What I’ve been reading lately: the new and the notable, plus my three favorite books for gifting

Welcome to Quick Lit, where we share short and sweet reviews of what we’ve been reading lately on the 15th of the month.

In this winter edition I’m sharing some great and varied books I’ve read lately, plus one book I haven’t finished (and am not certain I’m going to). I never do this, but I’m sharing because I’d love to hear your thoughts, and because I want you to know that when I say I don’t finish every book I start, I’m not kidding! 

Since Christmas is right around the corner, I’m also sharing my three favorite books for gift-giving. (I popped on Instagram stories to share these early last week, and to those who asked to get this list in written form: your wish is granted!) 

I hope you’ve read some good stuff lately. Please tell us all about your recent reads in comments.

What I’ve been reading lately: the new and the notable

The Dog Stars

The Dog Stars

I have had this on my list for a VERY long time. Then we talked to Peter Heller for a Modern Mrs Darcy Book Club author event, and that pushed me right over the edge. I think we were all swooning listening to him talk about his work and his process! In this book, his debut, Hig is one of the few survivors of a flu pandemic, save for his dog and a gun-toting loner. Or so he thinks. When he receives a random transmission on the radio, he begins to dream of what might exist beyond life on the hangar. Reminiscent of Cormac McCarthy's The Road and Emily St John Mandel's Station Eleven but you don’t have to have read these in order to appreciate the way Heller examines the landscape between hope and despair. More info →
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The Starless Sea: A Novel

The Starless Sea: A Novel

Readers, I very rarely include a book I HAVEN'T finished in Quick Lit... but I'm stuck at 30% in this audiobook. (And before you protest my problem is the format: I've heard some readers say they could ONLY enjoy it on audio, and some say they could NEVER enjoy it on audio ... so there you go.) The writing is absolutely lovely, the premise is interesting, but getting myself to hit "play" is a struggle. I'm finding it strongly reminiscent of our February Book Club selection The Ten Thousand Doors of January, which I loved. More info →
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The Supernaturalist

The Supernaturalist

I read so many books because my kids tell me to. This is the latest urgent recommendation from my fourth grader, who fell in love with Eoin Colfer novels this year because—funny thing—our What Should I Read Next producer Brenna suggested them. When Brenna recommends books, we sit up and listen. The Supernaturalist is a middle grade standalone novel about a 14-year old orphan named Cosmo Hill living in the dystopian world of Satellite City, where his assigned societal role is to serve as a guinea pig for food and drug testing—which is exactly as scary as it sounds. But then he discovers he possesses a rare gift, and joins up with a team of vigilantes who share his gift and dedicate themselves to using it to do a little bit of good in their crummy world. But their mission changes when they discover they've all been lied to. This isn't my typical genre, but I'm glad I read it. More info →
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In the Orchard, the Swallows

In the Orchard, the Swallows

I picked up this very short novel after one of my favorite readers recommended it at our inaugural Book Club Retreat this fall. Another selling point was that it's published by Europa Editions, one of my favorite publishers for finding works slightly off my beaten path. In this quiet, meditative novel, an unnamed narrator, who's just been released from fifteen years in prison, tells his story of doomed love: he, a peasant, committed the "crime" of falling in love with a wealthy girl, and in measured, evocative prose, he tells how it happened, and what it meant for his life. If you want a plot-driven book, this isn't for you, but poetry lovers will find much to appreciate. More info →
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American Spy

American Spy

This fascinating and multi-layered spy thriller is told from the perspective of a Black woman, recruited by the CIA in the all-white, boys' club-era of the 1980s for an important African mission. Her assigned task is to fall in love—or pretend to—with Thomas Sankara, the president of Burkino Faso, known as "Africa’s Che Guevara." (Sankara is a real historical figure and I was so curious about how Wilkinson would handle his story.) The book's epigraph is from Ralph Ellison: he refers to being "a spy in enemy country," and I'm grateful this work inspired me to learn more about the rich literary history of African American spy novels and the theme of double consciousness. A rewarding read on so many levels.

