2019 was a great year for new releases, but I also managed to find several new favorites among the back list titles I read. Here are the 10 best back list books I read this year.
Everything I Never Told by Celeste Ng
I know I’m in the minority, but I actually prefer Everything I Never Told You to Ng’s follow-up Little Fires Everywhere. In this debut, Ng frames the plot around the mysterious death of 15-year-old Lydia, but the book is so much more than this device. Over the course of the novel, Ng perfectly articulates the pressures teenagers face to simultaneously please their parents and forge their own paths. She also explores issues of race, depression, marriage, and family dynamics. Several of my students read this for an independent reading project and they loved it as well. Read more of my thoughts on Everything I Never Told You.
Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones
Anyone who’s read Jones’ 2018 bestseller An American Marriage understands that her novels are a gut-punch, and Silver Sparrow is no exception. This is the story of a bigamist’s family, told by his two daughters--one of whom knows the full extent of their family, the other who does not. Silver Sparrow is a book about family, obsessions, and secrets, all told through the tender-heartedly naive perspectives of teenage girls.
Nevermoor: The Trials of Morrigan Crow by Jessica Townsend
If what you need in your life is the warm hug of a fantasy world you want to inhabit forever, look no further than Nevermoor. Morrigan Crow grows up believing herself to be cursed, until she is swept away to the magical Deucalion Hotel by the kindly but mysterious Jupiter North. This is a book about finding your people and your purpose. From the intoxicating setting to the winsome characters, Nevermoor is an utter delight.
The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro
I have loved Ishiguro since I read Never Let Me Go almost seven years ago, but something kept me from picking up his Booker Prize winner until this year. While the plot of this one is completely different, it develops similar themes about choice, obligation, and the conflicts that arise between our duty to society and our personal desires. It’s quiet and lovely. And it’s a perfect book for any fans of Downton Abbey or The Crown looking for their next read.
Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff
I’d had this divisive novel on my to-read list for ages before my book club read it this year (yes, it was my suggestion). This isn’t an easy read, but it’s so worth it. Groff’s prose is electrifying, and I frequently found myself pausing in order to fully take in her language. Fates and Furies tells the story of a marriage from the decidedly disparate perspectives of both parties. It’s about art and passion and the way we construct the narratives of our lives. If you loved Fleishman is in Trouble this year, you have to read this book.
Bel Canto by Ann Patchett
Ann Patchett is brilliant at depicting human longing, and Bel Canto is one of her most intricately constructed stories. I love the conceit of the hostage situation because it constricts our characters to one setting and allows us to watch what unfolds. In addition to being an unpredictable love story, Bel Canto is also about the power of art to inspire vulnerability and desire.
Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson
I read Another Brooklyn when I was looking for books about female friendship to include in my Women in Literature class. Like so many of Woodson’s novels, this is a tiny book that packs a punch. The story follows four African American girls growing up in Brooklyn in the 1970s. I love how Woodson depicts the way teenage girls need each other as well as the way they can hurt each other.
Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout
Olive may be my favorite character I met in 2019. She’s angry and cruel at times, but she will consistently surprise you with her capacity for compassion. Strout’s use of interconnected short stories to tell not only Olive’s story, but to depict the life of all of Crosby, Maine is truly wonderful. This is a great curl-under-a-blanket winter read as is Strout’s newly released follow-up Olive, Again.
The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry
The Essex Serpent checks all my boxes: Victorian time period, unconventional female heroine, eerie fog-filled setting, and an unlikely friendship. It also managed to surprise me with its nuanced exploration of human belief. From a traumatized woman who seeks solace in the logic of science to a preacher who can’t fathom existing without his faith in God, Perry explores a wide spectrum of doubt and belief while suggesting what we all really need is faith in one another.
Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill
This book wrecked me and I’m still not over it. Focusing on an unnamed wife and mother, Offill tells the story of a marriage in crisis in a way that is all-too real. Her writing is experimental in form yet visceral in feel. Have a recovery book ready for yourself after this one and be sure to keep an eye out for Offill’s 2020 release, Weather.
Nonfiction Back List Favorites
Columbine by Dave Cullen
As a teacher, this book was crushingly difficult to read, but so important. Cullen’s writing is magnificent and the detail in which he tells both the story of this massacre and the lessons learned in its wake is masterful.
84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff
This sweet collection of letters between an avid reader and a salesman at a rare bookstore is the definition of charming. It’s a tiny (literal) love letter to books that any reader is sure to adore.