Featured image via @reesesbookclubxhellosunshine, one of my favorite Instagram follows for great book recommendations.
I read/listened to 32 books in 2018. I kicked off the year with a crazy goal to tackle 100 books, and I was off to a strong start! But then I discovered podcasts about halfway through, and spent the majority of the time I’d usually devote to books listening to those instead. (I’ve logged 784 hours on Stitcher, my preferred podcast app, since I joined last April; that’s a whole lotta Bravo snark and bad movie reviews.)
I keep a running list of the all books I finish on my iPhone, because I’m the weirdo that finds it super satisfying to track certain activities and I love any reason to make a good list. Also, when you plow through books like I do, it’s hard to remember the good ones to share with your friends when they ask for recommendations; this way I can refer to the list to quickly see the titles I enjoyed and the ones that were duds. (Do I have some kind of coding system to rank books within my list? I do! Do you still want to be friends after realizing what a nerd I am? Are you still even here? Ha!)
I’m going into 2019 without a specific reading goal in mind, besides being better about sharing what I read here on the blog. I really enjoy the way Grace blogs about books, from her monthly reading lists to her Stripe Book Club, so I’m taking a page from her book — pun intended, thankyouverymuch — and starting a monthly reading roundup of my own. I hope it helps you find a good book or two to dive into, and I’d love to hear your reading recommendations in the comments as well. I also think it’d be fun to do some book swaps, if anyone is interested; I already have one setup with Jayme, the lady behind the beautiful blog, Holly and Flora!
Now onto my January reads!
Nine Perfect Strangers by Liane Moriarty
I can always count on Moriarty for entertaining, easy reads. If you’re looking for a book to take on vacation, this is a great one; you’ll be glad you aren’t spending your time off at the Tranquillum House.
Moriarty really shines with her relatable characters, who quickly feel like your friends, neighbors and family. In this story, we meet 9 strangers who flock to a remote luxury health resort. They’re all there for vastly different reasons: to mend their broken relationships, take a rest from pressure-filled careers, get a fresh start post-retirement, or heal from the trauma of grief and loss.
My favorite character, Frances Welty, is a romance novelist who arrives at Tranquillum House in a genuine tizzy: her book sales are down, her back is killing her (is it a physical ailment or a manifestation of stress?) and her publisher has rejected her latest pitch. To add insult to injury, the resort staff took the secret stash of booze and chocolate she hid in her luggage at check-in! Frances quickly immerses herself in studying the other guests at the health resort, and before long, she notices that things at Tranquillum House may be darker and weirder than the glossy brochures and website made it seem; especially the zealous owner/director who seems to radiate health and wellness, but may be a little too enthusiastic about her extreme program.
The Last Time I Lied by Riley Sager
This was in my stack of unread Book of the Month picks from this post, and Kayla commented and highly recommended it. I was already about halfway through when I picked it back up this month, and it was a satisfying page-turner that kept me guessing until the last chapters.
It’s a little campy (it’s literally set at an all-girl sleep-away camp) but in the best way.
During Emma Davis’ first summer at Camp Nightingale, her three bunkmates leave their cabin in the middle of the night and never return. Years later, Emma’s a rising star in the New York art scene, painting the ghosts of her past into massive canvases beneath menacing forest scenes. When Camp Nightingale’s wealthy founder, Franny, contacts Emma and invites her to return to the camp as a counselor for its first summer session since the girls’ disappearance fifteen years earlier, Emma jumps at the opportunity to confront her past and search for clues about the mystery that still haunts her conscious and fills her nightmares all these years later.
When history repeats itself in the same cabin, things get really weird.
Parts of the story make you question Emma’s sanity and credibility, which is one of my favorite thriller tropes. I was super surprised by the ending! I just saw on Goodreads this afternoon that Amazon Studios picked it up for a miniseries.
Where The Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens
I listened to this on Audible, but I wish I’d read it myself instead. I find it really grating when narrators put on affected southern accents for characters, and in this case, I found it distracted from the main character’s complexity; it made her sound weak and dumbed her down. (Maybe I’m extra-prickly about this because my family is from the south and no one really talks this way.)
‘For years, rumors of the “Marsh Girl” have haunted Barkley Cove, a quiet town on the North Carolina coast. So in late 1969, when handsome Chase Andrews is found dead, the locals immediately suspect Kya Clark, the so-called Marsh Girl. But Kya is not what they say. Sensitive and intelligent, she has survived for years alone in the marsh that she calls home, finding friends in the gulls and lessons in the sand. Then the time comes when she yearns to be touched and loved. When two young men from town become intrigued by her wild beauty, Kya opens herself to a new life–until the unthinkable happens.’ (via Goodreads)
This book spends a lot of time on character development, which can make it feel like a slog at points, but I read one review that predicted it as a modern classic that’ll be taught in future generations’ English classes, and I can totally see it. Reese Witherspoon’s production company bought the rights, so there’s a feature film adaptation in the works.
Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver
“How could two hardworking people do everything right in life, and end up destitute?” After losing their jobs, Willa Knox and her husband, Iano, relocate and move into an inherited house that’s falling apart at the seams, along with a disabled parent and a strong-willed adult daughter. Before long, their Ivy-educated son’s life turns upside down, and he moves in, too.
In the same house, more than a century before, a teacher, Thatcher Greenwood, finds his teaching methods under siege. In a deeply-religious community that brands itself as a utopia (even though it’s anything but) scientific investigation and Charles Darwin’s new theory of natural selection are considered heresy. As Thatcher battles the structural inadequacies of the home he shares with his young wife and society-obsessed mother-in-law, a lack of funds to repair it, and the powerful men in town who want him to shut up about science, he meets a woman next door who becomes an unexpected ally in his fight to educate his students.
Both characters learn that shelter can come in unexpected places, and that being ‘unsheltered’ may not be as scary as it seems.
I really enjoyed this book, but I think I would’ve enjoyed it more as two separate books: one for each timeline. Although the stories intersected, they didn’t intertwine as seamlessly as I’d hoped. However, the struggles of Willa’s family in today’s economy read like a cautionary tale that made me rethink everything about our priorities, spending and security; it left me a little haunted when I finished, but also a little hopeful.
Born a Crime by Trevor Noah
Trevor Noah’s coming-of-age biography sat in my Audible library for months; I kind of forgot about it, until a neighbor emphatically recommended it as one of his all-time favorite audiobooks during a Saturday morning chat in our driveway. I started it the following week on an afternoon of flower deliveries, and it sucked me in immediately; I spent every free moment listening to this book. Through deeply personal essays, Noah tracks his life from his birth in South Africa during apartheid — having a black Xhosa mother and a white Swiss father made his birth a crime, punishable by five years imprisonment for his parents and life in an orphanage for him if they were discovered– to a childhood hidden away in the protection of indoors, to a mischievous adolescence and all the way to his start in comedy, ending with a tragedy involving his mother that was equal-parts heartbreaking and hopeful. Regardless of your views on Noah’s politics, this is a story that everyone should hear; I laughed, I cried, and I came away with a deep appreciation for my life, my privilege, and my own mother who worked so hard to raise me on her own for years.
This is a story that I 100% recommend going the audio route for; hearing Noah’s story in his own voice was incredibly intimate and powerful. This book changed me, and I can’t recommend it highly enough. It’s no wonder it has 4.9 stars and over 100k reviews on Audible!
Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will To Survive by Stephanie Land
This was my January Book of the Month pick, and I’m only halfway through, but so far, I’m loving every page. Land’s raw and honest memoir takes readers deep into the world of poverty in America: it shatters the stereotypes of welfare and the perception of the working poor as ‘lazy’ or uneducated; sheds light on the indignity of poverty and the struggle of single-motherhood; and highlights the myriad of ways that our society is set up to keep the poor mired in their circumstances.
At 19, with big plans to move and go to college, Land finds herself pregnant by a volatile and unreliable boyfriend, in a tourist town with meager employment opportunities. Born to working-class parents who face their own financial struggles (and some serious emotional instability) Land has no safety net. She moves moves into a homeless shelter, then a halfway house, then a rent-subsidized apartment; at one point, she relies on seven different government assistance programs to scrape by while she takes on as many minimum-wage odd jobs she can find, including working as a maid for the upperclass. She describes the experience as becoming “a nameless ghost.”
‘While she worked hard to scratch her way out of poverty as a single parent, scrubbing the toilets of the wealthy, navigating domestic labor jobs, higher education, assisted housing, and a tangled web of government assistance, Stephanie wrote. She wrote the true stories that weren’t being told. The stories of overworked and underpaid Americans.’ (via Goodreads)
With the gap between the working and middle class widening every day, Land’s story is a grim reminder of how one unexpected event, like an unplanned pregnancy, illness or tragedy, can derail a life. And Land is a white woman, so her personal story says nothing of the challenges of minorities, immigrants and other groups that face systemic oppression every day in our country.
It’s a sobering read, but a necessary one: Land’s story brings awareness to the people who often don’t get a voice; the more we educate ourselves about the plight of others, the more compassionate we become a society; and when we acknowledge our own privilege, we can use it to advocate for others who don’t have the same fortune and opportunities.
What are you guys reading this month? If anyone wants to chat about swapping with Nine Perfect Strangers or The Last Time I Lied, let me know in the comments! (US shipping only, please.)