “you can’t go home again” formula: Sometimes you can’t go home again even if you never left in the first place.
In 1986, 12-year-old Eddie and his friends rode bikes around their English village. To stave off boredom they developed their own secret code, chalk stick figures they used to send messages to each other that no one else could understand. This was great fun—until a mysterious chalk man message appeared and lead them to a dead body.
Thirty years later, Ed still lives in the same village. When he and a friend each receive a letter in the mail containing a chalk figure, they think it must be a prank. But when another death occurs, Ed realizes that to save himself, he’ll have to figure out what happened in the village all those years ago.
The editorial team at Read it Forward provide a list of the best fiction and nonfiction books for your reading pleasure this summer. They boldly proclaim, “we know something on this list will appeal to everyone.”
Only two cities in the U.S. have earned the UNESCO City of Literature designation, and one of them is Iowa City. (The other is Seattle.) To earn this designation, a city must have “a diverse publishing industry, exceptional educational programming and literary events, spaces which preserve and promote literature, and media outlets that supports readers and reading.”
One thing that contributed to Iowa City’s designation is the University of Iowa Writers Workshop, a famous writing workshop that has produced many well known authors. All 50 entries on this list were written by writers who spent time in Iowa City, including Raymond Carver, T.C. Boyle, and Alexander Chee.
Here, finally, is something especially for lovers of nonfiction. The “you can read online for free” part is particularly appealing. Authors represented here include James Baldwin, Joan Didion, and Roxane Gay.
The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, translated by Berliani M. Nugrahani
The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman
My Brilliant Friend (and 3 companion novels) by by Elena Ferrante, translated by Ann Goldstein
The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin, translated by Ken Liu
Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows
Gone to Soldiers by Marge Piercy
Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford
Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson
A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra
Code Name Verity by Elizabeth E. Wein
The Alice Network by Kate Quinn
Transcription by Kate Atkinson
A Column of Fire by Ken Follett
About a year ago, when I was setting up my reading plan for the upcoming year, I came across one challenge that included this entry: “Read a book to learn something.”
My immediate reaction to this directive was, “Every book I read, I read to learn something.” Nevertheless, within the context of that particular reading challenge I interpreted this entry as a directive to read a nonfiction book.
But every time I finish a novel I remember anew that I do learn something from every book I read, not just from nonfiction. I’ve learned a lot from novels explicitly categorized as historical fiction, but I’ve also learned from novels in various genres such as science fiction, mysteries, and thrillers.
Here are 15 novels that have contributed to my general knowledge of several topics.
Many novels have served as fictional introductions to other cultures. The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, translated by Berliani M. Nugrahani, taught me about the ethnic, religious, and political turmoil in present-day Afghanistan. The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman introduced me to what life was like for lighthouse keepers on isolated islands along the coast of Australia in the years after the first world war. I learned what life was like for working-class people in Naples, Italy, after World War II from My Brilliant Friend and its three companion novels by Elena Ferrante, translated by Ann Goldstein. And I got a first-hand picture of life during China’s Cultural Revolution from The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin, translated by Ken Liu.
I’ve learned from novels more about war than I ever wanted to know. Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier made me understand how the Civil War devastated both the land and the people who lived on it. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows both made me realize the magical power books can have for people experiencing horrors such as World War II. Gone to Soldiers by Marge Piercy made me marvel at how resilient and brave people can be in the face of those same horrors. Jamie Ford’s Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet and David Guterson’s Snow Falling on Cedars taught me how unfair and long-lived political and ethnic suspicion and hatred can be. From A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra I learned the basis for the Russian war with Chechnya.
Spies are a big part of war, and I’ve learned just about everything I know about espionage from novels. Code Name Verity by Elizabeth E. Wein taught me about courage and the power of friendship in the face of unspeakable fear. The Alice Network by Kate Quinn showed me bravery under threat of death in the first world war, as did Transcription by Kate Atkinson in the second. From A Column of Fire by Ken Follett I learned about the origin of spying during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I.
But I don’t just learn historical facts by reading fiction. I learn about human nature, about human desires and aspirations, about the desire to love and be loved, the search for one’s identity, and the courage to act in extraordinary circumstances. And also, yes, about the dark parts of the human heart and our capacity to inflict pain and suffering on others throughout time.
I’ve had a lot of formal schooling. But much of what I know about life I learned from reading fiction.