More info →
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Now for those three favorite books about books to give. Like many a book lover, books about books is one of my very favorite readerly categories. I love these three because they’re beautiful, useful, and fun.

Speaking of useful: you may not be able to tell from the cover photos, but these books vary greatly in size and heft. I’ve listed them here in order of small, medium, and large—so you can choose the right-size and right-priced gift for the reader you’re shopping for. (Even if that reader is you!)

Please note: these three books aren’t holiday-themed, and would make a great gift any time of year.

My 3 favorite books about books for gift-giving

I’d Rather Be Reading: The Delights and Dilemmas of the Reading Life

I’d Rather Be Reading: The Delights and Dilemmas of the Reading Life

For your small format, small-price option: my own work is a beautifully presented essay collection that was formatted with gift-giving in mind. This book is for those for whom reading isn't just a hobby or a way to pass the time—it's a lifestyle. By turns wistful, funny, inspiring, and entertaining, I wax poetic on the magic of the library next door, bookworm problems, the books that made me fall in love with reading, and an "instructive" piece on how to organize your bookshelves that would fit right in at McSweeney's. You can also order signed and/or personalized copies through Carmichael's Bookstore: order online or call them at 502-896-6950. Just tell them you’d like a signed copy, or put “signed copy” in the order comments, along with the name you’d like it inscribed to, and any other personal message you’d like. More info →
Bibliophile: An Illustrated Miscellany

Bibliophile: An Illustrated Miscellany

For a lovely medium-sized coffee table book: I love Jane Mount's work and her well-known coffee table book My Ideal Bookshelf. Her latest collection is smart, fun, and whimsical, and would make a wonderful gift for the book lovers in your life. (Jane interviewed me for this book, and my picks appear on page 153.) More info →
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1,000 Books to Read Before You Die: A Life-Changing List

1,000 Books to Read Before You Die: A Life-Changing List

Now for your LARGE option: this fun doorstop of a collection (and I say "doorstop" with affection) includes titles I expected (all six Austen novels) and titles I didn't (Make Way for Ducklings, Into Thin Air, The Hunt for Red October). The book includes numerous shorter reading lists, thorough indexes, and a checklist so you can see how many on the list you have read. (My current total is 168.) I chatted with Mustich on a special New Year's episode of What Should I Read Next?. More info →
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What have YOU been reading lately? Tell us about your recent reads—or link up a blog or instagram post about them—in comments. 

P.S. Book gifts are the BEST gifts, the Modern Mrs Darcy gift guide for book lovers, and 15 bookish gifts for kids who love to read.


Leave A Comment
  1. Ruth says:

    For the readers that understand Dutch: I posted my QuickLit here: https://lezendstreepje.be/2019/12/15/quicklit-1-gelezen-in-november/

    Most of the books are also available in English: A girl made of dust by Nathalie El Abi-Ezzi; The Samurai by Shusaku Endo; Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi and Fall of Troy by Peter Ackroyd.
    Blood and Bone came as the biggest surprise to me – I love discovering new fantasy series and I was impressed by the cultural setting (and underlaying message) in this one.

  2. Violeta says:

    My favorites read over the past month were…

    * I Am, I Am, I Am by Maggie O’Farrell. I thought this was – beautifully organized and balanced. It offers so much to think about regarding near-death experiences, large and small, motherhood, and life through the lens of medical history.

    * We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson. This was a definite page-turner, the psychological eeriness creating its own momentum. It would have been unbearable (to me) for 300 pages, but in this shorter length, it worked! I admired the way Jackson portrayed agoraphobia and OCD as both idyllic/magical… and suffocating.

    * How Reading Changed My Life by Anna Quindlen (for MMD book club!). I loved this smart and nostalgic read about the reading life. It’s length was perfect for this time of year, too.

