Of the thousands (and thousands and thousands) of book reviews we published this year, these are the 10 most-read reviews of books that published in 2019.

10. Scum of the Earth

Cody Goodfellow. Eraserhead, $10.95 trade paper (166p) ISBN 978-1-62105-287-6
In this fabulously unholy marriage of bizarro SF, crass sexuality, and tongue-in-cheek humor, Goodfellow (Sleazeland) successfully creates an interstellar pirate adventure that is anything but ordinary. Drugs are in high demand throughout the galaxies, and few things prove as addictive as the human imagination, which can easily be hijacked and downloaded. The Intergalactic Narcotic Enforcement Force destroys the Earth to halt imagination smuggling, and humankind is forced to scatter to the hidden corners of the universe, where cartels prey on them. Luckily for the human race, the trashiest crew in the galaxy and their nymphomaniac captain, Callista Chrome, are there to save them from being commoditized. Callista and the crew of the Barracuda are prepared to take on alien gangs, sex-crazed platypuses, and space vikings, even if they’re not sure the human race deserves it. A master class in the power of outlandish imagery and pulpy action, this otherworldly pirate crusade is sure to reel in SF fans who are ready to have their minds blown. (July)

9. On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous

Ocean Vuong. Penguin Press, $26 (256p) ISBN 978-0-525-56202-3
Poet Vuong’s frank first novel (after Night Sky with Exit Wounds) takes the form of a letter from a man to his illiterate mother in which 28-year-old Little Dog, a writer who’s left the impoverished Hartford, Conn., of his youth for New York City, retraces his coming of age. His childhood is marked by abuse from his overworked mother, as well as the traumas he’s inherited from his mother’s and grandmother’s experiences during the Vietnam War. Having left Vietnam with them as a young boy, and after the incarceration of his father, Little Dog’s attempts to assimilate include contending with language barriers and the banal cruelty of the supposedly well-intentioned. He must also adapt to the world as a gay man and as a writer—the novel’s beating heart rests in Little Dog’s first, doomed love affair with another teenage boy, and in his attempts to describe what being a writer truly is. Vuong’s prose shines in the intimate scenes between the young men, but sometimes the lyricism has a straining, vague quality (“They say nothing lasts forever but they’re just scared it will last longer than they will love it”; “But the thing about forever is you can’t take it back”). Nevertheless, this is a haunting meditation on loss, love, and the limits of human connection. (June)

8. Dying of Whiteness: How the Politics of Racial Resentment Is Killing America’s Heartland

Jonathan M. Metzl. Basic, $30 (352p) ISBN 978-1-5416-4498-4
In this groundbreaking work, Metzl, physician and director of the Vanderbilt Center for Medicine, Health, and Society, demonstrates the “mortal trade-offs” white Americans make when they vote with the goal of restoring their racial privilege and end up endorsing “political positions that directly harm their own health and well-being.” Metzl methodically and adeptly marshals statistical evidence that policies promising to bolster white Americans’ status have instead made life “sicker, harder, and shorter” for all Americans. He finds that, in Missouri, under the lax gun laws white voters favored, white men became 2.38 times more likely than men of other races to die by firearm suicide. In Tennessee, opposition to the Affordable Care Act “cost every single white resident of the state 14.1 days of life”; many white Tennesseans, Metzl writes, “voiced a willingness to die, literally, rather than embrace a law that gave minority or immigrant persons more access to care.” A “Tea Party-fueled” gutting of school funding in Kansas greatly increased the number of people dropping out of high school, which “correlates with nine years of lost life expectancy.” This tightly constructed analysis of the unexpected consequences of American political behavior exemplifies excellence in argumentative writing, on a topic of cultural significance. Agent: Zoe Pagnamenta, the Zoe Pagnamenta Agency. (Mar.)

