I didn’t consciously make a themed book list. I didn’t diligently sift through recommended titles to select commonalities. But if you look closely at these ten, my first reads for 2019, you’ll find a strong woman somewhere in each one.
Books 1–10 in 2019
No. 1: Bird Box by Josh Malerman
Did you see the Netflix movie starring Sandra Bullock? Don’t let that stop you from reading Bird Box; the novel is very different. While the movie focused on horror and stunts (don’t try driving while blindfolded at home, kids), the book is much more of a rumination on motherhood. What would you do for your children? What would you do for someone else’s child? In print, Malorie’s inner struggles provide depth for post-apocalyptic survival–and that’s no slam on Sandra, who (though talented) can only deliver lines written.
Bird Box is a quick, easy read with a young adult feel that still delivers some serious adult squirms. Well done, Josh Malerman, well done. And thanks, Austin Public Library, for the loan.
No. 2: The Witch Elm by Tana French
Oh, Tana; I’d been looking forward to another exciting crime mystery. You’ve done such a great job with the others (especially Broken Harbor and The Likeness) that expectations were high.
So I overlooked the American spelling on the book jacket and title pages (wych is used throughout). Sure–that’s on the publisher. The glaring error existed inside the cover. I couldn’t help myself; I dog-eared page 163 because, FINALLY, something grabbed my attention. Yes, I had heard how very literary The Witch Elm was supposed to be but too much talking and not enough doing between characters I never bonded with or liked much lost me early on. On pages 163–253, I was finally interested in why that body was there and how these people were involved but the rest of the 509? Nah. I could care less.
No. 3: Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
A talented writer can create a unique and different character who remains so relatable to readers that she transcends varying cultural viewpoints. Adichie is that talented writer.
Americanah‘s main character, Ifemelu, is such a fully developed woman I wanted to talk about her blog with her (I know she’s not real!). Ifemelu’s journey–a story of assimilating while embracing difference and identifying and fulfilling desires–made this 57-year-old WASP carefully reflect on what being black in the United States must be like for someone who is black but not American. And Adichie’s novel had me working through an overarching question about what characteristics define “American culture” for all of us.
I didn’t want Americanah to end, and I’ll definitely pick up Adichie’s nonfiction (We Should All Be Feminists and Dear Ajeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions). And it seemed only appropriate that I finished reading Americanah in New York City, which exemplifies so many dreams of American life.
No. 4: Vultures by Chuck Wendig
I believe this is the first book I ever preordered. Vultures is the final novel in Wendig’s Miriam Black series, and I went after it like a starving turkey buzzard on a three-day-old roadkill pile of rancid armadillo guts (and if you thought that analogy was disgusting, you have no business going anywhere near these books). The main character, Miriam, is profane, gross, and darkly funny; the murders, gruesome; her outlook on humanity, bleak (mostly). She’s a lot like Lisbeth Salander (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), except with a thoroughly American soundtrack and a nasty superpower–with a touch, she sees your death.
Vultures wasn’t my favorite but that may have been due to 1) the desperate speed at which I sucked it in and 2) some previous plot points and characters becoming hazy over time. One of these days, I’ll revisit the series, when Wendig’s complete work can be leisurely devoured and savored from start to finish.
No. 5: Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens
February’s my birth month. I got this idea that I’d treat myself every day of the month. Those treats didn’t have to be fancy or expensive, but each must have an intention purely for pleasure. On February 3, my treat was reading Where the Crawdads Sing, lounging in bed, snuggled with the cat, from start to finish.
Kya immediately captivated me; we share a certain lonely-girl-who-loves-nature vibe, and I’m a sucker for any character who feels desperately unloveable (hello, Eleanor Oliphant). Though the murder mystery got a little heavy handed and predictable toward the end, Kya was well worth it. What a treat!
No. 6: The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai
I love a good book discussion. Themes, pacing, character development, setting–a good novel is made better when people who read a lot talk about it (and yeah, I like to talk about what makes bad books bad, too). You know I love a book club!
The Great Believers was my first book with a new group, and we had a lot to talk about. The many plot elements–the 1980s and Chicago’s AIDS epidemic, sexuality, fine art appreciation and acquisition, death and dying, parenting–weave together as Makkai jumps back and forth through the decades. You know the characters are deeply drawn when it’s possible to argue over who exactly is the protagonist; Yale, whose loves exemplify the heartbreak of young men grappling with disease in the 1980s or Fiona, who’s attempting to repair the relationship with her estranged daughter some 30 years later?
No. 7: Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone by Brené Brown
A friend recommended Braving the Wilderness, which turned out to be a very timely selection. I was dealing with some crap and Brown’s tips, with her trademark combination of scientific information, personal illustration, and motivational and inspirational guidance, were comforting and helpful. Who hasn’t felt lonely in life’s wilderness? In this day and age, who doesn’t need some pointers for bettering social life/media and personal/business interactions? Which of us never struggles with self worth?
No. 8: I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer by Michelle McNamara
Reread! I revisited I’ll Be Gone in the Dark in preparation for the Austin Public Library’s True Crime Book Club. What fun to sit in my robe, channelling my inner Michelle McNamara, as I jotted notes and researched for updates about the Golden State Killer’s arrest and upcoming trial. What I must know–was Joseph DeAngelo’s name buried somewhere deep in McNamara’s extensive files? And will we ever find out?
No.9: Becoming by Michelle Obama
“I can’t believe nobody gave me Michelle Obama’s book,” I exclaimed. There was just one more Christmas gift to open and I could see by the shape it clearly wasn’t a book. Nope–my husband had gotten tickets for us to see Obama at her Austin book tour date. Naturally, I got a copy and finished reading to coincide with the February 28 show.
This woman is so amazing! As much of a fan as I am, I still learned quite a bit about from Obama’s autobiography. The show didn’t stray too far from the book, though the photos and videos added another dimension. Though I would’ve like more details about some specific instances, that would’ve become a different book. I admire the lens through which Obama chose to view her life and, whether printed, in person, or excerpted from past speeches and events, her voice is consistently forthright, intelligent, and warm.
Michelle Obama seems to be all those things in person, too. Those best-Christmas-gift-ever tickets included a meet-and-greet and, when I blurted out something about my shock and awe over meeting my First Lady, Obama swooped in with an “oh, honey!” and full-on hug.
I’m still in shock and awe.
No. 10: Dove Arising by Karen Bao
Twitter steered me to Young Adult author Karen Bao. I don’t exactly remember how or why, but I’m certainly glad it did. If you’re a fan of dystopian novels with a young female protagonist, a la The Hunger Games and Divergent series, you’ll enjoy Dove Arising. The Dove Chronicles are set on the moon, in futuristic colonies; this is the first of three books around Phaet (pronounced “fate”), a young woman who enlists in the Militia to provide for her family.
Bao uses science in her fiction, and the action moves with all the brisk pace typical of Young Adult Lit. Which isn’t too surprising, when you consider that she wrote Dove Arising during her senior year of high school; she’s now working on her Ph.D. in biology and is the author of three successful books.
I want to be Karen Bao when I grow up!