Zibby is joined by Sarah Gelman (Editorial Director at Amazon Books) to discuss the ten best books of the year as selected by the @amazonbooks review team! Want to know which ones they picked?! Tune in!


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Sarah. I’m so excited to talk to you again. Oh, my gosh, I can’t believe it’s time for the best books of the year already. What is going on? Time is flying.

Sarah Gelman: I don’t know. I can’t believe it’s November. My youngest son’s birthday is in early November. He keeps saying, “Is it Thanksgiving yet?” I’m like, oh, my gosh, it is almost Thanksgiving. It’s crazy. Here we go to the end of the year. I actually have this very strange habit. At night during this season of the year, the way that I — besides reading, which I always do. That’s the last thing I do before I go to bed. When I get into bed after putting my wild children to sleep, I look at gift guides on my tablet. Every night, I do a different one. It could be New York Times. I really like The Everygirl and The Everymom. That’s sort of my way that I relax. I love this time of year just for my gift guide relaxation habit.

Zibby: I also love gift guides. In fact, I’m like, I really need to just write one. I’m going to do one soon.

Sarah: You should.

Zibby: I’m going to do one soon. Books are obviously the best gift of all. will include a lot of gifts, of course. What are the top ten that you and the Amazon Book Review have come up with as the best books of the year? How do you come up with it, first of all?

Sarah: I’ll start with that. We have just announced our best books of the year. This is my team. We’re the books editorial team. Our role is reading books and basically highlighting them for customers so they can discover them. All of our picks are things that we love, things that we think customers will love. It’s not based on sales or preorders or publisher money. It’s purely editorial. It’s really what we love. This end-of-year list, we look at all of our best-of-the-month lists that we do every month. It’s usually one to ten. Sometimes it’s one to twelve if it’s a huge month and we can’t decide. We look at all those lists, so twelve times the ten. Then we ask ourselves, did we miss anything this year? Sometimes a book comes, and for some reason — it could be because it was embargoed or because we just missed it. Then someone reads it later, and they’re like, oh, my gosh, this book was amazing. We try not to miss anything. We look at that full list. Then we go, okay, let’s start pulling in our favorite books of the year. We always start with one to ten. Then we do eleven to twenty. Then we do the rest. The one to twenty is the really hard part. One to ten, of course, is really, really important. This is all the team’s taste. I really think the top-ten list you could give anyone, and they would love it. All the books kind of read outside of their genre, which I think is really important.

Zibby: That’s the process. I need a drumroll. There we go. Drumroll. Okay, starting with number ten.

Sarah: Number ten, this is actually an advance copy because even though the book is out, I just don’t have a finished copy of the book. This is Small Mercies by Dennis Lehane. This is a mystery. It’s set in South Boston during the 1970s. It is no holds barred, tough mom out looking for her daughter. It’s very good. This is actually a book that was on our Best of the Year So Far list. As Vannessa Cronin, who’s our mystery and thriller expert on the team, said, it’s the mystery that we keep coming back to this year. This is her favorite mystery of the entire year. She absolutely loved this book so much that we have it on both lists.

Zibby: Wow.

Sarah: I’m looking at my cheat sheet, too, so I don’t get the order out.

Zibby: Number nine.

Sarah: Number nine, I don’t have a visual of, so you will have to imagine Elon Musk’s face right here. It is Elon Musk by Walter Isaacson. It is the new biography that has come out all about Elon Musk. The thing that the team loves about this book is — I think we can agree that Elon Musk can be a divisive figure, but this book really paints him in a very human way. It’s very balanced. It’s surprising. You feel a lot of things, and empathy is one of them, one of the things that my team felt. Walter Isaacson, of course, is sort of the current master of biography. He does such an amazing job with subjects. This book is so relevant for our time. Number nine.

Zibby: I like it. Number nine. So far, I have not read these. Number eight.

