Best Books of 2019
Updated: Nov 24, 2021
2019 was a good year in books for me, as witnessed by the fact that I really struggled to put together a top-10 list. It easily could have been top 15, or even top 20 – and I considered doing a top 15 before a friend (the same friend who talked me into starting this blog) told me that nobody likes top-15 lists. So I was ruthless and made a top-10 list, but again – it was hard. I struggled.
My ground rules for my top-10 list are quite simple: it has to be a book I read in that year, regardless of when it was initially published or when I bought it. I also try and stick to original reads rather than re-reads, otherwise Pride and Prejudice would make the list every year (it’s one of those books I religiously reread annually, but I’ll make a post about that at another time).
Some of the books on this list were also books that I qualified as ‘One of the Best Books I’ve Read in a Long Time!!!!!’ as I was reading them. So, with that being said, I can safely promise that all 10 of these books are books that I highly recommend.
Finally, this list is in no particular order – if there is an order, it’s chronological, as I make my list as I read throughout the year.
As I’m sure your appetite is fully whetted by now, read on for my Top 10 List of 2019 and my five honorable mentions:
TL;DR: Read all the books on this list.
The Weight of Ink, by Rachel Kadish
This book was my Christmas present from my childhood best friend (she and I have known each other since we were two years old, and we always give each other books as gifts) and it’s one of those stories that stayed with me for weeks after I finished it. The kind of book that made me sad to leave its story behind. It’s also one of my absolute favourite historical fiction tropes, where two separate story threads interweave and end up being interconnected. The first story thread is that of Ester Velasquez, a Jewish scribe in 1660s London, and the second is of an ageing expert in Jewish history, Helen Watt, in twenty-first century London. The writing is spectacularly lyrical yet eminently readable, and Rachel Kadish doesn’t assume that any of her readers don’t know what she’s talking about – she writes as if her readers match the intelligence of her plot and her main characters, which is incredibly refreshing. She also doesn’t assume that women never have to make a choice between their brains and every other aspect in their life, which takes the story and the plot into some very thought-provoking and sad places. But through it all, it’s an absolutely gripping page-turner; I could not put the book down and raced through it to see how the stories would end up overlapping and being connected. There’s also a bit of a Shakespeare connection, which, as a self-professed Shakespeare nerd, I found both exhilarating and also fascinating. Can highly recommend!
Au revoir là-haut, by Pierre Lemaitre (available in translation under the title The Great Swindle, trans. Frank Wynne)
The great strength of this book is its story: two World War I veterans decide to start a company selling monuments to the dead to villages and families during the rush in France after the war to repatriate the bodies of their lost men. Except, plot twist: the company is a fraud. These two veterans are actually just stealing. And, through it all, there’s an interwoven plot about how these two veterans – who aren’t friends, and don’t like each other very much, but they are connected because one of them (Edouard) was horribly disfigured when saving the other (Albert) from a German attack in the dying months of the war. Because Edouard didn’t want to return his family after the war with half his face missing, Albert fakes Edouard’s death and the two of them embark on a secret life away from both of their families without any help from the French government, as that’s also the driving storyline of the book – is that while everyone is incredibly eager to honor the dead, nobody is willing to help those who have returned from the war traumatized and needing help. This book is simultaneously very light and very difficult reading – it is heartbreakingly sad in parts, but also incredibly heart-warming; and through it all, the book remains steadfastly dedicated to its plot and light, assured writing style. Pierre Lemaitre is clearly an experienced writer. This was a very easy book to get through, and also a difficult story to accept and digest because of how well it dovetails with modern-day stories of war. I can highly recommend.
The Book of Essie, by Meghan McLean Weir
This one is a bit of a cheat, as I originally read this book in 2018 and then gave it a revisit in 2019. I can’t quite explain why it made the list in 2019 but not in 2018, but I think the fact that I felt compelled to go back and revisit it speaks highly to its staying power as a story. The Book of Essie explores the overlapping lives and stories of three main protagonists: Essie, the youngest child of a very successful televangelist who discovers she’s pregnant out of wedlock at the start of the novel; Liberty Bell, a formerly staunch Republican blogger and journalist who’s carrying some very profound childhood trauma; and Roarke, the boy at Essie’s high school that she chooses to be her partner in the story she spins to the media about her pregnancy. I can’t really say anything else without giving the end of the book away, but this is an un-put-downable book that I tore through in one sitting both on my original read and my reread. Meghan MacLean Weir is a very talented, careful writer who handles some complicated issues in a deft, compassionate way. My only criticism is that the ‘villains’ of the story can occasionally be a bit one-dimensional, but the emotional connection I felt to all of the main characters was profound from the first page to the last one. I think this book will become a regular reread for me, just because of how enjoyable a read it is (even though it might appear paradoxical to find a book about difficult topics enjoyable), and I’m eagerly anticipating whatever this author releases next.
