My Best Backlist Reads of 2019

Like many book bloggers, I’m irresistibly drawn to the shiny new books released each year. However, I consistently find that many of my most memorable reads were published years or even decades ago.

These selections, in alphabetical order by author name, account for the rest of my 5-star ratings of the year, plus a handful of 4.5 and high 4 ones.




Faces in the Water by Janet Frame: The best inside picture of mental illness I’ve read. Istina Mavet, in and out of New Zealand mental hospitals between ages 20 and 28, undergoes regular shock treatments. Occasional use of unpunctuated, stream-of-consciousness prose is an effective way of conveying the protagonist’s terror. Simply stunning writing.


The Monsters of Templeton by Lauren Groff: Groff wrote this in homage to Cooperstown, New York, where she grew up. We hear from leading lights in the town’s history and Willie’s family tree through a convincing series of first-person narratives, letters and other documents. A charming way to celebrate where you come from with all its magic and mundanity.


The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver: What an amazing novel about the ways that right and wrong, truth and pain get muddied together. Some characters are able to acknowledge their mistakes and move on, while others never can. Christianity and colonialism have a lot to answer for. A masterpiece.


The Grass Is Singing by Doris Lessing: Begins with the words “MURDER MYSTERY”: a newspaper headline announcing that Mary, wife of Rhodesian farmer Dick Turner, has been found murdered by their houseboy. The breakdown of a marriage and the failure of a farm form a dual tragedy that Lessing explores in searing psychological detail.


Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively: Seventy-six-year-old Claudia Hampton, on her deathbed in a nursing home, determines to write a history of the world as she’s known it. More impressive than the plot surprises is how Lively packs the whole sweep of a life into just 200 pages, all with such rich, wry commentary on how what we remember constructs our reality.


The Friend by Sigrid Nunez: The narrator is a writer and academic who has stepped up to care for her late friend’s aging Great Dane, Apollo. It feels like Nunez has encapsulated everything she’s ever known or thought about, all in just over 200 pages, and alongside a heartwarming little plot. (Animal lovers need not fear.)


There There by Tommy Orange: Orange’s dozen main characters are urban Native Americans converging on the annual Oakland Powwow. Their lives have been difficult, to say the least. The novel cycles through most of the characters multiple times, so gradually we work out the links between everyone. Hugely impressive.


In the Driver’s Seat by Helen Simpson: The best story collection I read this year. Themes include motherhood, death versus new beginnings, and how to be optimistic in a world in turmoil. Gentle humor and magic tempers the sadness. I especially liked “The Green Room,” a Christmas Carol riff, and “Constitutional,” set on a woman’s one-hour lunch break walk.


East of Eden by John Steinbeck: Look no further for the Great American Novel. Spanning from the Civil War to World War I and crossing the country from New England to California, this is just as wide-ranging in its subject matter, with an overarching theme of good and evil as it plays out in families and in individual souls.


Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese: The saga of conjoined twins born of a union between an Indian nun and an English surgeon in 1954. Ethiopia’s postcolonial history is a colorful background. I thrilled to the accounts of medical procedures. I can’t get enough of sprawling Dickensian stories full of coincidences, minor characters, and humor and tragedy.


Extinctions by Josephine Wilson: The curmudgeonly antihero is widower Frederick Lothian, at age 69 a reluctant resident of St Sylvan’s Estate retirement village. It’s the middle of a blistering Australian summer and he has plenty of time to drift back over his life. He’s a retired engineering expert, but he’s been much less successful in his personal life.





Windfall by Miriam Darlington: I’d had no idea that Darlington had written poetry before she turned to nature writing. The verse is rooted in the everyday. Multiple poems link food and erotic pleasure; others make nature the source of exaltation. Lots of allusions and delicious alliteration. Pick this up if you’re still mourning Mary Oliver.


Girls Are Coming Out of the Woods by Tishani Doshi: The third collection by the Welsh–Gujarati poet and dancer is vibrant and boldly feminist. The tone is simultaneously playful and visionary, toying with readers’ expectations. Several of the most arresting poems respond to the #MeToo movement. She also excels at crafting breath-taking few-word phrases.


Where the Road Runs Out by Gaia Holmes: A major thread of the book is caring for her father at home and in the hospital as he was dying on the Orkney Islands – a time of both wonder and horror. Other themes include pre-smartphone life and a marriage falling apart. There are no rhymes, just alliteration and plays on words, with a lot of seaside imagery.


Autumn Journal by Louis MacNeice: MacNeice wrote this long verse narrative between August 1938 and the turn of the following year. Everyday life for the common worker muffles political rumblings that suggest all is not right in the world. He reflects on his disconnection from Ireland; on fear, apathy and the longing for purpose. Still utterly relevant.


Sky Burials by Ben Smith: I discovered Smith through the 2018 New Networks for Nature conference. He was part of a panel discussion on the role poetry might play in environmental activism. This collection shares that environmentalist focus. Many of the poems are about birds. There’s a sense of history but also of the future.





