January Book Reviews

Just a little housekeeping note: you may have noticed from the photo above that I changed the title overlay. I recently decided to change my Instagram and Twitter handles to be less confusing about the fact that I don't live in Chicago anymore - and haven't for over 15 years, which is WILD. Anyhoo, it was getting a little confusing in social media land, and that's where I primarily talk books! The new IG is @EvergreensAndBookishThings and Twitter is @EvrgrnBookThing.

The Better Liar by Taneen Jones
This was a solid thriller! Full review here.

Displacement by Lucy Knisley
Another fantastic graphic memoir from an absolute go-to author. In Displacement, Knisley tells the story of chaperoning her very old and frail grandparents on a cruise. It's equal parts hilarious and bittersweet. She doesn't hold back on all the gritty details of life with the elderly. I especially loved her incorporating her grandfather's book about WWII into her writing. The complicated love she has for them and her family is beautifully evident through the pages.

Long Bright River by Liz Moore
I can already say that this book is going on my favorites for the year. I thought The Unseen World was great, but Moore's latest was phenomenal. This story of two sisters, one a cop and the other befallen by addiction and crime, kept me on the edge of my seat with each page. Suspenseful, yes, but also a visceral and emotional look at humanity in all of it’s frailty. I cannot recommend it enough.

Monsoon Mansion by Cinelle Barnes
This was a riveting and lushly told memoir of Cinelle's coming of age in her parent's opulent Manilla mansion, that goes from riches to terrible rags. It shed a light on the politics of the Philippines during the 90s that I had little knowledge about, while telling a captivating story of her resilience, strength and hope.

Hollow Kingdom by Kira Jane Buxton
“If you are alive - whether of blood or bark - you will be struck by pain, love, longing, fear, anger, and the particular ache of sadness. There will be joys that quiver your leaves and betrayals that will sever your roots, poisoning the water you pull. These are the varying notes in the music of living. Look up, to close your eyes is to stagnate. To rot and stop the song.”
I’ve seen Hollow Kingdom here and there on social media and it sounded so unique and intriguing. And this story of the apocalypse narrated by a domesticated crow was definitely that, hella hilarious (NSFW), and rather touching. I also appreciated that it felt like a love letter to the city of Seattle, and the inside jokes made me cackle even more.

Heavyby Kiese Laymon
This is probably the most apt title of a memoir ever written. It was indeed heavy reading, Laymon's personal essays written in a sort of epistolary way to his mother. Eye opening and heartbreaking with themes of racism, male feminism, addiction and family bonds, I found it profoundly moving and sad.

Evvie Drake Starts Over by Linda Holmes
“In the months without him, she’d forgotten and somehow not forgotten at the same time; it was like hearing the first lyrics of a song and realizing you can sing all the rest.”
I’m so glad I finally read Evvie! This book was full of so many excellent nuggets, like the quote above. It’s a compelling romance that seems wildly unrealistic (superstar baseball player finds love in a small town) but is grounded in very real relationships. It covers the gamut: emotional abuse, single parenting, friendships with the opposite sex, complicated parent dynamics and the relationship we have with our own head - and the importance of getting that sorted before anything else.

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers
I am so glad that I finally made time for this back list title that has been on my radar for so long. It has also been a long time since I read sci-fi, which is not my go to genre. Yet, when it’s done in a more literary way, I really love it - definitely the case for The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet. It is not very plot driven, and kind of meanders a bit in the middle, it's more character driven - oh, the cast of characters captured my heart. I love that it is full of thought provoking scenarios on humanity and our place in the universe.


My Favorite Books of the Year: 2019

Every year it's hard to narrow down a list, but this one felt REALLY hard. I always think I should be able to keep it to a top ten, but inevitably add a couple more. Perhaps this year was tougher because I tackled the most books ever in one year - 92! 
I am surprised by this because I can't think of anything that I did differently, and I even did some binge television viewing early in the year, which is not normally my thing - I finally caved to the screen version of OUTLANDER! This summer I also had a hard time getting through books while our lives were in flux weighing the option of a cross country move. I thought it might be the fair amount of middle grade books and graphic novels I read pushing up the numbers (Lucy Knisley was my favorite discovery of 2019), yet I still managed an average of 340 pages per book. Either way, I'm pleased, because it was a well rated year - the highest since 2011 when my average rating was 4.1 stars. Of all the excellent books, here are my favorite from the year, in no particular order:

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles
I got this one in my Book of the Month subscription ages ago, and even though I loved Rules of Civility, I just never felt the call to pick this one up. Obviously, I was glad I finally did! If you, too, think this sounds boring or not up your alley - I'd urge you to give it a chance.
Original review here.

