2019 was a banner year for my reading life. Not only did I read the most books I’ve read in a year, but also read more diversely than ever, both in terms of author demographics and genre. While this wasn’t a ‘goal’ for my year as such, it was gratifying to see that, without even trying, I read so many books by authors representing historically underrepresented demographic groups (60% of the books I read were written by women, and a further 5% by authors identifying as non-binary or trans; 17% were written by LGBTQ2+ authors; and 22% by non-white authors). I think this goes to show that the publishing industry has finally ‘got it’ and is making the work of more diverse voices more widely available.
I was also gratified to overcome some genre prejudice this year: that not all Romance needs to be a guilty pleasure, that I can enjoy horror in the right circumstances, and that Young Adult fiction often deals with life far more honestly than capital-L Literature, while not taking itself nearly as seriously.
Here are some quick spoiler-free elevator pitches for the eleven best books I read this year, in no particular order:
(Jon Cohen, 2018)
This is one of the most delightful books I read this year, but it also includes some of the most profound reflections I’ve encountered about grief, loss, and the process of moving on. I can’t help but call it ‘magical,’ but it it is entirely the kind of everyday magic that we make for ourselves and in relationship with one another. A truly beautiful book.
(Rosamunde Pilcher, 1987)
This is an award-winning book about an older woman reflecting on her life, from her Bohemian childhood in the 1920s, coming of age during the War, to her difficult relationships with her now-grown children in Thatcher’s England. It is a beautiful book about belonging, family, and the nature of love that lasts even when it only has a short time to bloom.
(Oyinkan Braithwaite, 2018)
This is a fantastic and fast-paced, darkly comic tale about a nurse in Lagos whose sister’s boyfriends have a tendency to turn up dead; but more deeply, about the ties that bind us together (and that we often wish didn’t) and how far we will go to protect those we love. It is also probably the most interesting take I’ve seen to date in literature on the relationship between reality, fantasy, image and escapism in social media.
(Rachel Kadish, 2017)
This book begins with a trove of letters dating from the time of London’s great plague that are discovered in the walls of an old house. It tells the story of these letters both from the perspective of those who wrote them and the historians trying to put the pieces of their puzzling story together. It is beautifully written and it provides thoughtful commentary on questions of identity and tradition and the often difficult tensions of individuation and belonging. (This book deals with some similar ideas and themes as Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things, which made last year’s list.)
(Rainbow Rowell, 2015): This book, which is the “final book” of an imagined hugely popular fantasy series, caught me totally by surprise in all the best ways. I was expecting a fun romp lovingly satirizing popular fantasy series and their fandoms. And while it is unquestionably a big, fat, FUN love letter to Harry Potter and all of the fan fiction it has inspired (especially of the OTP variety), it is so much more than that. Rowell has succeeded in creating a fascinating, unique and nuanced fantasy universe in its own right, whose rules, mythology, and crises are only made richer and deeper by their obvious allusions to other fantasy universes.
(Elizabeth Gilbert, 2019)
While best known for her memoirs (most notably the immensely popular Eat Pray Love), Elizabeth Gilbert is an incredibly gifted novelist. She is in fact one of two authors to make my top ten list two years in a row. But The City of Girls could really not be more different than The Signature of All Things; it grabs the reader from the first paragraph and doesn’t let its foot off the accelerator until about two thirds the way through. This is a great book about the golden age of American entertainment, a great New York book, and a fantastic story of coming of age and picking up the pieces when life goes sideways.
(Lori Gottlieb, 2019)
In this memoir, a therapist talks about her craft from both sides of the clipboard, reflecting on some of her most interesting cases as well as her experience as a patient after an unexpected break-up. This was not only thoughtful and educational, but also highly entertaining. This is the book I’ve recommended the most to people this year and that’s saying a lot.
(S. A. Chakraborty, 2019)
The complicated web of relationships and political intrigue established in The City of Brass only grows tighter in this second installment. Everyone in this world is deeply conflicted and compromised and I couldn’t love them or this book more. I have no idea where book three will go, but I cannot wait to find out!
(Tom Ryan, 2019)
It’s rare for a book to be super fun and entertaining while also speaking profound truths in a non-preachy way; this is one such book. A thrilling ride of a mystery, it is also a story about the complicated nature of teenage friendship and friend-groups. It’s probably the only book I’ve read that handles the blurred lines of feelings between gay teens and their charismatic straight friends in a way that reads true. I could not put this down — it was a one-sitting read for me — and super super loved every second of it.
(Kate Quinn, 2019)
This is a compelling novel told in three connected narratives: a young woman drawn away from remote village life and into the heart of the Second World War, a team of Nazi-hunters tracking down a war criminal known as ‘the Huntress’, and a young woman in 1950s Boston who begins to have questions about who her new step-mother really is. A great read!
(Robin W. Kimmerer, 2015)
This book is the reason I did a top 11 list year year: I could not not include this title among my top books! In this memoir, Kimmerer, a Professor of Environmental and Forest Biology and member of the Potawatomi (Neshnabé) nation, reflects on plants and her relationship with them through the lenses of both traditional indigenous knowledge and Western science. Her writing is simultaneously erudite and poetic, and if you really want a treat, listen to this on audiobook. I’m not generally a fan of that medium, but Kimmerer’s curiosity, love, and poetry come out so beautifully in her own voice.
- The Nest (Kenneth Oppel): This is a creepy middle-grade book about a wasp nest that is more than meets the eye.
- Daisy Jones and the Six (Taylor Jenkins Reid): If you have fond memories of Behind the Music, you’ll love this novel tracing the rise and fall of a fictional 1970s supergroup.
- The Marrow Thieves (Cherie Dimaline): A dystopian novel about indigenous Canadians being hunted for their bone marrow that only seems far-fetched if you forget our (all too recent) history.
- The Starless Sea (Erin Morgenstern): This is probably the buzziest book of the second half of 2019, and with good reason. It is a book for book-lovers, and a portal story about portal stories. Beautifully written, and genuinely surprising until the end. (Bonus points for random Toronto and Mississauga references!)
- Good Luck with That (Kristan Higgins): This is a thought-provoking story about living with obesity (both real and perceived), but mostly about what it means to live.
- History is All You Left Me (or anything else by Adam Silvera): Adam Silvera writes beautiful, devastating stories of youthful love and loss. This is no exception. Read if you need a good cathartic ugly-cry.
- The War that Saved My Life and The War I Finally Won (Kimberly Brubaker Bradley): This dyad of Middle Grade novels tells the story of a thoroughly traumatized girl (content warning for psychological and physical parental abuse) who is evacuated with her brother to a small town in Kent during the blitz. It powerfully engages difficult themes such as war, loss, rejection, and PTSD, all the while remaining completely age appropriate.
- Essentialism (Greg McKeown): The premise of Essentialism (both the theory and the book) is simple: do the things that matter most. This book provided me with a helpful vocabulary to describe how I like to live.
For further recommendations, see also last year’s list (which includes the titles of my 2017 list too!),