7. The Guest Book

Sarah Blake. Flatiron, $27.99 (448p) ISBN 978-1-250-11025-1
Blake (The Postmistress) tells the history of the privileged Milton family from 1935 to present day in this powerful family saga. In 1935 New York, Kitty Milton, wife of Ogden, is enjoying the life of a New York society wife with her three children—five-year-old Neddy, three-year-old Moss, and one-year-old Joan—when Neddy dies in an accident. To help his wife heal, Ogden buys Crockett’s Island off the coast of Maine, and through the decades, the island becomes the Miltons’ summer refuge. In 1959, Moss is working in his father’s investment bank and invites his Jewish friend Len Levy, a fellow employee at the firm, and Reg Pauling, a black man and friend of Moss and Len, to visit the island. Len and Joan have been secretly dating, but Len isn’t certain if Joan will acknowledge their relationship in front of her family. The tensions of Len and Reg’s visit result in an argument that brings family secrets to light and ends in drama that will haunt those present for years to come. And in the present-day, as Milton family members must decide what to do with their island inheritance, they discover some answers to their family’s past. Blake has a particular knack for dialogue; she knows exactly how to reveal the hidden depths of the characters both through what is said and what is unsaid. The result is potent and mesmerizing. (May)

6. They Called Me Wyatt

Natasha Tynes. Rare Bird, $16 trade paper (280p) ISBN 978-1-947856-75-2
Tynes’s limp debut begins on Apr. 1, 2001, the 25th birthday of Siwar Sihaila, a Jordan-born writing student at the University of Maryland. She is pushed off a roof and dies from the fall. Three years later, Siwar becomes aware of herself as a consciousness in the body of a three-year-old child born the day that she died. That child, Wyatt, grows up white in American suburbia and eventually develops an interest in the Middle East, a romance with a Jordanian woman, and a compulsion to dig into Siwar’s cold case. As he turns 25, he becomes aware of his connection to Siwar, meets her friends and family, and seeks justice for her murder. Tynes does little to explore privilege, politics, or prejudice, and instead follows the steps of an amateur detective procedural as Wyatt attempts to find out who killed the woman whose consciousness he carries. The two halves of the story sit uneasily next to each other, and the prose is flat. The 2026 setting of Wyatt’s adult life is merely sketched in with mentions of self-driving cars and digital personal assistants. Readers hoping for nuanced explorations of Wyatt and Siwar’s similarities and differences, or even for a solid murder mystery with supernatural and futuristic elements, will be disappointed. (June)

5. City of Girls

Elizabeth Gilbert. Riverhead, $28 (480p) ISBN 978-1-59463-473-4
Gilbert (The Signature of All Things) begins her beguiling tale of an innocent young woman discovering the excitements and pleasures of 1940 New York City with a light touch, as her heroine, Vivian Morris, romps through the city. Gradually the story deepens into a psychologically keen narrative about Vivian’s search for independence as she indulges her free spirit and sexuality. Freshly expelled from Vassar for not attending any classes, 19-year-old Vivian is sent by her parents to stay with her aunt Peggy Buell in Manhattan. Peg runs a scruffy theater that offers gaudy musical comedies to its unsophisticated patrons. As WWII rages in Europe, Vivian is oblivious to anything but the wonder behind the stage, as she becomes acquainted with the players in a new musical called City of Girls, including the louche leading man with whom she falls in love with passionate abandon. Vivian flits through the nightclubs El Morocco, the Diamond Horseshoe, and the Latin Quarter, where she hears Count Basie, Billie Holiday, and Louis Prima. Drinking heavily and scooting into the arms of numerous men, one night at the Stork Club she meets Walter Winchell, the notorious gossip columnist, who plays a pivotal role in the tabloid scandal in which Vivian becomes embroiled. Vivian’s voice—irreverent, witty, robust with slang—gradually darkens with guilt when she receives a devastating comeuppance. Eventually, she arrives at an understanding of the harsh truths of existence as the country plunges into WWII. Vivian—originally reckless and selfish, eventually thoughtful and humane—is the perfect protagonist for this novel, a page-turner with heart complete with a potent message of fulfillment and happiness. (June)

4. The Institute

Stephen King. Scribner, $30 (576p) ISBN 978-1-982110-56-7
King wows with the most gut-wrenching tale of kids triumphing over evil since It. In a quiet Minnesota neighborhood, intruders kidnap 12-year-old prodigy Luke Ellis and murder his parents. When Luke wakes up, he finds himself in a room identical to his own bedroom, except that he is now a resident of the Institute—a facility that tests telekinetic and telepathic abilities of children. Luke finds comfort in the company of the children in the Front Half: Kalisha, Nick, George, and Avery. Others have graduated to the Back Half, where “kids check in, but they don’t check out.” The Front Half are promised that they’ll be returned to their parents after testing and a visit to Back Half, but Luke becomes suspicious and desperate to get out and get help for the others. However, no child has ever escaped the Institute. Tapping into the minds of the young characters, King creates a sense of menace and intimacy that will have readers spellbound. The mystery of the Institute’s purpose is drawn out naturally until it becomes far scarier than the physical abuse visited upon the children. Not a word is wasted in this meticulously crafted novel, which once again proves why King is the king of horror. Agent: Chuck Verrill, Darhansoff & Verrill. (Sept.)