A Heart in a Body in the World by Deb Caletti
This was such a gut punch of a book, and one of the few that I put on blast from my personal social feeds as well as the blog. It's an important story for young adults/middle grade readers. But, I think it's SO worthwhile for all ages.
Original review here.

This Tender Land by William Kent Krueger
Like A Gentleman in Moscow, the praise for this book finally inspired me to give it a read, even though the description did not really grab me. Riveting and full of heart, I adored this adventurous coming of age story set during the Great Depression.
Original review here.

Ask Again, Yes by Mary Beth Keane
I do love a good family drama, and Keane's book is in a category above most others. It's thought provoking and achingly beautiful.
Original review here.

Miracle Creek by Angie Kim
A courtroom drama that was so engrossing, I uncharacteristically stayed up past my bedtime to read on several occasions. It reminded me of when I used to mainline Jodi Picoult books, but Kim's work feels much less didactic.
Original review here.

Daisy Jones and the Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid
I love how Taylor Jenkins Reid keeps changing things up, and writing fresh and unexpected stories. This fictional oral history of a rock band was so fun, dishy and unique and I fell into the 'love it' camp.
Original review here.

City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert
This was my favorite book of the year, for sure. And no one was more surprised than me! I was not a fan of Eat, Pray, Love, mainly because I was irked by her privilege. Although, now I'm starting to rethink my perspective on that, thanks to this great article: I love Elizabeth Gilbert, and you can, too. "Gilbert and her work possess a female power our culture and society are just beginning to recognize."
Regardless! City of Girls is EVERYTHING I love in a novel.
Original review here.

Sounds Like Titanic by Jessica Chiccehitto Hindman
A sleeper hit from my favorite audiobooks of the year, I feel as if more people need to know about the brilliance of this fantastically told story - not just about the craziness of a fraudulent orchestra (playing to prerecorded music), but her own crazy coming of age from Appalachia to the big city.
Original review here.

Kid Gloves by Lucy Knisley
Lucy Knisley was my greatest discovery in 2019! Reading her graphic memoirs has been such a treat, and I only have one left before I'm out of new material, WAH! Kid Gloves is a story about her pregnancy, but on the whole it's about the history of women's health and sexual discrimination. I strong armed my husband into reading it, and he really enjoyed it, too!
Original review here.

The Dutch House by Ann Patchett
Will there ever be a year that Patchett writes a book that DOESN'T end up on my favorites list? I sure hope not! This nuanced and authentic story of siblings Danny and Maeve is one of her best. 
Original review here.

The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern
Probably the most polarizing of books on the list, this was definitely a book that doesn't leave readers feeling lukewarm. Yes, I was confused for large swaths of this fever dream of a novel. But, I adored the unforgettable journey.
Original review here.

Know My Name by Chanel Miller
Another favorite audiobook of the year, but also one of the best books I've read in years. A must read for all audiences about the realities of our justice system for victims, and brilliantly written. I look forward to her future work.
Original review here.

Links to previous best of lists below!
Favorite Books of 2018

Favorite Books of 2017 

Favorite Books of 2016 

Favorite Books of 2015

Favorite Books of 2014

Favorite Books of 2013 

Favorite Books of 2012


The Better Liar by Tanen Jones (ARC Review)

The Better Liar by Tanen Jones
Publisher: Ballantine Books (January 14, 2020)
Descripton from the publisher: 