The Heavens, by Sandra Newman
This is a delightful little book about an alternate universe where Shakespeare never become popular, and so his works were lost to history. If that seems a bit outlandish, wait till the plot twist – this alternate universe is controlled by our protagonist while she dreams. If that seems like a difficult concept to wrap your head around, don’t worry – it does become easy to follow once you start reading. It’s an original, weird, lovely little book. I tore through it in one sitting because every chapter felt like a smaller book encapsulated within the main one, and the premise was so intriguing it led to some genuinely fascinating, well-rounded characters that I actively wished were real just so we could be friends. This is one of those books were you walk away feeling quite reflective; I spent the rest of the weekend after finishing it thinking about how precarious some of the most-loved and most-known literature of history must have felt at the time. This book also reaffirmed my deep, abiding, greater-than-anything-else-I’ve-ever-loved adoration of Shakespeare, and prompted me to restudy the sonnets in more detail than I ever had. I don’t, however, recommend this book to everyone – both the writing style and the premise are particular enough that if it doesn’t immediately appeal to you, you won’t get much out of it. And it’s such an interesting, well-written, enjoyable story that it would be a shame to not enjoy every page of it.
The Narrow Road to the Deep North, by Richard Flanagan
So when I sent this list to a friend of mine (the same friend mentioned in the intro, who also told me I should start this blog – Jesus he’s getting a lot of mentions in this post, maybe I should be charging him for this service I’m providing), he disagreed the most strongly with this book. I’d recommended it to him and he hated it, and so was very surprised at how much I loved it – especially considering that I’d advertised this book by saying it was a hard, hard read. And yet – I fucking loved it. If I had to pick my favorite book of 2019, this one would be in serious contention for top spot. This book focuses on an Australian soldier, Dorrigo Evans, who grew up in a very rural, very remote, and very poor part of Australia – and then he joins the army in the lead-up to the Second World War as a doctor. This book is simultaneously both a love story and a story about the horrors of war – the love story between Dorrigo and the affair he has with his uncle’s much younger wife Amy; and the horrible war story about the prisoner of war camp in Burma run by the Japanese, who use the Australian prisoners to build the now-notorious Burma railroad (the ‘narrow road’ of the title). The book features horrific scenes of beatings, rapes, and torture – and yet the writing is unspeakably, almost painfully, beautiful. The narrative shifts in time, starting with Dorrigo in his old age, going backwards and forwards, but it is not at all difficult to follow and is gripping in a different way than a page-turner – it’s gripping because of the emotional punches that Flanagan does not, and I mean does not, hold back from throwing, and the sheer fascination you feel with all the characters, the good and the bad; and the nuance the author puts into all the characters, and the way you walk away from each chapter starting to doubt the way you felt at the end of the previous one, and the absolute loveliness of the writing. The last fifty pages of the book were so unbearably sad that I was sobbing on public transportation (and I live in England, so that is frowned upon). I felt every piece of this book right down into my bones and in my soul. It’s one of the most beautiful pieces of writing I have ever read, and honestly, everyone should read this book. Everyone.
Frappe-toi le cœur, by Amélie Nothomb (available in translation under the title Strike Your Heart, here)
Amélie Nothomb is an incredibly prolific Belgian writer who releases a short novel (200 pages, thereabouts) at least once a year. She’s been doing that since the early 1990s. I read her releases religiously, because Nothomb is the type of author who can make language do basically whatever she wants with it. She’s funny, a bit funky, very ridiculous, always original, and yet incredibly readable (it also doesn’t hurt that hers are the types of books you can read on a train ride, and are always very thin). However, in the early 2010s there was a real dip in the quality of her writing – it was less snappy, the stories were a bit too fantastical to be believable or enjoyable, the joy in her writing was gone and it seemed like she was just going by rote in order to put a book out, and the sensation that she was prioritizing being original over writing a decent novella. I was, therefore, very pleasantly surprised to discover that Frappe-toi le cœur (‘Strike Your Heart’ in the English translation) was a return to Amélie Nothomb at her very best. A wonderful story that gripped me from the start and that I adored following, fantastical writing that bubbled almost like champagne, and most importantly, a real connection to the writing and the story – a feeling that Amélie was writing this book for the joy of writing it, not that she had to publish a book, and she had rediscovered her love of language and her facility with it. As much as I loved this book and have fallen in love with the author again, I would be wary of recommending reading her in translation – I think a great part of why I enjoy so much is because of the facilities Nothomb has with the French language, and all she can do with it. Some of that, I worry, might be lost in translation. So if you, like me, are lucky enough (thanks Mom and Dad!) to be able to read in French, or can even muddle through a book in French with a dictionary, I would recommend reading it in the original.