Sarah: Number eight, this is one of my favorites from the list. It’s the newest Stephen King book called Holly. Confession for me. I read Misery when I was a child. I don’t know why. I went to see the movie and wanted to read the book, but I’m not a Stephen King person. I didn’t read all the books in between, but I read his last book, Fairy Tale. Believe it or not, Stephen King is so good. Who knew? I love that he does this thing where he can write in different genres. I’ve heard from a lot of people as I’ve been recommending this book, oh, I don’t do Stephen King. I don’t even know what that means because the last book was sort of a fairy tale/horror. This book, it’s so fun. It is a mystery. It has a PI at the center of it named Holly Gibney. She’s appeared in his other books. I can say from experience, no, you don’t have to have read the other books to read this and enjoy it. If you love Holly, she’s the star of this book. I don’t want to give too much away, but it is about an elderly couple who are doing horrible things. I think there’s something so funny about very old people doing horrible things. I could not put this book down. It is so fun and also sort of irreverent too. Highly recommend this book. Absolutely loved it.

Zibby: That was ten, nine, eight. Now we’re at seven.

Sarah: Seven, it’s The Covenant of Water. I think a lot of people have heard of this book. It was an Oprah Book Club pick. I feel like there were no words wasted in this book. It is this epic story told over three generations of people. This family suffers from an affliction. It is a medical mystery. It’s really a mystery, which is funny. It has a strong female at the center of it. You just read this book, and you feel like you could fall into this world. You never want it to end. It’s a feat of literature. Just a beautiful book.

Zibby: I adored Cutting for Stone. When I heard he had a new book coming out, I was like, oh, my gosh, I can’t wait.

Sarah: Have you read this one yet?

Zibby: Yes.

Sarah: I loved it. We’re onto number six. I want to know if you’ve read this book. This is Wellness by Nathan Hill.

Zibby: I have not read it yet. Wellness by Nathan Hill. Not yet.

Sarah: You need to read this. The thing about this book that I’ve been saying to people that is so remarkable to me is I spent the first half of this book literally laughing out loud and the second half crying. It’s so funny and sad because it’s true. It’s about a couple that meet when they’re nineteen. They’re in Chicago. They’re cool, hip kids. In the present day, they’re suburban parents. They’re dealing with CSAs and trying to get the great croissant before they sell out and all these things that are so, honestly, relatable to my life. It’s about how their love and marriage has changed over time and also about how society has changed too. It’s such a clever book. It’s not just for people who are parents, but I do think that parents will see a lot of themselves in this book. It’s just really fun and sad too. It’s sad.

Zibby: Interesting. That was a great pitch.

Sarah: You need to read it.

Zibby: I know. I have to read it. I have to read it.

Sarah: I’m checking the list for this one. Have you read this one?

Zibby: No. What have I been doing with all my time? I don’t even know.

Sarah: I don’t know. What have you been reading? This is King. It’s Jonathan Eig. This is a biography of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Yes, there are a lot of these out there, but this one, I’m going to say, is really special. I have not read every biography of King that there is. The thing that’s really different about this, besides that it draws on unreleased facts before, so recordings from the FBI — it looks at the unpublished manuscript of his father. It paints him not as this — we put him up on this pedestal as this heroic figure. He was, but he was also a human being that had flaws. He cheated on his wife. He suffered from depression, all these things that we sort of write out. This book really brings him into a real rounded human being. You see why he was the way that he was. I feel like I want to read a chapter of this every night and just stay in this world. I think this is the way we should teach history to kids. It’s such a compelling book. I think this is a great gift book for people too, both for young adults, also for parents. It’s a great, great book.

Zibby: Excellent, and can be a doorstop because it’s so big.

Sarah: Oh, my god, it’s so big. Yes. Speaking of big, I’m going to do a little shift with my books here, grab my next stack.

Zibby: Okay, next stack. Keep it coming.

Sarah: Number four is Fourth Wing, Rebecca Yarros’ book.

Zibby: I have to read this.