Robin Voigt is dead. If Leslie had arrived at her sister’s cramped Las Vegas apartment just hours earlier, this would have been their first reunion in a decade. In the years since Robin ran away from home as a teenager, Leslie has stayed in New Mexico, taking care of their dying father even as she began building a family of her own. But when their father passed away, Leslie received a rude awakening: She and Robin would receive the inheritance he left them together—or not at all. Now her half of the money may be beyond her grasp. And unbeknownst to anyone, even her husband, Leslie needs it desperately.
When she meets a charismatic young woman who bears an uncanny resemblance to Robin—and has every reason to leave her past behind—the two make a reckless bargain: Mary will impersonate Robin for a week in exchange for Robin’s half of the cash. But neither realizes how high the stakes will become when Mary takes a dead woman’s name. Even as Mary begins to suspect Leslie is hiding something, and Leslie realizes the stranger living in her house, babysitting her newborn son, and charming her husband has secrets of her own, Robin’s wild, troubled legacy threatens to eclipse them both.

It's pretty well documented that thrillers are not my go-to genre. Alas, I do cave to them every so often, especially ones that get ALL THE BUZZ. The Better Liar is one of those that broke through on my radar, and had great early feedback. I'm glad that I had the opportunity to read an early copy!
The multiple narrators grabbed my attention from the beginning, with Robin's account delivered from the afterlife, Leslie's as the living sister, and Mary's as the stand-in. As the story unfolds, my allegiance and empathy bounced between Leslie and Mary, both seeming to be in a bad situation. Trying to figure out the lies and the truths being concealed was an ominous slow build. Just as I thought I had a inkling of what secrets they were keeping, the plot would thicken further. I definitely had that 'I HAVE to know how this is going to end' feeling. Jones' writing was propulsive and astute.
"They think the closer you are to someone, the more they narrow; that love shears you down to the slimmest core, as if people contained seeds you could fish out and keep, saying, That's the real you; all the rest is just flesh. But it's the other way around. The more you know someone, the more someones you know. They kaleidoscope outward before your eyes. If you feel you're finally getting a handle on someone's true self, you haven't got at clue. Once you've met forty versions of them, then you can comfort yourself you're getting closer." 
As is the case with thrillers, I spent a lot of time guessing the various twists. Mary's secrets were a bit easier to fetter out, and she breathed the most life into the story. Leslie's was a harder nut to crack, and harder to empathize with until the very end. I thought the direction the author took with her character was rather thought provoking, and that ending gave her, and the novel, some gravitas. I don't think I can speak to it further without spoilers, so I'll just recommend that you read it!
Many thanks to Taylor Noel and the folks at Random House for a complimentary advance copy!


Books I Read in December

Know My Name by Chanel Miller
I already mentioned this memoir on my favorite audiobooks for the year, but it bears repeating: I would recommend, and shove this into people's hands if I could. Listening to the harrowing account of a sexual assault victim, the realities of our broken justice system and misogynistic culture, was really hard to stomach. But her story is so important, not just because she was Brock Turner's victim, but because clearly the process is equally terrible and unjust for most sexual assault victims. It is eye opening and hopefully encourages activism and change. Not to mention the fact that her writing is beautiful - I'm not sure if I've ever come across so many brilliant and evocative uses of metaphor. Her comics are also so engaging and I can't wait to see what this amazingly talented woman's future holds. One of the most moving books I've read in YEARS.

Looking for something light and fluffy after Know My Name, I was drawn in by the cute cover and positive reviews. Alas, this story of a woman in dire need of straightening out her life and moving to the country didn't really work for me. There were several threads that I enjoyed: all of the yummy baking, Livvy's relationship with her boss Margaret, and with Martin's father. Honestly, I felt more love between the two of them than the weirdly fraught romantic relationship with Martin. I think it might have been a case of quantity over quality when it came to the plot. Your mileage may vary!

Conviction by Denise Mina
Even though I usually steer away from books described as thrillers, this came recommended by some of my more trusted sources, and even a favorite author: Elin Hilderbrand! When Reese Witherspoon chose it as one of her book club picks, I went ahead and grabbed it from the library before the avalanche of holds began. Mina's writing style was not at all what I was expecting and I found Anna's snarky and mysterious first person narrative to be delightfully engaging. Mina weaves in some astute observations about misogyny and the patriarchy without feeling forced. Conviction manages to be thrilling, dark, funny, melancholy and thought provoking in equal measure. Really glad I picked it up!

