Pulitzer Prize winners, comedians and a gold medal soccer star were just some of the authors to write great books in 2019.
To help us sort through all the gripping novels and inspiring memoirs, we turned to Nerdette host Greta Johnsen, who read nearly 70 books this year (down from 77 last year).
Here are Johnsen’s 10 favorites.
10. Evvie Drake Starts Over by Linda HolmesEvvie Drake Starts Over, the debut novel from NPR pop culture critic Linda Holmes, is about a budding romance between a young widow and a major league pitcher with “the yips,” a very real condition in which an athlete unexplainably loses their skills.
“It’s just a delightful rom-com that I think everyone should read,” Johnsen said. “It’s kind of the perfect summer read, but I’m sure it would also be great in January.”
9. The Secret Commonwealth by Philip PullmanThe Secret Commonwealth is the second book of a trilogy set in the same world as His Dark Materials, Pullman’s beloved fantasy series from the 1990s.
“As listeners to Nerdette Recaps His Dark Materials with Peter Sagal well know, I am obsessed with these books,” Johnsen said.
“This new trilogy started just a year or two ago, so they were written about 20 years after the original series, and they are just so good,” Johnsen said. “It’s so much fun to read these new stories that are in the same world and have the same characters that I grew up with.”
8. The Most Fun We Ever Had by Claire LombardoThe Most Fun We Ever Had tells the story of a suburban Chicago couple and their four wildly-different daughters.
“It’s more than 500 pages. It’s got a pretty big cast of characters. They’re all kind of horrible people,” Johnsen said.
“But Chicago magazine called the story a ‘Midwestern Big Little Lies.’ And there’s no murder in it but it does have that kind of delicious, salacious, ridiculous vibe to it that makes it a really fun but also meaningful and emotionally-fraught book.”
7. Miracle Creek by Angie KimMiracle Creek, a thrilling courtroom drama from Angie Kim, starts with an explosion at a pseudo-scientific treatment center in small-town Virginia — and it’s clear the explosion was no accident.
“And then the rest of the book jumps ahead to the trial, and you find out who’s been charged and you have all these different witnesses, but you still don’t know exactly who did what,” Johnsen said.
6. Red at the Bone by Jacqueline WoodsonIn Red at the Bone, two families from different social and economic backgrounds are brought together by an unexpected pregnancy. Author Jacqueline Woodson explores the important, life-altering decisions young people often make even before they have a strong grasp of their own identities.
“It’s very short and I didn’t really know what to expect,” Johnsen said, “but the way she’s able to capture certain characters and feelings and dynamics in such a small amount of space — it completely blew my mind.”
5. Wolfpack by Abby WambachAbby Wambach helped the United States women’s national soccer team win two Olympic gold medals and a FIFA World Cup. She can now add author to her resume. Wolfpack is a nonfiction work based on a commencement address Wambach gave to Barnard College graduates in New York City in 2018.
“It’s kind of a how-to guide,” Johnsen said. “But the how-to is how to be a boss bitch.”
“It’s all the lessons that she learned on the field and how to apply them to your own life,” Johnsen said. “Which — as a person who is not a sports fan — is not a super-appealing premise to me. But I was really impressed by how well the lessons translate. I think this would be a great book especially to give a young woman or girl, in terms of encouraging her to own her voice and take charge.”
4. Little Weirds by Jenny SlateLittle Weirds from actress and comedian Jenny Slate is billed as a collection of short stories, but Johnsen said she likes to think of it as “a magical-realist memoir.”
“She’s gone through a lot of heartbreak in her life,” Johnsen said. “And she talks about the devastation of ending a relationship but also the tumultuous times we live in, politically and environmentally.”
3. She Said by Jodi Kantor and Megan TwoheyJodi Kantor and Megan Twohey are The New York Times reporters who broke the story of Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein’s decades of alleged sexual predation. They won the Pulitzer Prize for their reporting in 2018, and She Said documents the investigation.
“I really braced myself before reading it because I was worried it would involve a lot of intense scenes about sexual assault and disturbing behaviors that would be hard to read,” Johnsen said, “but it turns out this book is much less about the specific incidents and much more about how journalists are awesome, especially these two journalists.”
She added: “It’s like a super-feminist All The President’s Men.”
2. Nothing to See Here by Kevin WilsonA woman is asked to serve as a nanny for a pair of 10-year-old twins who spontaneously combust when agitated, their skin crackling into flames.
“But that’s the only weird thing about the story,” Johnsen said. “It’s not like a world where this happens to lots of people. Everything is still normal real-life rules, except that one twist.”
“I think what makes this book so good is that that is such a strange premise, but every decision the narrator makes is completely believable even though it starts with this far-fetched concept.”
1. Such A Fun Age by Kiley ReidAt the start of Such A Fun Age, an emergency prompts a pair of parents to ask their nanny to stop by on her evening off.
The nanny, who is black, takes the white child she cares for to the grocery store, where a security guard accuses her of kidnapping. A crowd gathers, a video of the incident goes viral, and the novel takes off from there.
“It’s one of the most incisive books I’ve read about race and class in modern-day America,” Johnsen said. “It’s also really funny. And fun. Which is so exciting, because often when you read books about racism — it’s a very difficult topic and can be really hard to read — and this is a Brussel sprout wrapped in bacon.”
“There are so many opportunities in it for white readers to reflect on their own racism as they read it without having to feel ashamed for the system that they grew up in,” Johnsen said.
“It also has one of the most exquisitely awkward Thanksgiving dinners I’ve ever read.”
Such A Fun Age comes out Dec. 31.
Justin Bull is a digital producer and a podcast producer at WBEZ. You can follow him on Twitter at @justybull.