Platform Seven, by Louise Doughty
Platform Seven was described as a ‘whodunit in reverse’. Now, as everyone who knows me can attest, I absolutely adore a good whodunit (Agatha Christie is one of my favorite authors; eventually I will write a post about my favorite whodunits and Agatha Christie will feature, probably disproportionately). In this one, we start off with the ghost of a woman who died at the Peterborough railway station, and we go backwards – back into her life – to discover how and why she died. I couldn’t stop reading it in much the same way you can’t look away from a car crash – it’s gripping and the horror of the novel is chilling and hits you, especially if you’re a woman, right in the gut. I think part of what makes it so horrifying is how, ultimately, entirely predictable the denouement is. But this whodunit was also very well-written, with nuanced, thoughtful, believable characters, and Louise Doughty never dips into social commentary or philosophising – she just lets the story speak for itself and develop on its own, so it never felt rushed, or crammed, or like I wasn’t watching something proceed naturally. Overall, it was a very sophisticated and yet terrifying murder mystery – which I still maintain is the very best kind!
The Reckless Oath We Made, by Bryn Greenwood
Okay. Okay. Where do I even START with this book. This, like Narrow Road, is in serious contention for potentially my favorite book of 2019, and is definitely, without a doubt, one of my favorite books of all time (that is a very, very difficult list to break into and I will, again, have a post on that at some later point down the line). It’s been described as an ‘unlikely fairy tale’, and it’s almost impossible to summarize the plot without making this book sound too bonkers to read properly: it alternates in viewpoints between Zhorzha, a young woman with a bad hip and a really fucked up family, and Gentry, a young man on the autistic spectrum who processes the world by seeing himself as a Quixote-type knight, speaks in Middle English (although it’s not technically Middle English, it’s just regular English with some linguistic flourishes, so it’s actually quite easy to read. Yes, I’m aware of the type of person that this sentence makes me.), and decides that it his life’s duty to be Zee’s knight-protector. This book also goes down the path of a gritty thriller, involving kidnapping, drugs, the Klan, etc. There is so much happening, and yet it works. It works so well. Everything about this book is flawlessly plotted and flawlessly executed: Bryn Greenwood has drawn characters who are as flawed and complicated as real-life humans are. None of the characters in this book are either all good or all bad (even though some of them are way, way badder than others). The way you react to the characters is sometimes a bit more visceral than you would in reality, but other than that, all of my reactions matched exactly what these people would be like if you met them. The main character is both incredibly relatable and also stands out in her own way, but she isn’t universally loved or even liked by the other characters, which also feels real; none of the quirks and character flaws get brushed over in the interest of making a hero’s journey. Also, and this is what was incredibly refreshing in this type of story, is that nobody escapes the consequences of their actions. There’s no get-out-of-jail-free card for the main characters who do ‘bad things for the right reasons’. Everyone has to pay for the mistakes they’ve made, and yet nothing about the story feels forced, or rushed, or that there’s a suspension of disbelief to make it work. Bryn Greenwood successfully pulls off every emotional climax and moment, so that in moments I was shaking with fury and then three pages later sobbing with emotion. It’s also just an incredibly good story – I couldn’t stop reading it, because I was hooked from the very first page and was on the edge of my seat, reading through the pages so fast I sometimes needed to go back and re-read whole paragraphs, because I was just so, so desperate to find out how this magnificent story would end. And, throughout it all, the book is meticulously, impeccably written. I do not have enough words to describe how phenomenal this book is. Stop reading this stupidly long blog post and go read this book instead. Call in sick from work until you finish it. Read it right now.
