I mostly read new releases, because it’s surprisingly hard to find good recommendations for older books online. One of my good friends is always my source for any older books that find their way onto my Kindle, so thank you Ells for taking me out of the Amazon and New York Times Book Review bubble! I definitely ran into some reading blocks this year, where I hit upon several cruddy books in a row and that killed my reading enthusiasm for a while. And then I end up diving into Netflix instead for a couple of weeks. I wasted soooo much valuable reading time this year when I lost myself in watching all 15 seasons of Grey’s Anatomy. Never to be repeated! I’m never happier than when I have a great read on the go, and as you’ll see, don’t really commit to a specific genre. These “Best Books” aren’t in a particular order, there just happen to be 10 of them!
The Glass Castle is a memoir of a Jeanette Walls’ disturbing childhood that will definitely make you feel better about your parenting abilities! The author’s parents are bohemian to the point of extreme neglect, and The Glass Castle chronicles the family’s wildly unusual life, ending with the three children eventually finding their freedom in New York City. As a parent to little ones, it can be tough reading some of the tales of hunger and quite severe injuries. While it’s billed on Goodreads as a tale of “unconditional love“, I didn’t get that message at all. My take from The Glass Castle was more about the resilience of children, and the interesting question of how much we need to subjugate our artistic or selfish impulses as parents, to help our children thrive.
I fell into a total David Sedaris wormhole in 2019, reading everything I could get my hands on, and listening to him on as many podcasts as I could find. Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim wasn’t necessarily my number one fave of his essay anthologies but it does contain the essay which nearly made me pee myself laughing: the story of his being discovered mid-drowning a mouse by a group of lost tourists at his house in France. Peak Sedaris.
I got this recommendation from my favourite podcast, The High Low (sadly co-host Pandora Sykes is on maternity leave so the podcast is on hiatus now until April 2020), and it’s a goody. A classic murder mystery setup: a group of apparent friends in an isolated country house in Scotland who get snowed in, but done in a fresh, millennial way. The Hunting Party would be a good beach read if you want something gripping and un-laborious.
Even if you don’t recognise her name, you will have read one of Taffy Brodessner-Akner’s celebrity interviews, which throw a gentle, loving kind of shade. You can read Brodessner-Akner’s masterful profiles of Gwyneth Paltrow and Bradley Cooper here and here. Fleishman is in Trouble is told from the point of view of a middle-aged dad, Toby, going through a divorce with a mysteriously missing wife (Rachel). The book moves the reader from an initial sympathy with Toby, through weaving Rachel’s perspective into the narrative, until the overall picture becomes far more complex and human. A great read about the state of marriage and child-rearing in middle age.
The Dutch House is such a meaty, lengthy cosy book to curl up with. The story of Danny Conroy and his sister Maeve, growing up in Philadelphia with a father who buys a beautiful house for a mother who ultimately leaves them. I read this at the same time as The Glass Castle, and found there are echoes in the themes of parents following their callings at the expense of their children’s mental health. I loved Commonwealth by the same author too. Patchett is a great writer of intimate family dramas, but if you loath books where nothing really happens, this may not be one for you!
The Testaments is the long-awaited sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, set 15 years after the first book. If you’ve watched the Hulu tv series though, the content will be familiar. I enjoyed the first season of The Handmaid’s tale, but then it got all a bit torture-heavy for me and I had to stop watching. The Testments is surprisingly light reading considering the subject matter, and I flew threw this as though it was a thriller. It’s a satisfying book in that you get a deeper insight into the horrid Aunt Lydia, who becomes much more three dimensional, and also learn about the fall of Gilead. If you’ve been avoiding reading this because you think it would be too dark or depressing, it’s actually not.
If you’re British, you’ll be very familiar with Lisa Jewell, and I feel like she was such a staple of my teen reading! I love her pacy, spooky thrillers, which while “light reading” are always really good stories with great characters who become very real to me as I’m reading. I feel like Lisa Jewell gets pigeon-holed as kind of one step above chick-lit, but to me she’s a great author, and I also loved I Found You which will probably be in my “best of January list” coming soon! The Family Upstairs is the story of a young woman who inherits a mansion in Chelsea, where she eventually finds out her whole family died (or did they?!) after becoming involved with a sinister cult-leader-type-figure. Gripping.
The Salt Path really stayed with me for a long time after reading it, which is one of my main criteria for being a “good book” considering my goldfish-like memory. It’s the true story of an elderly couple who end up homeless after a legal wrangle with a neighbour, and decide to hike and wild-camp the Salt Path around Devon and Cornwall’s coastline. Cynics have suggested that this plan was practically designed to end up as a best-selling memoir, and I definitely felt inklings of that, but this was still a touching read and a good reminder of how homelessness can happen to happen to middle-class, educated, mentally stable people too.
The creator of the best book titles ever (his book of poetry was called Night Sky with Exit Wounds), On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is Ocean Vuong’s first novel. It’s hard to remember that it is a novel, because it reads so much like a vivid memoir, and in fact the first two chapters were contributed as a memoir to the The New Yorker, so it’s “autofiction”. The tale of a gay Vietnamese boy growing up in the US with an immigrant mother and grandmother, this is a book that makes all of your senses come alive.
I’d never read this epic blockbuster of a novel about 1980s New York, and I LOVE reading novels set in the places I have lived. A classic tale of greed, social class and a shocking fall from grace, The Bonfire of the Vanities feels surprisingly current. The dialogue is pacy, the humour is sly and cynical, and I’d highly recommend giving this a whirl if you haven’t already. The one downside is that there aren’t really any meaningful female characters.