    I also read…

    * The Great Pretender by Susanna Callahan. I thought it was a disheartening but well-researched look at what turned out to be one of the biggest cons in the field of psychology/psychiatry- the 1973 Rosenhan experiment. I didn’t love it, but it was a 3 star read for me.

    * Nothing to See Hear by Kevin Wilson. I’m bracing myself for strong opinions to the contrary…but I strongly disliked this one. There’s so much profanity that it goes beyond voice-building to seem like word-count-building. I hated all the characters except for Carl and the kids…though the characters of Roland and Bessie do teeter into “magical child” trope territory. The ending was unrealistic but at least more satisfying than the rest of the book. 2 stars.

  3. Cristin says:

    I just read The Ten Thousand Doors of January (loved, favorite book this year) and The Starless Sea back to back. They felt similar but while I couldn’t wait to read happened next in Doors, it was a struggle to continue picking up Starless Sea. The love story felt unrealistic and Zackery drove me nuts.

  4. Katie says:

    In the past couple of weeks I’ve read Olive, Again and Fleishman is in Trouble. Really enjoyed Olive, Again – Elizabeth Strout is amazing! Had mixed feelings about Fleishman.

  5. Lori A. Samilson says:

    In the past month I’ve listened to Ask Again, Yes (loved it) and Olive, Again. I still have mixed feelings about Olive as a person. I read a few books not worth mentioning to finish up my reading challenges for the year, but I also enjoyed, Heartburn (the book, not the condition), Does My Head Look Big in This?, The Rosie Project and a cozy mystery (my guilty pleasure)

  6. This month, I’ve listened to a few Hallmark-style Christmas romances: not great literature, and not my usual choices, but perfect for helping me get into the holiday spirit. I’m also reading Dearly Beloved and LOVING it!

    On my blog, in lieu of a regular Quick Lit post this month, I did a recap of my reading life in 2019, complete with all sorts of stats and charts because #booknerd. I also included quickie reviews of my 20 favorite titles from the 170 books I read over the past twelve months. (Spoiler: top spots went to Ask Again, Yes for Fiction and Maybe You Should Talk to Someone for Nonfiction.)


    Thank you, Anne, for all the bookish inspiration that helped me make the most of my reading life in 2019! In a year marked by change (the purchase of our first home, the tale end of a grueling infertility journey, then the birth of my twins in September), it was nice to have reading as a constant in my life.

  7. Sara says:

    I am at 52% in the audio of Starless Sea and so far I love it, though it is due back to the library before I will finish it. It feels like a love letter to *stories*. Looking forward to hearing if you finish it.

  8. Ann says:

    The older I get the more able I am to give up on a book and not feel guilty about it. I recently gave up on “Beyond the Point” by Claire Gibson. I was 60 pages in and knew that keeping on with it was going to be slow and painful process. A great book a recently finished is “Gods of the Upper Air” by Charles King. It’s a collective biography of Franz Zoas and other anthropologists who embarked on a journey to change how we think about race and gender. A really great book!

  9. Sarah G says:

    I’m so surprised with The Dog Stars, bc I thought for sure I’d picked it up based on you recommending it long ago. It’s so great, right? I call it dystopian fiction for people who don’t like dystopian fiction. I think I’m going to have to go through his backlist too, bc The River was one of my favorite reads this year as well.

    And I own two of the gift-giving books and completely agree they are perfect for gifting to book-lovers! (Which can be a very tricky road to navigate)

  10. Michelle Zhao says:

    Since the recent One Great Book episode on The War that I saved my Life, I finished it and its sequel The War I Finally Won. I love both books. I want to give those as Christmas gifts this year. The audio book version is also fantastic! I could not finish The Starless Sea but has more success with The Ten Thousand Doors of January.