3. How the Bible Actually Works: In Which I Explain How an Ancient, Ambiguous, and Diverse Book Leads Us to Wisdom Rather Than Answers—and Why That’s Great News

Peter Enns. HarperOne, $26.99 (304p) ISBN 978-0-0626-8674-9
Enns (The Bible Tells Me So), professor of biblical studies at Eastern University, challenges Christians to reconsider the true purpose of the Bible. He begins with three characteristics he asserts make the Bible worth reading: ancientness, ambiguity, and diversity. For Enns, the Bible does not actually tell readers what to do, as Old Testament laws leave much room for interpretation depending on context. Arguing that differences in tone between the various books of the Bible (such as differences between 1 and 2 Chronicles, which was written “perhaps as late as the Greek period,” and the other books of the Torah) result from the fact that they were written in different periods and cultures, Enns illustrates the fact that humankind’s reimagining of God is an ongoing process. He analyzes passages from the Old Testament and New Testament in terms of historical context to illustrate how the nature of God and the problem of evil changes along the way. Far from diminishing the value of the Bible, these variations make readers reflect on their own situations and reconsider connections between past and present. Enns writes with a conversational, self-effacing tone that cushions the sections of close textual reading. Approachable and well reasoned, Enns’s book will find an audience with Christians seeking a broader understanding of Scripture. (Feb.)

2. Three Women

Lisa Taddeo. Simon & Schuster, $27 (320p) ISBN 978-1-4516-4229-2
In her ambitious, if flawed, debut, journalist Taddeo reports on the risks women take to fulfill their sexual desires. The result of eight years and thousands of hours of interviews, the book describes how each of her three subjects is undone by an intimate relationship that eventually damaged her. Maggie, a troubled 23-year-old in Fargo, N.Dak., recalls how her high school English teacher seduced her at 17 after learning she’d slept with a man twice her age. When he’s named statewide teacher of the year five years later, she reports their affair to the police; townspeople quickly label her “a freaky slut.” Indiana wife and mother Lina, married to a man who refuses to kiss her, reconnects on Facebook with high school crush Aidan. Their affair, perfunctory on his end, is played out in parked cars while she becomes “a tangle of need and anxiety.” Forty-something Sloane, “beautiful and skinny,” runs a successful Newport, R.I., restaurant with her chef husband who chooses her sexual partners and watches them have sex. Sloane believes her marriage to be secure yet had to “constantly reassess what kind of woman she was.” Unfortunately, all three feel underdeveloped, with no real insight into them or their lives outside of their sexual histories, and with little connective tissue between their stories. Taddeo’s immersive narrative is intense, but more voyeuristic than thoughtful. (July)

1. An Anonymous Girl

Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen. St. Martin’s, $27.99 (384p) ISBN 978-1-250-13373-1
Struggling Manhattan makeup artist Jessica Farris impulsively decides to chase some quick cash by lying her way into an NYU psychiatrist’s study—of ethics and morality, no less—in this slickly twisty psychological thriller from bestsellers Hendricks and Pekkanen (The Wife Between Us). Still shaky after a disturbing #MeToo encounter with a top theatrical producer that dashed her dream of doing stage makeup, the 28-year-old laps up the supportive attention from impossibly chic and self-confident Dr. Lydia Shields, whose second-person narrative alternates with Jessica’s first person. So when the therapist starts to enlist her in increasingly dicey real-life role-playing assignments, including trying to pick up specific targets, such as a stranger in a hotel bar, Jess pushes aside her doubts and goes along—until she hears some information too alarming to ignore about the fate of Dr. Shields’s previous protégé. The page-turner’s second half whizzes along at a furious pace, exploiting the dual perspectives for maximum tension. Though some of the gasp-worthy final twists require substantial character flip-flops, it’s a relatively minor sacrifice for major league suspense. Agent: Victoria Sanders, Victoria Sanders and Assoc. (Jan.)