Sarah: You really have to read it.

Zibby: I know, I know, I know. I just read that huge profile in The New York Times. I was like, oh, my gosh, now I like her even more.

Sarah: Me too. What can I say about this book? To me, it’s like Hunger Games meets Game of Thrones with steamy sex, to be honest. I am not a fantasy person. I’ve read The Hunger Games. I read, I would say, fantasy books that are in the zeitgeist. I was just blown away by this book. This is my favorite part. My colleague Cammie, who is our romance expert on the team, read this book. She was so excited about the new one that is on sale now. It came out November 7th. She said this book ends on the craziest cliffhanger. I think it’s great because there wasn’t that much time between the publication of the Fourth Wing and then the second book. Apparently, she’s writing five in the series. It’s a beautifully well-written book. It has that element of worldbuilding that you get in fantasies, but it also has the tropes of romance. It has the “friends to lovers.” If I’m going to generalize here, I would say I would give this to all the mom friends in my life in the way that I slipped them Fifty Shades of Grey.

Zibby: Interesting. I feel like the sex part is what nobody is talking about. That is a huge selling point. I’m just saying.

Sarah: It is. If you want to talk about that with me after, we can talk about it. Number three book, I actually don’t have a physical copy of. It is The Art Thief. I want to make sure I’m getting the author’s name. The subtitle is A True Story of Love, Crime, and a Dangerous Obsession, by Michael Finkel. This is a story about — it’s Stéphane Breitwieser. I’m sure I’m mispronouncing that. He is the most prolific art thief that we’ve even seen. He is Alsatian. He and his girlfriend at the time basically went around Europe and just stole art. They walked into a room and just took something off the wall, stuck it down their pants, and walked out. It is about his obsession with the world of art as objects of beauty. Unlike most art thieves who steal art and then sell it, he keeps it all. He hordes art. This book catalogs basically everything that he’s stolen and how and then ends with what happens to him. It reads like fiction. You cannot believe this is true. It’s sort of like Thomas Crown Affair meets Becoming Anna, the Netflix series that was based on the book.

Zibby: I love The Thomas Crown Affair.

Sarah: This is another book that I feel like you could give to anyone, and they would enjoy it. It is just pure entertainment. You cannot believe what you’re reading.

Zibby: I feel like all your books so far are very meaty. There’s a lot there. They’re not just a quick read. They’re hefty in either content or emotion or something, substantial in some way. No?

Sarah: Yeah. In the eleven to twenty, we get into some lighter books. When I get to our number one, that book, I think it packs a lot. I felt this about Wellness. Our reader is getting a lot for their money with this book. They are getting in this world, and they’re going to live there for a long time. They’re going to know all the details. That’s really satisfying to me.

Zibby: Interesting. Next one.

Sarah: Number two, I’m really excited about because this is my November book club pick for Sarah Selects.

Zibby: This, I have read.

Sarah: The Berry Pickers by Amanda Peters. This is a debut novel. Also, it’s really beautiful. It starts in the 1960s. An indigenous family from Canada comes to Maine to pick blueberries for the summer. One day, their four-year-old daughter disappears. The last person to see her is her six-year-old brother. Then the story kind of takes two routes, her brother’s route, which follows him and how this one event in his life as a six-year-old has changed the trajectory of his life for the worse — you see him in current day and the demons that he’s facing. Then the other track is of this girl and what happened to her and the life that she lives growing up not knowing that she was part of this family. It reminds me of Celeste Ng’s first book, Everything I Never Told You. It’s sort of, I keep saying quietly beautiful. I realize it doesn’t sound that because when you say something’s quiet, it’s like, . It’s just this beautiful book. What I’ve heard from people in my book club that have started reading it — we read for the whole month. People are done with the book already because they just cannot put it down. It is such a beautifully written book. I think if you’re someone that likes Celeste Ng, who likes Ann Patchett, this is a great book.

Zibby: Excellent. I’m going to go back to the drumroll. Number one. Here we go.

