Vermont Booksellers' Reading Picks of 2019 | Books | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

Published December 18, 2019 at 10:00 a.m.


When you're buying a book, which would you rather ask for advice: an algorithm or a human being who spends most of their waking hours around books? If you live in Vermont, you have options, because the state's independent bookstores are hanging tough. One of them, the Vermont Book Shop in Middlebury, just celebrated its 70th year in business.

Meanwhile, to the east, the Norwich Bookstore is creeping up on its 30th birthday — and founders and co-owners Penny McConnel and Liza Bernard are looking for a buyer. "We have made a promise to our community that we will wait until we find the right person to take over the bookstore," Bernard tells Seven Days.

The torch has already been passed —twice — at the former Misty Valley Books, a Chester institution for 33 years. After a few years as Phoenix Books Misty Valley, the store was sold again in August and is now Blair Books & More.

Over the state line, Hanover, N.H., is getting a brand-new bookstore — this one with libations. According to its Facebook page, the staff of Still North Books & Bar is frantically shelving in preparation for a soft opening (books first, food and beverages to follow) on Thursday, December 19.

While they're busy with that, we asked a bunch of local booksellers for their top five recommendations published in 2019. If you're working on your winter reading list or wondering what to get your favorite bookworm, these folks have you covered, with plenty of locally authored titles in the mix. And they won't push "sponsored products" at you.

— M.H.

Claire Benedict

Co-owner and book buyer, Bear Pond Books, Montpelier

Feast Your Eyes by Myla Goldberg (Scribner). The first novel in nearly a decade from the New York Times best-selling author of Bee Season is the life story of a woman who sets out to become a photographer in 1950s New York City. The twist is that the novel is framed by the catalog cards of photos from the artist's first show at the Museum of Modern Art; each card is tied to a story or anecdote. "It's hard to describe, but very effective and really well done."

Maybe You Should Talk to Someone: A Therapist, Her Therapist, and Our Lives Revealed, by Lori Gottlieb (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). Everyone from Katie Couric to Bustle to the Washington Post has raved about psychotherapist and columnist Gottlieb's hit memoir, which is being turned into a series for ABC. In it, Gottlieb starts seeing a therapist to work through personal trauma, "and her experience with her clients mirrors her experience with her own therapist. It's a well-told story and a page turner."

Trust Exercise by Susan Choi (Henry Holt). A 2019 National Book Award winner, Choi centers her novel on interpersonal drama at a performing arts high school in Florida in the 1980s. "But it's really about how our memories and our experiences shape us far into the future. It's about how our past ripples through our lives in ways we don't realize."

The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead (Doubleday). Benedict calls Whitehead "just a brilliant, brilliant writer." The Pulitzer Prize winner's latest novel is set in the Jim Crow South of the early 1960s and based on the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys, a very real, and very brutal, Florida reform school. "Whitehead takes a gut-wrenching chapter of American history and manages to convey devastation and injustice while imparting warmth and humanity."

Daisy Jones & the Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid (Ballantine Books). Fans of the Cameron Crowe movie Almost Famous will find a lot to love about Reid's hairy tale of sex, drugs, and rock and roll. Written as an oral history of the rise and fall of a popular 1970s rock band — think Crowe's Allman Brothers Band stand-in Stillwater, Benedict suggests — "It's really good, gossipy, peak-era rock and roll."

— D.B.

Liza Bernard & Penny McConnel

Owners, Norwich Bookstore

The Beekeeper of Aleppo by Christy Lefteri (Ballantine Books). A family is forced to flee their home in war-torn Syria in this novel. "In recounting the daily brutality, as well as the glimmers of beauty, this novel humanizes the terrifying refugee stories we read about in the news," Bernard says, calling it "a beautiful rumination on seeing what is right in front of us — both the negative and the positive."

Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson (Riverhead Books). Bernard calls this novel from the 2014 National Book Award winner "a spare, probing look at four generations of two families thrown together by a teenage pregnancy ... A powerful, poetic novel."

Field Trip to the Moon by John Hare (Margaret Ferguson Books). "I don't understand how John Hare can telegraph emotions without drawing a face, but he does!" Bernard writes of this debut picture book for ages 4 to 8. "In this wordless story, a young astronaut gets left behind on a field trip to the moon. But he is not alone. Saying more would spoil the story! You have to read it for yourself."

The Salt Path by Raynor Winn (Penguin Books). McConnel recommends this memoir in which a homeless couple in their fifties sets out to walk the South West Coast Path in England with "limited financial means, a tent and two sleeping bags." She calls Winn's debut "one of the more uplifting and positive books I have read in quite a while ... Ray and Moth walk through a magical and challenging landscape to come out the other side. I felt privileged to walk with them."

Right as Rain, by Lindsey Stoddard (HarperCollins). This second middle-grade novel from a Norwich native author is "another marvelous story for readers interested in something other than fantasy," McConnel says. "Our heroine, Rain, and her family have recently moved from Vermont to Brooklyn to start over after a family tragedy ... This is a gentle yet strong and heartfelt story about family, change and friendships."