Crow Planet: Essential Wisdom from the Urban Wilderness by Lyanda Lynn Haupt: During a bout of depression, Haupt decided to start paying more attention to the natural world right outside her suburban Seattle window. Crows were a natural place to start. A charming record of bird behavior and one woman’s reawakening, but also a bold statement of human responsibility to the environment.


All Things Consoled: A Daughter’s Memoir by Elizabeth Hay: Hay’s parents, Gordon and Jean, stumbled into their early nineties in an Ottawa retirement home. There are many harsh moments in this memoir, but almost as many wry ones, with Hay picking just the right anecdotes to illustrate her parents’ behavior and the shifting family dynamic.


Red Dust Road by Jackie Kay: Jackie Kay was born out of the brief relationship between a Nigerian student and a Scottish nurse in Aberdeen in the early 1960s. This memoir of her search for her birth parents is a sensitive treatment of belonging and (racial) identity. Kay writes with warmth and a quiet wit. The nonlinear structure is like a family photo album.


Drinking: A Love Story by Caroline Knapp: An excellent addiction memoir that stands out for its smooth and candid writing. For nearly 20 years, Knapp was a high-functioning alcoholic who maintained jobs in Boston-area journalism. The rehab part is often least exciting, but I appreciated how Knapp characterized it as the tortured end of a love affair.


The Trauma Cleaner: One Woman’s Extraordinary Life in Death, Decay and Disaster by Sarah Krasnostein: I guarantee you’ve never read a biography quite like this one. It’s part journalistic exposé and part “love letter”; it’s part true crime and part ordinary life story. It considers gender, mental health, addiction, trauma and death. Simply a terrific read.


Priestdaddy by Patricia Lockwood: A memoir of growing up in a highly conservative religious setting, but not Evangelical Christianity as you or I have known it. Her father, a married Catholic priest, is an unforgettable character. This is a poet’s mind sparking at high voltage and taking an ironically innocent delight in dirty and iconoclastic talk.


The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen: For two months in 1973, Matthiessen joined a zoologist on a journey from the Nepalese Himalayas to the Tibetan Plateau in hopes of spotting the elusive snow leopard. Recently widowed, Matthiessen put his Buddhist training to work as he pondered impermanence and acceptance. The writing is remarkable.


This Sunrise of Wonder: Letters for the Journey by Michael Mayne: Mayne’s thesis is that experiencing wonder is what makes us human. He believes poets, musicians and painters, in particular, reawaken us to awe by encouraging us to pay close attention. Especially with the frequent quotations and epigraphs, this is like a rich compendium of wisdom from the ages.


Body of Work: Meditations on Mortality from the Human Anatomy Lab by Christine Montross: When she was training to become a doctor, Montross was assigned an older female cadaver, Eve, who taught her everything she knows about the human body. Montross is also a poet, as evident in this lyrical, compassionate exploration of working with the dead.


Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell: An excellent first-hand account of the working and living conditions of the poor in two world cities. Orwell works as a dishwasher and waiter in Paris hotel restaurants for up to 80 hours a week. The matter-of-fact words about poverty and hunger are incisive, while the pen portraits are glistening.


A Woman in the Polar Night by Christiane Ritter: In 1934, Ritter, an Austrian painter, joined her husband Hermann for a year in Spitsbergen. I was fascinated by the details of Ritter’s daily tasks, but also by how her perspective on the landscape changed. No longer a bleak wilderness, it became a tableau of grandeur. A travel classic worth rediscovering.


Autumn Across America by Edwin Way Teale: In the late 1940s Teale and his wife set out on a 20,000-mile road trip from Cape Cod on the Atlantic coast to Point Reyes on the Pacific to track the autumn. Teale was an early conservationist. His descriptions of nature are gorgeous, and the scientific explanations are at just the right level for the average reader.


The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknavitch: This blew me away. Reading this nonlinear memoir of trauma and addiction, you’re amazed the author is still alive, let alone a thriving writer. The writing is truly dazzling, veering between lyrical stream-of-consciousness and in-your-face informality. The watery metaphors are only part of what make it unforgettable.


(Books not pictured were read from the library or on Kindle.)


And if I really had to limit myself to just two favorites – my very best fiction and nonfiction reads of the year – they would be Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively and Priestdaddy by Patricia Lockwood.


What were your best backlist reads this year?


30 responses

  1. Unfortunately, a lot of these were books that really didn’t resonate with me (Moon Tiger, The Poisonwood Bible, Helen Simpson’s collection). But I must re-read The Monsters of Templeton and There There is on my TBR.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s okay, I know our Venn diagram of reading tastes only overlaps in certain places 🙂 I still have one more Groff book to find, Delicate Edible Birds, and I’d then like to reread Fates and Furies.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I tried Delicate Edible Birds ages ago and didn’t get on with it then, but who knows…


    2. Florida was my fiction book of 2018, so I’m hoping that means I’ll love her short stories in general.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yeah, I should probably try it again as I also adored Florida.