Sarah: My dog’s barking too. She’s very excited. It’s The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store by James McBride. We are big James McBride fans on the team. This book is interesting. It came out this summer. My colleague Al Woodworth read it. She has really impeccable taste. She loves him. She loved this book so much. Slowly, the rest of us on the team came to it. By the time we convened in person to discuss the top ten, this was hands down, no discussion. We all wanted this to be number one. This is about a town called Pottstown that’s in Pennsylvania and the people that live there. It’s really American. It’s about immigrants and voices that are not represented and how they come together and help each other, how found family is as important as family that you’re born into. There is a mystery that runs through it. The characters in this book, you really mourn for them when the book is over because you love them so much. They’re such complicated people. The book is also funny, which I think is something that — you mentioned these are heavy books.

Zibby: Not heavy. Just substantial.

Sarah: Okay, that’s fine.

Zibby: It’s a little different in my head.

Sarah: I’ll go with substantial. There are pieces of this book that are just so funny. To me, that’s important when you say best book of the year. It needs to have something. This has so much. It has so many things that are, honestly, so current to our everyday life and then this element of humor and love and acceptance and really, this very true American story of different cultures, of different people coming together with a common cause. It’s a beautiful book.

Zibby: Here is my question. You have Sarah Selects book club. Every month, I watch eagerly because I feel like we have very similar tastes in some of the things that you’re picking. Why are those not just your favorites of the year, taken all those together, those picks?

Sarah: Because it’s not Sarah’s best books of the year, number one. This is my team. I have a particular kind of taste, and they do too. If you wanted to get my list of best books of the year, I’ll send you an email with them. Really, I want to know the taste of my colleagues who have different lived experience than I do, who have different expertise than I do. I didn’t know that worldbuilding was a thing. When I talk to someone who knows a lot about fantasy, I learned that. Honestly, I probably wouldn’t have read The Art Thief had it not been for my colleague Lindsay Powers. She gets so excited about nonfiction. It warms my heart. They’ll be like, this is a story about drug deals on the street. She’s like, “Oh, my god, I cannot wait to read this.” I’m like, so sad. She’s the one that got behind The Art Thief. I think that’s what you need. You need a well-rounded group of people that bring different views.

Also, I love my book club. The theme is books that I love. I think some people can read a book and be like, oh, you would definitely love that. When I pick a book club book, I want a book that fosters a discussion, and a discussion that I think is interesting and maybe germane to the moment. I wish I picked my books sooner. I will admit that I don’t because I’m always behind on my reading. I just made a list of books I need to read by a certain day. No human being could do this even if they gave up everything else in their life. As a working single mom, I got a lot going on. I wish I picked them sooner. I do try to think about what’s happening in the moment. I was excited to pick the Amanda Peters book. She is an indigenous Canadian. It is Indigenous People’s Month. I don’t necessarily set out to say, let’s find something for this month that speaks to this, but it’s great if it works out.

Zibby: Amazing. Wow. I can’t believe I get to hear this right from you. This is such a thrill. Thank you so much for sharing this and sharing with the listeners. I’ve had some of these authors on my podcast. I’ve had Amanda Peters. I’ve had Abraham Verghese. I think that might be it. Now I have to go back and read up because now I’m feeling really inferior and embarrassed.

Sarah: No. Speaking of inferior, I am so in awe of everything you do. It is incredible. I don’t understand how you do this. You have a family. It’s amazing. I want all your secrets.

Zibby: Grass is always greener. We can just be jealous of each other, so there you go.

Sarah: We both have pretty great jobs. Let’s say that.

Zibby: We’re both very, very lucky. This is a dream job central love fest.

Sarah: Totally.

Zibby: Thank you for the best books of the year from the Amazon Book Review. Really appreciate it. Look forward to seeing you in person.

Sarah: Sounds great. Thank you so much.

Zibby: Bye, Sarah.

Sarah: Bye.


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