It’s been a weird year. With a lot of lows and a lot of highs, sometimes I didn’t know how to feel. But one thing that constantly kept me excited, intrigued, and motivated? Literature. Ahh yes, my best friend that has never and will never let me down. In 2019, I read 31 books (the review for #31 will be posted in the new year).
I raved about many of them and stated how interesting they were and how difficult it was to put them down; others were less so. But where do they compare with one another? You’re about to find out.
2019 books, let’s get you ranked.
In a time when xenophobia seems to run rampant and many countries, especially the U.S., are facing an extreme migrant crisis, I wanted to love Border Child. Nothing else could feel more relevant with our current situation at the Mexican-American border, but this one failed to capture the true emotion of the tragic situation and relied too much on stereotypes. Unfortunately, a book that should have spoken to the times made me not want to give it the time of day.
31. Beloved by Toni Morrison
When Toni Morrison passed away in August, I felt shame for never reveling in her writing while she was alive. So I chose one of her most beloved novels as my first. (Is that too on the nose?) Alas, I never felt a connection to this classic. Rather, I felt confused and lost with the symbolism and poetry that Morrison utilized to tell her tale. This is one of those “it’s not what you say; it’s how you say it” situations.
30. Revolutionary by Alex Myers
Similar to my feelings of Beloved, I greatly appreciated everything Alex Myers said in Revolutionary, a historical fiction novel that speaks to the transgender experience — something we don’t get often enough in literature. The lack of action, though, had me dragging through this one, especially when a true climax failed to emerge. I wanted so much more than what I got.
29. The Dinner List by Rebecca Serle
This quick read was recommended to by my friend, which I really do appreciate. Between unspoken moments and movements that are supposed to give away the characters’ emotions and secrets and the many clichés sprinkled throughout, The Dinner List had more flaws than strengths. I must admit, though, the concept of eating dinner with anyone past or present intrigued me. I can assure you my invites to George Washington and Lady Gaga have been sent.
28. The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah
Now, this was an interesting read. I don’t necessarily mean the book but rather my experience with it. I’ve had a few friends tell me they loved Kristin Hannah’s novel about taking on the Alaskan frontier. And it actually seems like something I would like too. However, I chose to read this very long novel on a flight from Philadelphia to Doha, Qatar and then to South Africa. A part of me thinks the anxious feeling of wanting to deplane influenced my opinion of the book. The lit lover in me says it had too many clichés and too much plot. It really could have used fewer chapters and twists.
27. The Red Coat: A Novel of Boston by Dolley Carlson
My very first e-reader book! I read The Red Coat, a generational and familial novel that takes place in Boston, to and from a trip to Bean Town with my mom. While it lacks a central narrative and seems a bit discombobulated, it says a lot about a great city and the power of family, especially moms. Call me a sucker, but that’s something that will get me every single time.
26. The Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer
Meg Wolitzer’s latest came at a very opportune time, with #metoo and the female fight for equality a focal point in American culture and politics. I had read Wolitzer’s The Wife a few months before and thoroughly enjoyed it, so I expected the same from her latest. Sadly, it didn’t quite have the pizazz and “umph” as its predecessor. In my review, I wrote, “Where her novel soars with meaning and relevance, it lacks in poignancy.” I’d say I nailed it.
25. Tell Me Lies by Carola Lovering
Another book from my wonderful trip to Africa! This is such a relatable book because we’ve all been in toxic relationships or experienced them through someone else. Carola Lovering gets bonus points for that and for the sexiness the book exudes. Seriously, there’s a lot of sex in this one — only some of it is believable. It also creates a lot of anxiety because of the self-destruction of its main character. I guess if a novel invades our emotions, it’s doing its job.
24. The 100-Yard Journey: A Life in Coaching and Battling for the Win by Gary Pinkel and Dave Matter
Some of you might be wondering who Gary Pinkel is and why this unknown book is at number 23 on my ranked list. Only 18 people on Goodreads have read it after all. If you’re a Mizzou fan or someone who loves college football, you’ll understand. True, Gar-Bear (as I so lovingly have always referred to him over the years) is not the best writer I’ve ever encountered. This book, however, gives me such nostalgia that I can’t help but hold it in a special place.
23. My Husband’s Wife by Jane Corry
Jane Corry really knows how to captivate an audience. This creepy and slightly frightening novel gives us a convicted murderer, a defense lawyer, some affairs, and many mind games. What it doesn’t give us is great writing and jaw-dropping plots. That’s OK. I still enjoyed it. Sometimes all you want is a book you can’t put down because that’s an extreme quality all on its own.
22. Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams
This contemporary fiction novel was recommended to me by author Richard Roper. What a great guy. It’s also been on many a list this year. Unfortunately, I only gave it three flames. Its beginning needed some logistical clarity; therefore, it took a bit for Candice Carty-Williams to find her rhythm. When she did, though, she threw us much-needed insight into intersectionality and much-appreciated humor in the midst of some dire situations.
21. In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
Let’s hear it for the beginning of four-flame material! I started my Storied series in an effort to read more of the classics, books that I struggled to read when they were required in school but ones that I wanted a greater appreciation for. In Cold Blood was always on that list of “must try.” I’m certainly glad I did. Yes, some have questioned the validity of Truman Capote’s “nonfiction,” but it reads and intrigues so well that I will let that slide.
20. Friday Night Lights: a Town, a Team, and a Dream by H.G. Bissinger
*There’s more to come on this one, but let’s just say I enjoyed it even more my second time around.*
19. The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai
The Great Believers might be the most catastrophic book on this list. Why? Because it illustrates how an entire country turned its back on a group of people when they needed us the most. True, there’s a pattern of this behavior in American history. Reading about the AIDS crisis in the 1980s, though, will crush you every single time. Rebecca Makkai accomplishes that in her novel. It may contain some backstory that I didn’t love, but this one really shook me and deserves all of the praise it’s received.
18. The Turn of the Key by Ruth Ware
It’s no secret that I’m a bit of a scaredy-cat. I refuse to watch scary movies, but for some reason I didn’t reject The Turn of the Key. This thriller put me on edge every single second I was reading it and for a long time after I’d set it down too. Ruth Ware has certainly mastered the anxiety-inducing, creepy thriller. My second venture into her writing confirmed that I will be irrationally coming back for more.
17. The Dogs of Babel by Carolyn Parkhurst
*This one should really be number one because of the below picture and because a dog is one of the main characters.*
The fun part about this gripping tale deals with the genesis of me reading it: a dare by my partner to read a book with ZERO knowledge of its premise beforehand. It was scary, but it paid off because even though I wanted to cry many times while reading The Dogs of Babel, I very much enjoyed this book that depicts the power of the silent, internal struggle and of man’s best friend.
16. The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah
I will admit that Kristin Hannah is not my favorite writer (check out #28 for more reasons why). However, The Nightingale is a page-turner that will make you feel every single emotion felt by its characters. Hannah connects many stories and perspectives in this WWII novel to somehow tell the many facets and complexities that comprise this interesting and heart-breaking moment in history.
15. Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue
You will feel immense sympathy for the kind and naïve main characters of Behold the Dreamers. But how could any of us really feel empathy for a poor immigrant family from Cameroon who has moved to New York and whose citizenship comes into question at the onslaught of the financial crisis? I can never imagine what that would feel like. Imbolo Mbue covers a myriad of topics in this novel, and they’re all something we could stand to read about.
14. Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
Thank goodness for jury duty, which is exactly how I spent six hours one day powering through the harrowing and incredibly educational epic novel Pachinko. I’m not kidding when I say my eyes were opened to a world and to a history I never knew before. Min Jin Lee will break your heart — it’s inevitable. She also tackles many complex topics and themes (family and identity being the top two), and anyone who reads her writing will have massive respect for her as a storyteller.
13. How Not to Die Alone by Richard Roper
Did my love for this book grow after its author agreed to do a Q&A with me? OK, it’s possible. But I also liked this book the entire time I held it in my hands. How Not to Die Alone wins the award for having the saddest character of the year. Seriously, you just want to hug Andrew when you read about his life. This book is packed with humor and charm, as well, that will bring you sheer joy while reading such a depressing story.
12. Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens
This one right here has received praise from just about every big lit wig. And rightfully so. It wasn’t on the New York Times‘ best seller list for nothin’ (where it still sits, mind you). We have coming-of-age. We have some whodunit. And we have a lot of, “dammit, humanity.” Delia Owens really has literary talent you don’t see too often these days. She masterfully mixes poetry with prose and the beauty of nature with the mundaneness of life. Yeah, this is a good one.
11. Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows by Balli Kaur Jaswal
I started this fascinating read on a flight from Barcelona and finished it right before we touched down in NYC. Yes, I read it the entire flight, and I enjoyed every minute of it. It calls out our taboos, and it questions cultural boundaries. It also proves everyone has creativity, passion and fantasies, and a yearning to express themselves. Did I mention it’s also mysterious and sexy? Balli Kaur Jaswal provides a lot in such a short read.
10. Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom
It was such a coincidence that an abundance of onions appeared near me every time I picked up Tuesdays with Morrie. I really could not escape them — or the emotions I felt while reading this one. Everyone has someone like Morrie in their life, someone who lives life to the fullest and inspires us to do the same. This book perfectly captures the effect someone like Morrie has on the world. And — fair warning — it will make you bawl.
9. Becoming by Michelle Obama
The queen!! That’s right. I had the great honor of reading the queen’s memoir to kickstart 2019, and this book very well started me on my journey to enjoy a genre I previously despised. I loved reading about Michelle Obama’s life before she lived in the White House, how hard she’s worked, and everything she’s had to sacrifice. She’s a damn good writer and inspiration to all, and, man, can she provide some insight.
8. Ask Again, Yes by Mary Beth Keane
This book taught me that I have a new favorite genre, and it’s one I’ve created all on my own. Sorry, historical fiction, you’ve lost the crown to the great “suburban family drama.” Ask Again, Yes presents us with everything to love about the genre: superb characterization, a slow burn to the finish, relatable plots and feelings, and the greatest trait of all: the inability to put it down.
7. The Dutch House by Ann Patchett
If suburban family drama is the best genre, then Ann Patchett is its ruler. I loved her when I read Commonwealth, and those feelings resurfaced when I read her latest, The Dutch House. She creates characters like no other and writes little pops of revelations throughout. They’re perfectly measured without feeling too forced or over-the-top while keeping you completely engaged. Oh, Ann. You’re just the best.
6. Educated by Tara Westover
This memoir has been everywhere the past year. When I finally got my hands on it, I understood why. You may ask yourself how can someone have a life like Tara Westover’s? And yes, the things that have happened to her seem very much like they were made for a book or for a movie. Westover is too talented to rely on that quality. Her writing will transfix you and make you feel the highest and lowest of emotions thanks to her incredible insight with every scene. Did I mention it’s been on the NYT‘s best seller’s list for 96 weeks? That’s 9-6, people, and 672 days.
5. Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate
Because this book is based on a true story, Lisa Wingate really demonstrates just how much evil exists in this world. Talk about some power in a plot. This carefully researched novel tells a very difficult tale and does the real-life victims who are at the heart of it justice by being evocative and not contrived. Wingate also gets brownie points for writing about something I’d never heard of and because she makes you want to call your sister and say, “Hey, I love ya.”
4. The Proposal by Jasmine Guillory
I LOVE some good chick lit, but admittedly, the genre focuses on white, basic women with stories we’ve heard before. Jasmine Guillory turned the genre on its head by writing the most-woke book I’ve read in ages (and it’s chick lit nonetheless!) and by covering themes often ignored by her contemporaries. And let’s not forget that this was such a fun novel for which I’m incredibly grateful came into my life. Did I mention I also love the characters? So many positive things to say!
3. The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls
Before there was Educated, there was The Glass Castle. This one will have you missing your family while simultaneously asking “HOW?” How can someone have such a traumatic childhood and come out on top? How can parents be so negligible and senseless yet still so loving? And how can an author capture emotions of the past that perfectly depict the age at which they were felt? I don’t know, but I’m sure as hell glad that Jeannette Walls showcased all of these things in her memoir.
2. There There by Tommy Orange
*I finished this novel on NYE 2018; thus, it didn’t make the 2018 list.*
So it feels a wee bit like cheating to have There There on this list considering I actually read it in 2018, especially because it takes the number two spot. This book is too good to not include on a list though. It was on Barack Obama‘s list after all. How many novels actually write about the Native American experience? This was a first for me. Tommy Orange explores such pain, prejudice, and injustice, and he writes about them in such a beautiful way.
1. The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead
It’s time, people. We have reached the top spot, the ultimate winner, the gold medalist, the Big Kahuna. Is it any wonder that Colson Whitehead would climb the top of the ranks? If you read The Underground Railroad or his latest, The Nickel Boys, you certainly should not be surprised. Whitehead, without question, is one of the greatest writers of his time. I would argue he’s the absolute best. His writing will tell you why. He provides such shocking revelations that catch you by surprise due to the ease with which he creates a plot. And he says so much about humanity’s ugliness in the process. If you haven’t yet experienced the joy, pain, and appreciation that comes from reading his novels, I suggest you do it right now.
Does this list evoke any strong feelings from you? Do you disagree with any of the rankings? Let me know! And tell me what great books you read this year that you recommend Big Little Literature pick up in 2020.