  2. Autumn Journal is on my wishlist…. ;D

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It was hard to believe that was 80 years old; for the most part, it could have been written this year!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Some excellent sounding books there. I loved The Friend and There There, both of which I read this year too, but they’re only just backlist! I’ve recently ordered The Chronology of Water, so looking forward to that. The Kingsolver has never appealed to me – I gave away my copy, and I don’t find Lively very lively, but I should try more by her.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I was annoyed that I finished There There just into January — had I finished it late last December it would have been my fiction book of the year.

      I’d previously not been very impressed by what I read by Lively (2.5 of her most recent books), but I loved Heat Wave and of course Moon Tiger. Her older work has been so much better for me.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Several here that I love – Girls Are Coming Out of the Woods and The Chronology of Water – and several that I have in the 746 that I really need to read – Moon Tiger, Cutting for Stone and The Poisonwoood Bible! Happy New Year!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Happy new year! Those will be excellent ones whenever you come round to them 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Thanks for drawing my attention to Miriam Darlington as a poet. I’ll give that a try. And I must make more room in my diary for reading long-published works. I loved the Poisonwood Bible that I only finally read perhaps a year ago, as well as Orwell, Mortimer, and so many others….. So many books …..

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve read all of Darlington’s books now and I think she’s wonderful. It’s easy to focus on new releases, whether you’re getting them from the library, a bookshop or the publisher, but the older ones can be a lot more satisfying.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Wow–great throwback list! I recently discovered Ursula Hegi–recommended by a friend who said my writing style reminded him of hers (not so sure about that). So, I’m reading her 90s hit, STONES FROM THE RIVER and loving it–historical fiction at its most lyrical. If it were published today, I have a feeling the author wouldn’t have gotten away with a good 150 pages before the action really ramps up–pacing is faster these days–so I’m glad she wrote it then!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I have that one on my TBR. I’m a little burnt out on WWII stories, but it does sound good.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I understand being burned out on WWII stories, but I’m always kinda reading around for comps of my own. It seems plenty of agents are also getting burned out on WWII, which might be good for readers–if not so good for this particular writer.

        Liked by 1 person

    2. Just so long as yours brings something fresh to the table, which I’m sure it will 🙂

      Another book you might be interested in looking out for: Rust: A Memoir of Steel and Grit by Eliese Colette Goldbach. (I was just offered this on NetGalley. Looks like it’s set in Ohio.)

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thank you! Yes, that memoir is on my radar. The author’s teacher from grad school is a friend of mine. And another memoir, Rust Belt Femme, is out soon. Good thing I’m not a memoirist!

        Liked by 1 person

  7. I think I’d have to say all my Iris Murdoch re-reads although I read plenty of other older stuff, too. A great list here. I loved Red Dust Road.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I need to read more by Jackie Kay now.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Faces in the Water is a remarkable book, I read it last year. I remember loving The Grass is Singing and The Poisonwood Bible, and Red Dust Road was a very successful book group read two or three years ago. I know I have read Moon Tiger, though I really can’t remember it now.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve been so impressed with what I’ve read by Janet Frame (bar her poetry, which I didn’t really get on with). I’m on the third volume of her autobiography now.


  9. Poisonwood Bible really is a masterpiece. I haven’t read it in probably 15 years at least, but I remember sobbing over it. And I enjoyed Moon Tiger as well!

    My best backlist book of the year was My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve read a few others by du Maurier but not that one. I’ll have to find it from the library!

      Liked by 1 person

  10. There are so many of my favourites on this list. And I love knowing that’s how the Lessing novel begins: I had no idea! (She’s someone I’d like to explore more – especially her stories.) As we’ve discussed before, much more of my reading in recent years has been backlisted (in an attempt to balance the large number of ARCs and new books in the few years before that) and I’ve love making projects of writers like Mavis Gallant and Louise Erdrich, Alice Munro and Thomas King. Originally, I was just planning to take a year or two to shift the focus, but now I’m still saying “AND this coming year, too). *shrug* Who knows. I still feel like 2020 is ages away (just a few more hours).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I feel like Lessing is an author you’d love — like Atwood, she has a lot of speculative/dystopian stuff, but also a lot of realist autofiction. I’m still pretty new to her work.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Didn’t you read something else by her fairly recently though? Maybe I’m misremembering. The only other one I’ve read is The Golden Notebook (and a couple of stories and some diaries and/or essays).


    2. For her centenary in October I read The Fifth Child and The Grass Is Singing (and DNFed The Memoirs of a Survivor). I’d read a few of her books years before that: The Golden Notebook and Alfred and Emily, plus some short cat-related stuff.


  11. I loved Cutting For Stone, East of Eden, and The Poisonwood Bible. And a lot of the others are on my TBR.
    Now I really want to read Moon Tiger and Priestdaddy… They must be excellent!
    The only Lively I’ve read is Consequences, but I remember loving it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. This was the fourth book I finished by Lively. I have another couple on the shelf.

      Liked by 1 person

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