What Happens in Paradise by Elin Hilderbrand
As always, Hilderbrand writes such fun, frothy novels with the most amazing sense of place. I have been to the Virgin Islands and it's so transportive to read these books set on St. John, which she clearly holds very dear. As with the first book in this new series, I am definitely invested in the drama of the Steele family even more so - word of warning, this second book ends on quite a cliffhanger!

An Age Of License by Lucy Knisley
Knisley's graphic memoirs are SO ABSORBING and I'm really sad that I'm going to be out of new material soon! This travelogue details her adventures through Europe on a book tour and her anxiety about love and life, which were all very reminiscent of my early 20s. Her vulnerability about her hopes and fears set her books apart. And I thought I had a pretty exciting life of love, travel and city dwelling, back in my younger days. But I feel as if I missed having a love affair with a Swedish dude whilst taking in Paris! Dang! This was an absolutely fun whirlwind of a book.

Recursion by Blake Crouch
I approached this follow up to Dark Matter with some hesitancy, since I really enjoyed his breakout hit. But I shouldn't have worried - I was captivated by Barry and Helena's story from the start. Crouch, again, writes with great cinematic prose. There HAS to be a movie option on this, as well as Dark Matter. There are many parallels to Dark Matter, in addition to it's vivid storytelling, which I love in novels: the idea of multiple lives, whether through time travel or a separate universe, and true love in spite of the these roadblocks. 

Let It Snow by John Green (Maureen Johnson and Lauren Myracle)
This was the YA-est YA novel I've read in a looooong time. Silly dialogue and high school hi jinks complete with jocks, nerds and cheerleaders. It was cute and fun, though, with a nice dose of diversity and one of those fun 'ties all the characters together in a cool way' endings. Definitely a good pick for a snow day brain candy fix you can read in 24 hours. I think I preferred My True Love Gave to Me, a collection of holiday stories also including John Green's work.


Top Audiobooks of 2019 and a GIVEAWAY!

It's a little on the early side for me to do any year end favorites, as I must take into account every book I read until the last hours of December 31st. But I have a great opportunity to give away a free audiobook from the only place to purchase your audiobooks: Libro.fm!  I normally would get audiobooks from the library, but I find that I am often scrambling to finish listening before the due date (Becoming) or they’re just not available for lending (Sounds Like Titanic). BOTH are on my best of 2019 list. If you haven’t heard of Libro.fm, definitely check them out for your audiobook purchases - you can choose to support your local bookstore or ALL affiliated independent bookstores (and not that big box retailer we shall not name). You can always use this referral link of mine for three book credits at $14.99, which is basically a 3 for 1 deal, or use code BORN2READ at checkout. And in the meantime, go comment on the picture below on my Instagram  by Friday 12/13 for a chance to win a free book!

When it comes to audiobooks, I can safely say that I am on my last one of the year. I do most of my listening while alone in the car or alone at home gettin' stuff done. That's not gonna happen over winter break. I decided to make this list a short one, as audiobooks are about 20% of my total reading. I'm on track to read more than 90 books this year, and 20 have been on audio. Since I read so few, I put a lot of thought into what I'm going to read, and definitely get rid of any that don't work for me within the first ten minutes! So I'd like to think these are QUALITY recs.

As I'm looking over this list I'm seeing a theme... With the exception of the great David Sedaris, they are all women to be reckoned with - not surprising in 2019.

Becoming by Michelle Obama
I mean. What else can be said about how fantastic this book was?? She is such an inspirational human, and her storytelling ability just made her that much more so. (Original review here.)

Calypso by David Sedaris
I would say that you cannot go wrong with a David Sedaris audiobook, but I was a little gun shy of picking up Calypso because Theft by Finding Diaries was a total aberration for me and I abandoned it after giving it a whole hour! This was much more of the Sedaris I love: full of hilarity and heart. (Original review here.)

Sounds Like Titanic by Jessica Chiccehitto Hindman
This was probably the biggest surprise hit for me this year. I feel like more people should be talking about this woman and this book - it's BANANAS and also, she is really impressive. (Original review here.)

The Witches are Coming by Lindy West
Lindy West is a favorite writer of mine (see also Shrill) and I loved her hilarious hot takes on all the things, as well as her messages of hope and strength. (Original review here.)

