It’s the most wonderful time of the year! Time to wrap up my year in reading and give a shout-out to my favorite books of the year.
First, some stats. I read 131 books this year totalling 44,265 pages. That might be a new record for me, at least since I’ve been keeping track. If you want to see everything I’ve read this year and follow what I’m reading in 2020, check out my Reading Challenge on Goodreads.
Of the 131 books I read in 2019:
103 were Fiction, 27 were Nonfiction, and 1 was a Poetry collection.
34 were Contemporary or Literary Fiction
28 were Thrillers/Mysteries
17 Were Historical Fiction
14 Were Memoirs or Autobiographies
10 were Fantasy/Magical Realism/Fiction with some fantastic elements
8 were Romances/Chick Lit
6 Were Essay collections
4 were General Nonfiction
3 were Short Story collections
3 were Young Adult (2 of which were novels in verse)
2 were True Crime
1 was a Graphic Memoir
1 was Poetry
108 were by female authors
32 were by authors of color
63 were published in 2019
26 5-star reviews*
52 4-star reviews
47 3-star reviews
4 2-star reviews
1 1-star review
1 not starred
In no particular order, here are my favorite books of the year.
The River by Peter Heller. A survival story in every sense of the word. Two boys take a weeks-long canoe trip down an isolated river when a forest fire breaks out. As the boys try to outpace the fire, they are confronted with forces more sinister than nature. I am not particularly outdoorsy and can think of few things I would hate more than an extended canoe trip, but this turned out to be one of my favorite reads of the year.
This Tender Land by William Kent Krueger. Huck Finn meets Peace Like a River plus something else I can’t quite put my finger on…maybe something that reminded me of True Grit, though I’m not exactly sure why… Regardless, I loved this story about four orphans in Depression Era Minnesota who band together to escape their circumstances and run away together in a canoe. I especially liked the way the theme of religion was handled throughout the novel.
An Elderly Lady is up to No Good by Helene Tursten. Basically this is Dexter if Dexter were an old Swedish woman. Maud is an 88-year-old woman who has reached a point in her life where she knows what she wants and has no qualms about doing what she has to do to get it…even a little light murder. This is a short book made up of a few short stories. You can get through it in an afternoon.
The Lager Queen of Minnesota by J. Ryan Stradal. I really enjoyed Stradal’s last book, Kitchens of the Great Midwest, but this one was even better. Stradal has a real knack for getting at the heart of the hardworking, salt-of-the earth people that have become synonymous with the Midwest and bringing to life characters that are both funny and endearing. Bonus points for female characters excelling in a male-dominated industry. Also, the audiobook is excellent.
Circe by Madeline Miller I had been hearing rave reviews of this all year before I finally read it and it definitely lived up to the hype. Miller takes the character of Circe, the witch queen from The Odyssey and remimagines her as a flawed, but fierce woman fighting to make a place for herself in a world built for men. The language is rich and layered – somehow completely modern while evoking the epic poetry of Homer.
Miracle Creek by Angie Kim. I am a big fan of character-driven mysteries and would typically choose them over a police procedural. I’m stealing part of the Goodreads synopsis here because it is succinct. “In a small town in Virginia, a group of people know each other because they’re part of a special treatment center, a hyperbaric chamber that may cure a range of conditions from infertility to autism. But then the chamber explodes, two people die, and it’s clear the explosion wasn’t an accident.” There was something about this that was reminiscent of Big Little Lies to me, not in terms of content, but in the sense that the closer you get to each character, the more clearly they all seem to have motives that make even simple things less than black and white. I also appreciated how the author drew on her own experience immigrating to the US from South Korea to create the family at the center of the drama.
Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie. This was one of the last books I read this year and I’m so glad I squeezed it in. Isma has given years of her life to raise her younger twin siblings after their parents’ deaths. She has also worked hard to make a life for them in London and escape the legacy of her father – a jihadist who died on his way to Guatanamo. Then she makes friends with Eamonn, a man whose father is a prominent politician. He becomes entwined with her and her sister, Aneeka. But when their brother Parvaiz becomes involved with a jihadist organization in an effort to connect to his dead father, Eamonn must struggle with his convictions and the expectations of his own father. I found this book particularly provocative because it wasn’t just the story of innocent Muslim immigrants suffering discrimination because of the actions of a few extremists who happen to share the same religion, but instead included people who did have direct connections to extremists, as if to say that these people have a right to have their stories told too. Very thought-provoking.
These books were previously mentioned in my best of the year so far post, but have retained their status as favorites.
Daisy Jones and the Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid. This might have been my most favorite book of the year. Oral history of a seventies rock band. Feels so real, you will find yourself trying to look up their songs on Spotify. Also, I can’t be the only one who was picturing Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper while reading this.
Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese. This has been on my TBR list for years and I finally got to it this year. I don’t know what took me so long. Orphaned twin brothers, products of an illicit union between an Indian nun and an English surgeon, grow up inseparable in Ethiopia until one day they are driven apart by war and by betrayal. Themes of identity, revolution, family, healing, relationship between doctors and patients, and the role of medicine.
Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield. A young girl is pulled from the frozen river, dead, then alive. She does not speak and seems to have no memory of who she is or where she came from. Multiple people try to claim her. Dreamy, lush, fairy-tale-esque. Set in a fictional world strongly resembling 18th century England.
Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens. Swamp girl makes her own way in a world where she will never fully belong. Set in South Carolina marshland. Extremely atmospheric.
Honorable Mention: A Better Man, The Poet X,Ayesha at Last, The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls, City of Girls, A Woman is No Man, Ask Again, Yes, and The Ten Thousand Doors of January
I started to make a list of my favorite nonfiction books as well, but it was almost identical to my list from August, so you can check those out here. I just have two more to add:
Good Talk by Mira Jacobs. This is a graphic memoir told through conversations about race, identity, love, and family between the author, a first-generation American, and important people in her life.
American Predator by Maureen Callahan Absolutely fascinating True Crime that reads like a novel about the hunt for Israel Keyes, “the most meticulous serial killer of the 21st century.” As you may know, I am weirdly fascinated by serial killer true crime so this was right up my alley. Disturbing for sure, but fascinating, this is an excellent piece of investigative journalism if you can stomach that sort of thing.
And that’s a wrap! What were your favorite reads of 2019?
*5 stars = I loved it
4 stars = I really, really liked it
3 stars = I liked it, but it wasn’t anything really special or memorable
2 stars = I had some major issues with it
1 star = I hated it
I’ve heard of a lot of the books you mention but haven’t read any of them. I’m adding a few to my wish list so I don’t forget about them! I didn’t know that J. Ryan Stradal had a new book out — I loved Kitchens of the Great Midwest too.
A stand-out book for me was All the Rivers by Dorit Rabinyan. It’s set mostly in New York and it’s the story of a relationship between an Israeli woman and a Palestinian man. It inspired me to learn more about the Israel/Palestine conflict, and the writing is just gorgeous. Such evocative characters. I was sad when I turned the final page!
Hope you’re doing well and enjoying motherhood. Happy New Year 🙂