Book lists are great but there’s something about a hearing a reader’s personal account of how a certain book changed them that really tugs at our bookish heartstrings. Here are 10 of the best book reviews we read this year, right here on Off the Shelf.
When I first recommended OHIO to someone, I explained the plot and said that it was one of the best books I’d ever read. (How’s that for an adequate vote of confidence?) They proceeded to ask me, “well, who does he write like?” Reader, I was paralyzed. Sure, we’ve all compared writers and have references at the ready, but in that instant my mind went blank. I replied honestly, “I’ve literally never read anything like it before.” I still, many moons later, stand by this unequivocal statement.
The Cookes—Mother and Dad, brother Lowell, sisters Fern and Rosemary—are an ordinary middle-class American family, in all ways but one: Fern is a chimpanzee. Beautifully written, this is the tale of an unconventional family and the heartbreaking consequences of their good intentions.
“WE ARE ALL COMPLETELY BESIDE OURSELVES is one of those completely absorbing books that makes the rest of the world disappear, while at the same time reminding us all too clearly of the world we come from and its occasional cruelty.”
Earlier this year, I spent a long weekend at a writers’ retreat in Woodstock, NY. We were staying in a cozy little cabin in the middle of a quiet, dark, snowy wood. A friend finished the book she had been reading and when I asked how it was, she told me it was strange, disquieting, and difficult to describe, but good. Then she pressed it into my hands and told me I should read it. The book was IN THE HOUSE IN THE DARK OF THE WOODS by Laird Hunt.
Psychological-thrillers have a special place in my book-loving heart. Though I don’t read them as often as I do a literary fiction or memoir, when I’m in a reading rut or suffering from a book hangover (or I’m paralyzed with too many “next-read” options), an engrossing, gaslighting, plot-twisty thriller has been known to jolt me out of such a state. THE WOMAN IN CABIN 10—the first Ruth Ware novel I ever read—was the book of my rudderless summer and it’s a mystery I’m still attempting at piecing together even today.
When I first heard that this book was being promoted as OUTLANDER meets CAMELOT, I knew right away it was going to be something I would enjoy. It has all the Scottish history and charm of OUTLANDER with the religious undertones of the King Arthur legends, which—for a Scottish mythology nerd like myself—made me unable to put it down. Reading this book was like getting a crash course in sixth-century Scottish history. With endless wars raging between different clans to the increasing number of Christian missionaries spreading their religion like wildfire throughout the country, this book was chock-full of political intrigue and scandal that had me gripped from page one.
I read I AM PILGRIM in 2014, and again in 2019. I missed the escapism, and the sigh of relief the book had me feeling—jet-setting from exotic locales while devouring the legends of two amazing protagonists.
“For me, I AM PILGRIM was a game changer. It raised the bar for international spy thrillers and became the benchmark for all future reads. It’s rich in detail and character, full of heart-racing action, and terrifying in its plausibility. It has heart and has you questioning your own beliefs.”
THE MAP OF SALT AND STARS is a moving literary debut. It weaves together the stories of two heroic girls who experience similar harrowing journeys centuries apart through North Africa and the Middle East as they battle and overcome forces bigger than themselves. Bound together by undaunted courage on their course to find home, this stunning, lyrical, and timely coming-of-age novel urges readers to focus on the devastating reality of Syrian refugees.
When I first picked up THREE THINGS ABOUT ELSIE, Joanna Cannon’s sophomore novel, I was not expecting to be so deeply affected by the world inside Cherry Tree Accommodation for the Elderly. It is a charming suspense novel, yes, but it is also a heartwarming and profound treatise on lifelong friendships, bravery, and aging. I found myself thinking about this book long after I turned the last page, pondering my own lifelong friendships, and wondering about the lasting power of stories and what happens to truths that get left unsaid. (And immediately after finishing this book, I called my grandparents and my best friends.)
The towering conifers of Puget Sound are the setting for A SUDDEN LIGHT, Stein’s magisterial, inventive follow-up to the worldwide sensation THE ART OF RACING IN THE RAIN, now a film starring Milo Ventimiglia and Amanda Seyfried. Just as Stein charmed readers with the wisdom of Enzo, the race car–loving old lab terrier in THE ART OF RACING, he does the same with Trevor Riddell, the precocious scion of a once proud and mighty timber family.
In THE BEAUTIFUL BUREAUCRAT, Helen Phillips makes the most of her literary freedom, putting her considerable talents to work in creating one astounding kitchen sink of a novel. Why choose thriller when you can use the pacing of a thriller? Why restrain the world to a dystopian future when you can highlight how our current world already echoes with dystopia? Why limit yourself when you can have satire and romance. Wordplay and sci-fi. Mystery and existentialism. “You don’t even have to choose!”