— P.P.

Elizabeth Bluemle, Emily Copelandand Heather Bauman

Owner and booksellers, the Flying Pig Bookstore, Shelburne

Black Is the Body: Stories From My Grandmother's Time, My Mother's Time, and Mine by Emily Bernard (Knopf). Bluemle calls the University of Vermont prof's memoir-in-essays "a miraculously honest, beautiful book for anyone who is a parent, has a parent, and/or is trying to navigate the thorny and sometimes subtle issues of race in our state and our country." Copeland says it's "so intimate that there is no way to leave that book without feeling as though you know Emily Bernard personally."

Suddenly You Are Nobody: Vermont Refugees Tell Their Stories by Jared Gange (Huntington Graphics). Gange gathered stories from 30 new Vermonters from 16 nations, Bluemle says. "There is no better way to turn strangers and neighbors into friends than by sharing stories and starting to know one another. Filled with lively and powerful stories and chock-full of beautiful color photographs from homelands near and far, this book is a Vermont treasure."

All About Dinner: Simple Meals, Expert Advice by Molly Stevens (W.W. Norton). The Burlington-area author does dinner in a book "filled with delicious recipes," Bluemle says. She loves Stevens' cookbooks because they teach method in addition to recipes, and "They're well-written cookbooks, which makes them a delight even for the non-cook."

On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong (Penguin). Bauman sums up the premise of this best-selling debut novel: "What do you write to your mother who's illiterate?" "It's just one of the most spectacular books ... as an avid reader and a quick reader, I couldn't move through it quickly; I had to read parts out loud to myself, it was just so lovely."

Breathe: A Letter to My Sons by Imani Perry (Beacon Press). Bauman recommends this to readers of Ta-Nehisi Coates' Between the World and Me; like Coates, Perry addresses her fears and hopes for young African Americans in a racist society through a letter to her children. "It was an homage to them that I felt privileged to be reading, and also exploded my mind with her beautiful writing ... her insight and her tenderness with her voice."

— M.H.

Tod Gross

Manager, Phoenix Books Burlington,

The Only Plane in the Sky: An Oral History of 9/11 by Garrett M. Graff (Avid Reader Press). "You can really tell the impact that this book had, because we got responses from people all over the country," Gross says of this oral history from the Montpelier-based author and journalist. "I know that this book has gone a long way to healing for a lot of people."

Charlotte Brontë Before Jane Eyre by Glynnis Fawkes (Disney-Hyperion). This graphic novel in the Center for Cartoon Studies Presents series tells the story of Charlotte Brontë's early years. [See page 34 for more on the Vermont author.] "I love the drawings, the kind of pen and ink. A lot of conversation. It's not text heavy, it's conversation heavy. Looking at her formative years is just a brilliant idea."

Black Is the Body: Stories From My Grandmother's Time, My Mother's Time, and Mine by Emily Bernard (Knopf). "It's 12 essays, and it's really about her experiences being a black woman in America. It's a fabulous, honest, well-written collection of essays."

Suddenly You Are Nobody: Vermont Refugees Tell Their Stories by Jared Gange (Huntington Graphics). "A lot of these people are highly educated and had well-respected careers, and suddenly you come to this country, and you're nobody," Gross says of the self-published compilation.

All About Dinner: Simple Meals, Expert Advice by Molly Stevens (W.W. Norton). "The recipes are just amazing. They're not complicated, they're just really, really good. She is teaching technique as well as telling stories about her family and her life." Gross singles out Stevens' flourless dark chocolate cookies as particularly delicious.

— M.G.

Jackie Hoy

Manager, Crow Bookshop, Burlington

Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know About the People We Don't Know by Malcolm Gladwell (Little, Brown). The author of five New York Times bestsellers, Gladwell's "got a huge following," Hoy says. Here, he unpacks our interactions with strangers, spanning the realms of pop culture, politics and violence.

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk (Riverhead Books). This literary thriller about a recluse trying to solve a murder mystery is the most recently translated book from the winner of this year's Nobel Prize in Literature. "She's just a really beautiful writer," Hoy says. "Very meditative, a little bit philosophical."

The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates (One World). This first novel from the acclaimed journalist and nonfiction writer is about a slave in the pre-Civil War South who uses superhuman powers to work on the Underground Railroad.

Sophia Valdez, Future Prez by Andrea Beaty and David Roberts (Harry N. Abrams). The Questioneers picture-book series features kids exploring different careers in the STEM fields; other titles include Rosie Revere, Engineer and Iggy Peck, Architect. "They're really neat," Hoy says.

Half Baked Harvest Super Simple: More Than 125 Recipes for Instant, Overnight, Meal-Prepped, and Easy Comfort Foods by Tieghan Gerard (Clarkson Potter). "I have cooked some of her recipes, and they're very good," Hoy says. "Some friends of mine bought this right when it came out and are cooking their way through it. They say there are very few that they haven't really loved."

— M.G.