  11. Terri says:

    I’ve just finished and enjoyed Bookman’s Tale by Charlie Lovett. I have a Patti Smith obsession going on right now. I’ve been doing some writing lately and had an interest in why other’s needed writing in their life. I began with Devotion which led me to other Patti Smith works (M Train, Just Kids, Woolgathers). Even though I was a child of the 60’s, my life was far different than that of Patti Smith. I can still relate to her words and feel that somewhere along the way, our paths have crossed.

  12. Angela in NC says:

    I just finished Rosamunde Pilcher’s Winter Solstice….sigh. It is the absolute perfect wintertime novel. I loved it so much. In hopes of avoiding a book hangover, I am going to reread a past favorite, Alice Steinbach’s No Reservations: Travels of an Independent Woman.

    • Laura Webb says:

      Angela (or someone else), is this a Christmas-y book, or would it be just as great as a January read? Also, could you give me some sort of rating as far as what questionable things it includes? I keep seeing it on lists, but wondered if it’s a good one for me. Thank you!

  13. Adair says:

    James Musitch has also put out a “1000 Books to Read Before You Die” daily desk calendar; good for the people who have too much to read to sit down with a book about what they should read. I’ve bought several for gifts

  14. Suzanne C says:

    What Anne said about The Starless Sea? That’s exactly how I’m feeling about Peter Heller’s Celine. I’ve been working on it since… October? I enjoy it while I’m reading it, but it’s a struggle to pick it back up. I don’t understand that, so unusual for me.

    It’s been a slow reading month for me. I finished (and loved) How Reading Changed My Life for MMD book club. I also read Chandler Baker’s Whisper Network, which was a good read and would make an excellent book club choice, because it brings up so many issues to discuss. I also read Louise Penny’s The Cruelest Month, #3 in the Inspector Gamache series. I drank the Three Pines koolaid and I’m in love.

  15. Carrie Kitzmiller says:

    Your post brought back good memories for me: I read The Supernaturalist aloud to my four kids back in 2011! Three are now married, and the youngest just turned 18. Sigh. I miss those days.

    I just finished two five-star reads: The Stationery Shop by Marjan Kamali and Catch and Kill by Ronan Farrow. I also finished Slow Motion by Dani Shapiro. I didn’t love it, but enjoyed it enough that I plan to continue with her next memoir, Devotion.

  16. Katherine Hardee says:

    I’m definitely putting The Dog Stars on my TBR list. I’ve so enjoyed the Peter Heller books that we have read this year! I am struggling with The Starless Sea….there is so much I admire about Morgenstern’s writing but I think this seems too tedious for me during this busy season. I was actually considering switching to the audio version to see if that helped me move through it. I just finished The Overstory by Richard Powers which was fabulous but also lengthy and tedious to read. I thoroughly enjoyed Quindlin’s How Reading Changed My Life…light and cozy and looking forward to our book club discussion.

  17. Laura says:

    That’s so interesting you’re stuck on The Starless Sea…it’s on my TBR and sounds amazing (and I likely will try it) but I had a similar experience with Morgenstern’s first novel, The Night Circus. It sounds like something I’d really enjoy, and it’s been recommended by people I trust, but I just wasn’t sinking into the story the way I had hoped and expected. Hm…

    I’ve rounded up my top 10 favorite reading experiences of 2019 on my blog, as well as shared a few thoughts on a year of tracking (and counting the number) of books read and what that meant for my reading life:

  18. Carrie B. says:

    I recently finished The Starless Sea. I did finish it, but it was a struggle towards the end. I loved Morgenstern’s writing style and the world she built, but the story lost its magic somewhere along the way. I think I finished it because I was sure that there was going to be something big at the end, but I never fully understood what was driving the characters or the story. I am planning on reading The Ten Thousand Doors of January for MMD. I hope that one doesn’t disappoint.

    • Libby H says:

      This, exactly, about The Starless Sea. I am generally an intelligent reader, but I eventually got lost in the depths of the convoluted layers.