Know My Name by Chanel Miller
I am only halfway through Chanel Miller's memoir and I can for sure say that it is the one book above all these mentioned that I would recommend, and shove into people's hands if I could. Listening to the harrowing account of a sexual assault victim, the realities of our broken justice system and misogynistic culture, was really hard to stomach. But her story is so important, not just because she was Brock Turner's victim, but because clearly the process is equally terrible and unjust for most sexual assault victims. It is eye opening and hopefully encourages activism and change. Not to mention the fact that her writing is beautiful - I'm not sure if I've ever come across so many brilliant and evocative uses of metaphor. Her comics are also so engaging and I can't wait to see what this amazingly talented woman's future holds.


Books I Read in November

This Tender Land by William Kent Krueger
 On paper, This Tender Land didn’t seem appealing to me: comparisons to The Grapes of Wrath or Huckleberry Finn just transported me back to the excruciatingly boring (and whitewashed) assigned reading of my youth. Alas, I caved and got it from Book of the Month because of all the glowing reviews. I stand corrected, this was riveting from the first pages until the last, whereupon I may have shed a rare tear! The plot twists and turns had me on the edge of my seat, the sense of place is palpable, the theme of indigenous people’s struggles appreciated, and the characters stole my heart. I’m definitely going into Krueger's backlist!

Guts by Raina Telgemeier
Finally, it was my turn to read Telgemeier's latest and it did not disappoint. I really adore her autobiographical stuff and Guts was so evocative and poignant. Sharing her story of anxiety, and it's onset during elementary school, will be a great resource for so many kids. I'm so glad that my kids are growing up with her books that share vulnerability. You can tell she was stretching a bit to turn this into a cohesive storyline, but it ended up being a sweet reminder that we cannot know what it is to walk in someone else's shoes.

The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern
“I think the best stories feel like they’re still going, somewhere, out in story space.”
Oh man, it’s really hard to put into words my feelings about this book. I can definitely see how it didn’t work for a lot of readers. In the beginning, I was worried that it might not click for me either. There wasn’t a certain moment in the plot, or turn of events that I can point to where I eventually became obsessed with this book. I just slowly found myself thinking about it when I would wake up in the morning, kind of half asleep. In those barely conscious moments I would see some of the connections in this fever dream like story. I felt confused a lot of the time, to be sure. Like The Night Circus, I didn’t feel as if I wholly understood every facet of the narrative by the end. But, I found the endings completely satisfying. In quiet moments I’ll still be thinking about The Starless Sea and making connections for a long, long time to come. The ending is not a complete ending, but it’s a perfect goodbye to the story that made me laugh aloud and smile an enormous smile as I turned the last page.

The Witches Are Coming by Lindy West
I will never forget listening to Lindy West’s interview on This American Life what feels like a million years ago now (it was just in 2015). The anger I felt on her behalf was palpable, and her strength and humor gave me hope. Of course I bought her first book Shrill when it came out, and I am super grateful to libro.fm for an advance listening copy of The Witches are Coming. This was another five star read from West, as I LOVE her takes on how the zeitgeist affects and is affected by our culture. From Goop to Guy Fieri, she had me nodding in agreement, in stitches of laughter, and still feeling hope, despite an even bleaker world than ever.

Frankly in Love by David Yoon
This one has been all over the internets and I felt like a straightforward YA after reading The Starless Sea. Frank Li was a fantastic protagonist and it was really refreshing to read a YA contemporary fiction from a male's perspective. Yoon also has a lot of fun playing with words, which I found delightful and juuuust on the acceptable side of gimmicky. This looks to be the first in a series - so if you are looking for a standalone with a neatly tied up ending, you won't find that here. But, I for sure will pick up Yoon's follow up!

Garlic and Sapphires by Ruth Reichl
Listening to Reichl's audiobooks has become absolute comfort food reading for me. I loved reading Save Me the Plums this summer, her story about working at Gourmet Magazine. And this story was about her stint as a food critic for The New York Times. I could listen to her describe food for days, and listen to the laughter in her voice as she describes the shenanigans of the myriad disguises she employs while dining out, only to discover her true self.