Andrea Jones

Co-owner, Galaxy Bookshop, Hardwick

The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern (Doubleday). "It's pure magic. I've never read anything like it in my life." The author of The Night Circus follows it up with this tale of a Vermont graduate student who is compelled on a journey to a library hidden far underground; his odyssey involves lost cities, love notes passed across time and stories spoken by the dead.

The Innocents by Michael Crummey (Doubleday). A brother and sister are orphaned for years in a remote part of Newfoundland and survive through fierce loyalty to each other. "Some parts are bleak and some are harsh, but it's gorgeous. He writes about people and place in a way that captures the soul."

Wayward Son by Rainbow Rowell (Wednesday Books). This young adult novel "reads like grown-up Harry Potter fan fiction." The sequel to Carry On, it follows Simon Snow after he has beaten the villain. On a road trip, he and his friends encounter lots of ghoulish trouble and get very lost. "It's just fun."

A Woman's Guide to Cannabis: Using Marijuana to Feel Better, Look Better, Sleep Better — And Get High Like a Lady by Nikki Furrer (Workman Publishing). "Now that recreational marijuana is legal in Vermont, we get a lot of people asking for cookbooks, growing books, and books on health and wellness." This "practical, user-friendly, readable" guide offers everything from advice on how to navigate a typical dispensary to recipes for brownies.

The Grammarians by Cathleen Schine (Sarah Crichton Books). This "novel for word lovers" is about identical twins. As youths, they speak their own secret language, but as adults, "One takes a very hard-core approach" to language, "and the other a more colloquial approach." Their sparring makes for a "funny, clever, smart" read.

— E.M.S.

Jenny Lyons

Bookseller and marketing manager, Vermont Book Shop, Middlebury

The Winter Army: The World War II Odyssey of the 10th Mountain Division, America's Elite Alpine Warriors by Maurice Isserman (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). The founders of the 10th Mountain Division included elite skiers who brainstormed the idea of an alpine unit while sitting around the Charles Orvis Inn in Manchester, Vt., after a day of skiing at Bromley Mountain. "Anyone with an interest in skiing, climbing, mountaineering and/or military history will really like this book."

Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss by Margaret Renkl (Milkweed Editions). Lyons calls this collection of essays by a New York Times opinion writer a "small and beautiful package" that includes collage illustrations by the author's brother, Billy Renkl. Filled with observations of nature, which serve as settings for anecdotes of family, ancestry and heredity, "it's a very contemplative book."

Made Holy by Emily Arnason Casey (University of Georgia Press). "Her writing is really remarkable. I would give this [book] to anyone who likes memoirs," Lyons says of this essay collection by a Vermonter. "A good bit of the subject matter is about struggling with addiction and coming to terms with events that happened in your childhood."

Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips (Knopf). Shortlisted for the National Book Award, Phillips' debut novel is set among the reindeer herders of Russia's remote Kamchatka Peninsula. "It's filled with these insights into human nature. While the book may take place on the other side of the world, you feel uniquely connected to these characters and their riveting story. And it exposes you to a people and culture that you may not even have known existed. It's a great read for the mystery lover."

Marley by Jon Clinch (Atria Books). The Vermont author expands on Charles Dickens' classic A Christmas Carol with this prequel starring Jacob Marley, Ebenezer Scrooge's deceased business partner who is doomed to wander the earth in chains for his selfishness and greed. "Scrooge is almost created by Marley. They corrupted each other. It's very entertaining — and very dark — and apropos to the season." [See page 17 for more on Marley.]

— K.P.

Kari Meutsch

Co-owner, Yankee Bookshop, Woodstock

Magic for Liars by Sarah Gailey (Tor Books). This first full-length novel from a Nebula and Hugo Award finalist is "like grown-up Harry Potter with a noir detective feel." The heroine "gets hired to solve a mystery at a magic school. So you're kind of watching her figure things out, and figure out how to be a better human, but you get all the fun of being inside a magic school again."

Ninth House, Leigh Bardugo (Flatiron Books). "This is the book that I always wanted from Leigh Bardugo," Meutsch says of the best-selling YA author's first adult fantasy, about a young woman who is "recruited to be part of this magic law enforcement society at Yale ... Again, it has that noir feel to it. Leigh builds these awesome worlds, and this one is rooted in reality."

Wilder Girls, Rory Power (Delacorte Press). This debut YA novel takes place at a remote boarding school where a group of girls has been quarantined with a mysterious disease that can cause "grotesque mutations." The novel has been praised as a work of body horror and a timely parable. "It's the one book this year that I finished and I thought immediately, I need to see this movie."

The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern (Doubleday). "[Morgenstern] builds this very vivid world and just throws you into it ... As I was reading it I was torn because I wanted to rush through it to know what was going to happen, but I also wanted to savor every line."

Children of Virtue and Vengeance by Tomi Adeyemi (Henry Holt). Meutsch has "been waiting on pins and needles" for the sequel to Adeyemi's best-selling YA fantasy Children of Blood and Bone. "It's set in Africa and pulls from West African mythology. So the magic system is based on mythology that you can go read about ... Anyone who loves mythology would love this book."

— M.H.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Take a Page | Vermont booksellers offer their reading picks for 2019"

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