  19. Sara says:

    I’m sorry to disagree with you on any books(your specialty) but….
    I read The Starless Sea and was so absorbed. I couldn’t stop reading. Then I got The Ten Thousand Doors of January from Page1. I didn’t realize any similarity until you mentioned
    it above.
    They are both beautifully written. I would recommend both. I really loved January and her story but I also enjoyed Zachary’s story too.
    Keep listening or reading. It’s worth it.

  20. Since last time, I’ve read and reviewed:
    Canteen Dreams by Cara Putnam, a WWII story based on her grandparents.
    The Swiss family Robinson by Johann David Wyss
    Engaging the Scripture: Encountering God in the Pages of His Word by Deborah Haddix (excellent).
    On Writing Well by William Zinsser (also excellent)
    The Carousel Painter by Judith Miller, set in the 1890s.
    Catching Christmas by Terri Blackstock, sweet Christmas story.

    I have some other Christmas reads lined up for the rest of the month.

  21. Jane Kennedy says:

    I just finished the Starless Sea and it’s a book that you have to be patient with or you’ll miss something. I usually read 2 or 3 books a week, but this took me 10 days! I had an actual book and found myself going back to make sure I remembered correctly what I had read. The author’s imagination is phenomenal. I loved this book and all the characters. Hang in there. We’re so used to instant everything and this book is the exception.

    • Cathryn Lasky says:

      Well said, Jane. This is definitely a book that I am savoring! I’m more than halfway through and already thinking I want to re-read it to go over things I may not have realized on the first read. This book is packed with so many literary references I know I haven’t picked up on them all. I think the painting in Zachary Ezra Rawlins’s room with the rabbits in a ship is a reference to Watership Down, and a bit later another painting with a man inside a birdcage in a forest is mentioned, but I’m not sure if that’s a literary reference or not.

  22. Fiona C says:

    If you like thrillers, I just read The Last Woman in the Forest by Diane Les Becquets. The main character works with dogs to study endangered wildlife. It takes place in Alberta and Montana. The author Fiona Barton is quoted on the cover. She says it is “beautifully paced and twisty”.

  23. Stephanie says:

    Current reads: THICK and Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library (going back and forth between hard copies) and The Hobbit on audio

    Recently finished and really enjoyed The Word is Murder by Anthony Horowitz

  24. Janet says:

    I recently finished Celine by Peter Heller. That book drove me nuts! It seemed all over the place. I did like The River though, so will try The Dog Star.

    I’m halfway through Evvie Drake Starts Over. It’s a fun read because my son is a college pitcher with big league aspirations so that is relatable.

    Also read Bone Deep by Sandra Ireland for next month’s book club (we have to pick books set in a foreign country right now). Gothic and a little intense at the end!

  25. Suzy Bennett says:

    Am I the only person who didn’t like Normal People by Sally Rooney? It’s the one book I see on every best of list and I found it boring and quit half way through. I had to search on Goodreads to find a bad rating.

  26. Lisa says:

    I read The Ten Thousand Doors of January and I didn’t get into it until about 2/3 of the way along. I liked the writing, it just didn’t grab me. The last third was good though. So, maybe, sometimes, it can be worth it to push on through.

  27. Amapola says:

    This month I read:
    Inland by Téa Obreht
    West by Carys Davis
    A Better Man by Louise Penny
    Ayesha At Last by Uzma Jalaluddin
    I couldn’t finish Conviction by Denise Mina, but that happened because it was a seven day loan from the library and I was about to go on a trip.
    Next in line:
    The Testaments by Margaret Atwood
    Hum If You Don’t Know the Words by Bianca Marais (which I unexpectedly found at the thrift store)
    Peace Like a River by Leif Einger as a reread for the New Year.