Pilu of the Woods by Mai Nguyen
My daughter rather enjoyed this graphic novel and I finally picked it up off her shelves for a quick afternoon coffee break read. The illustrations are lovely, and the story is very cute, albeit sad - a story of a girl who has tragically lost her mother. Although there are these monster like creatures that lurk on the pages and it's not entirely clear what is going on until the very end, which felt a little confusing. Overall a sweet book for a graphic novel loving kiddo.

Harry Potter And The Goblet Of Fire by JK Rowling
Obviously, this was a reread, but at over 700 pages, I am COUNTING IT. It's been so fun doing this reread with my nine year old daughter. This one is so fun with all of the other schools, the second task is one of my favorite bits, and the Yule Ball! It's also where we are introduced to one of my favorite (of many) Rowling vocabulary genius moves: the PENSIEVE. I mean.


Books I Read in October

Kid Gloves by Lucy Knisley
I read Relish over the summer and really enjoyed it, but this book made me absolutely fall in love with Lucy Knisley! There were many parallels to my first birth story (preeclampsia and emergency cesarean), yet there is so much beyond birth and parenthood to identify with in this memoir. It may look like a book for expectant parents, but it is about so much more, namely the history of women’s sexual health and gender discrimination. I think it is recommended reading for EVERYONE - my husband would agree it's a great book, after I shoved it in his hands when I was finished. 

The Ten Thousand Doors of January of January by Alix Harrow
Well, this was a delightful book! A fun and unexpectedly romantic novel that is unlike any YA fantasy I’ve read before. In fact, I didn’t realize it was YA even while I was reading- I just happened to realize Book of the Month categorized it as such? Regardless, if you are looking for a refreshing fantasy to cozy up with this fall, I’d definitely recommend this one. 

Red, White & Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston
This alternative version of American and British politics was as fabulous as everyone said it would be - a sweet, funny, and HOPEFUL contemporary romance. I loved the ridiculously fun banter between all of the characters. It does have a strong millennial vibe, but I could appreciate all of the references. And though the general outcome is predictable, there were some satisfying payoffs in the side plots. This was a breath of fresh air kind of read!

Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland by Patrick Radden Keefe
Listening to this audiobook was like drinking from a fire hose of information about the troubles in Ireland and the IRA, making it difficult to focus. But, these are my ancestors and I’ve heard stories about the times, so I may be biased in my fascination and love of the Irish brogue in which it is read. The horrors of that time and the level of secrecy was astounding. It's a harrowing account, as are most recollections of how humans find ways to end up in a quagmire of hate. It also makes me want to go back and watch some of the amazing films that came out in the 90s that center around the Irish: The Crying Game (mentioned in this book), Patriot Games and In the Name of the Father - a MUST WATCH, starring Daniel Day-Lewis. 

French Milk by Lucy Knisley
After enjoying Relish and adoring Kid Gloves, I decided I should start from the beginning and work my way through all of Knisley's books. French Milk is an illustrated travelogue of her weeks long sojourn in Paris with her mother and it was very evocative of being a young twenty-something, with all of her worries about jobs and relationships while away from home. I also related to this as someone who has traveled abroad quite a few times with her mother, and I could definitely see my surly post collegiate self in Lucy!

The Family Upstairs by Lisa Jewell
This was a compulsively readable thriller! Full review here.

Catch and Kill by Ronan Farrow
This one might be a little under the radar, right? Ha! Well, I finally listened to the audiobook and it's as nuts as everyone says. The lengths that Weinstein (and powerful men in general) went through to ruin all of these women's lives is unconscionable. Given that this book is getting so much buzz, and that Farrow is giving so many interviews, I felt as if I'd heard the meat of the story before I even started the book. That took away from some of the shock value, but it's such an important read, nonetheless. I also have a soft spot, as most everyone I know does, for his relationship with one of my favorite podcasters - and the epilogue is the cherry on the cake of this book. Now I must go read Kantor and Twohey's book, She Said!

The Brutal Telling by Louise Penny
It's always lovely to be back in Three Pines with Inspector Gamache, though this was not my absolute favorite. There were a lot of extraneous characters that I got jumbled in my mind, and this story didn't seem as infused with emotion as the previous books. I will say that I had zero clue as to how this murder went down, and that definitely kept me going, as well as all of the dry wit of our recurring characters.