Invisible Women, by Caroline Criado Perez
This is the only nonfiction book on my top-10 list this year. It’s a scientific book that explores and explains the data biases that lead to women being, as the title suggests, ‘invisible’ in certain situations – like the fact that most car crash test dummies are designed to mimic male bodies rather than female bodies, and that cell phones are built for men’s hands, and that drugs are tested on male subjects rather than female subjects and so most drugs don’t have a scientific basis for explaining side effects on women. I’m still angry about that last one. This book is both funny and eye-opening, and will also make you angry – but is also a must-read for all women, especially women who have male friends who still deny the pay gap. I learned so much while reading this and was also hugely entertained the whole time.
La Douane de mer, by Jean d’Ormesson
So this is a slightly weird pick, even for me. Jean d’Ormesson is a French author who died two years ago, and whose ‘novels’ barely count as novels – they are more like philosophical, and very metaphysical, and almost religious explorations of history, time, the world, art, literature, etc. This book tells the story of a man who dies while on holiday in Venice with his wife, and while his spirit is ascending to wherever spirits ascend after death, meets a spirit visiting from another galaxy – and together, these two spirits try and create a ‘definitive report’ on the world (Earth). It covers history, science, art, literature, philosophy, biology, evolution, religions, music, society, politics – just about everything you can think of, these two spirits try and cram into their definitive report. If it sounds like much, that’s because it is – and still you walk away from this massive tome (it’s almost 600 pages long) feeling like so much got left out. In a way, I think that’s what made this book so delightful yet weird to read – is that humanity, despite its pretty massive fucking flaws, has still done and created so many wonderful things that nobody, not even an immortal spirit from a hugely advanced society in another galaxy, will ever be able to account for or even understand the vast potential for good and beauty that lies in humankind. This book also made me think – quite desperately – about what I would put in my own definitive report on humanity, and the fact that my own list got as philosophical, metaphysical and esoteric as this book speaks to what I think is Jean d’Ormesson’s universality. He doesn’t seem to have become popular outside of France enough for his works to be translated in English yet, which is kind of a shame – there was something very reassuring about reading this book that I think everyone needs to carry with them as we enter 2020, a year already shaping up to be another hellhole.
The Farm, by Joanne Ramos
This is a book about a high-tech, futuristic scientific/tech start-up that has basically monetized surrogacy. But it also explores the very real exploitation that happens in immigrant, especially poor immigrant, communities, including the exploitation that happens in those communities as well. This book was very well-written and very well-paced, with no flat, one-dimensional or un-nuanced characters. It raised more questions than it answered, while also reaching a satisfying conclusion.
Catch and Kill: Lies, Spies and a Conspiracy to Protect Predators, by Ronan Farrow
Ronan Farrow is always an incredibly instructive, enjoyable read. His latest offering reads like a real-life thriller, and that was definitely my reaction to it: even though I knew how it ended, I couldn’t put it down. I regretted agreeing to attend a party when I was halfway through because the only thing I wanted to do was stay in bed and finish this book. Ronan also writes magnificently well. In any other year, it probably would have made the Top 10 list – as his first book did in 2018.
The Luminaries, by Eleanor Catton
This book is a fucking tome, and gets weirdly mystical and a bit magical at the end. But it focuses on a part of the world and a time period that I knew very little about, and felt a bit like going on an adventure for me, and the writing style definitely matched that: lilting, lyrical, metaphorical, but very gripping and a surprisingly easy, enjoyable read.
How Not to Die Alone, by Richard Roper
A lovely, heartbreaking read. I cried for a solid twenty minutes when the climax revealed itself, and couldn’t stop talking about how beautiful I found the story for several weeks afterwards. The only reason this didn’t make the top 10 is because it is, at moments, very obvious that this is the author’s debut novel – the writing falls a bit flat in places, and can occasionally be very repetitive. But I still very much am looking forward to whatever Richard Roper puts out next!
Le mystère Henri Pick, by David Foenkinos
This is a very short, very well-paced, tightly-written book about a library in a remote part of France that has an ‘abandoned manuscript’ section. A successful editor and her fiancé go back to her parents’ house, and stumble upon a manuscript that ends up being an incredibly successful bestseller. It’s a lovely little book on the power of memory, how much people are willing to sacrifice for success, and how you can choose to be remembered, or not. It's an en entirely delightful speed-read.
That’s it from me, folks. Sorry for the incredibly long post – but I hope you find it helpful in orienting your reading in this first half of 2020, and if you do read any of these, please let me know what you thought of them!