  28. Marie says:

    Anne, I appreciate your honesty, as it does make the rest of us feel better. Proof that you mean it when you say you “don’t get bossy on this show”. 🙂 I actually started a shelf on Goodreads for “could not finish.” For me, the recent book I had a hard time getting through was “All the Light We Cannot See,” despite the great writing and my friends who love it. Just didn’t really do it for me (though I finished it). I also could not get through The Underground Railroad, a book club pick – too depressing. Personally, I am loving “The Starless Sea” on audio, but I totally recognize it as a “niche” book and not for everyone.

  29. My five stars reads for the last half of this year –
    THE WHISPER MAN by Alex North
    NINTH HOUSE by Leigh Bardugo
    THE FAMILY UPSTAIRS by Lisa Jewell
    DARLING ROSE GOLD by Stephanie Wrobel (I got my greedy little hands on an ARC of this one – doesn’t come out until March 2020.)

    And so many books I’m looking forward to in 2020! 🙂

  30. Lynn says:

    I loved the Starless Sea and while I liked The Ten Thousand Doors of January, I found it less compelling. They certainly have a lot in common. Wonder if some of the preference is based on which one is read first?

  31. Rita says:

    Anne, I would love to hear your thoughts on The Starless Sea! I was excited because The Night Circus is an ABSOLUTE FAVORITE but feel this is a very different type of story.

  32. Marion says:

    I’m currently reading Galveston by Sean Stewart. It is an interesting novel that borders the contemporary fantasy/magical realism genres and deals with Mardi Gras, Magic, and Family Ties. Fans of magical realism may want to check this one out.

    • Marion says:

      Since we are in December….here are my favorite reads of 2019. Most of my choices are books that were not published in 2019. I just read them this year. Here are my favorites:

      1) Chef’s Secret by Crystal King

      2) A Shadow In Summer by Daniel Abraham

      3) Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck: A powerful and timely novel about refugees coming to Berlin for asylum and to start a new life. These African refugees gets the attention of a retired professor who takes up their cause. My favorite novel of 2019.

      4) Ascending by Meg Pechenick

      5) Little Dreamers by Vashti Harrison: One of the joys I have as a father is to read with my 10-year-old daughter. We read Little Dreamers by Vashti Harrison over the summer and really enjoyed reading the stories about amazing women throughout history from Frida Kahlo to Toni Morrison (RIP) to Katherine Dunham and many others. If you are looking for a book to read with your children, then I highly recommend Little Dreamers. Harrison’s art brings these amazing women’s stories to life.

      Those are my favorites of 2019.

  33. Tasha says:

    Dog Stars is a favorite! But also, I’m glad I’m not the only reader who found Starless Sea hard to get through. I slogged through to the end and came away wondering why it was even published. I found no STORY in that story.

  34. Cheryl Powers says:

    How do I go about finding books in the decade in which I was born (1952)? This category seems very interesting to me! TX for your help.

    • Jennifer says:

      Just type in your search bar “best books published in the 1950s” and it should generate some lists for you. Try searching on Goodreads, too.

  35. Jones says:

    Anne, You introduced me to Peter Heller. I first read The River which you recommended earlier this year. I loved it and recommended it to several friends. I then read Dog Stars and loved it even more than The River. I immediately bought a copy and had it sent to my brother who I knew would also love it. Lastly, I read Celine and it has been my favorite Peter Heller so far. It is interesting to note other commenters saying they didn’t enjoy Celine. It just shows how varied impressions and opinions on books can be. Merry Christmas to you and your family!

  36. Here are my November reads… I was a bit worried I wouldn’t have any time to read with a newborn but the past three months, with all the late night nursing sessions, I have gotten through more ebooks and audiobooks than before I was a mom. Granted, I have not had time to read a physical book, but I will take what I can get at this point!

  37. Amanda Lamb says:

    I recently finished The Starless Sea and LOOOOOVED it!! I didn’t want to put it down! I read the physical book which I think would be better because of its length and the beautiful design elements in it. I finished this hefty book in a week, I think, which is quite fast considering I care for a 2 and 7 year old all day!

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