As another year comes to a close, I’m looking back on the best books I read in 2019. Admittedly, none of these were published in 2019 – I only read a few new releases this year, and they unfortunately didn’t quite make the list. However, there is a bit of everything here, from YA fantasy to memoirs, and despite being a little bit older, these are all books I wholeheartedly recommend.
The Raven King (The Raven Cycle #4) by Maggie Stiefvater
Surrounding a group of teenagers who become involved with tarot reading and ghost hunting, Maggie Stiefvater’s Raven Cycle series took me by surprise in how much I enjoyed it. We follow Blue, the daughter of a fortune teller, as she meets four private-school boys (Gansey, Ronan, Adam, and Noah) and discovers supernatural secrets in her town. Gansey has been obsessively searching for a dead Welsh king, attempting to unearth his body, and Blue finds herself in the midst of this epic search thanks to her own special powers. The characters (teenagers and adults alike) show impressive growth throughout the series, and Ronan especially had carved out a space in my heart by the end of book four. The series has lovely queer representation on top of its fantastic pacing and suspense, something I always appreciate – although other types of diversity could have used some work, and the books are not entirely un-problematic.
There Was A Country: A Personal History of Biafra by Chinua Achebe
In There Was A Country, Chinua Achebe recounts his time living and working in Nigeria during the Civil War. It’s a very personal history of the country, as is implied by the memoir’s title, and the coverage of the historical and political landscape is heavily subjective. This style of writing, especially in the context of war and conflict, is not always appreciated, but I personally found that it made my reading experience more enjoyable. Achebe does not attempt to hide his subjectivity and personal struggle, and he does not sell his writing as the one true account of what happened. Instead, his memoir is a chronicle of his life and a lament of what happened to his homeland, something I found both informative and moving. The final chapters of the book cover the post-war era and the recent political situation, and here the author’s frustration with his country’s development really shows. His disappointment is highlighted by statistics of corruption, entwined with his personal experience of the system, and I found these sections particularly illuminating. Achebe’s writing in general is nothing short of stunning, and his memoir is no exception.
When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
Paul Kalanithi was a neurosurgeon who, alongside biology and medicine, loved literature. At the core of his book lies the central question of what makes life worth living, and as he goes from doctor to cancer patient, his search for an answer to this question intensifies. The premise sounds kind of cheesy, but Kalanithi’s writing is stunning in its striking honesty, and the author’s love of words is paired beautifully with his scientific knowledge and environment. I am personally a sucker for books that talk about the detail of someone’s work, and the descriptions of what medicine students learn and practice were absolute highlights of the memoir for me. Of course, the author’s working day is always accompanied by human interaction, often questioning the way doctors treat patients and the methods of the American medical system as a whole. This memoir is both heartbreaking and entertaining; it is a beautiful piece of writing, and absolutely educational. I also recently recommended it as part of my 15 books about grief and loss.
Fun Home by Alison Bechdel
One of the few graphic novels I have ever read, Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home made me want to read all of them. Presenting the author’s childhood as orbiting around her father’s coming-out story and his peculiarities (such as owning a funeral home and obsessively decorating the house), Bechdel presents here her own take on the graphic memoir. Steeped in queer intertextuality, familiar from other queer coming-of-age stories such as Rubyfruit Jungle, the author explores her own queerness in relation to her childhood and her father’s sudden death. It is beautifully illustrated by the author herself (who also illustrated the infamous Dykes To Watch Out For), and brings out all of her anxiety and unease with its moody colour palette. An absolute must for fans of graphic novels, devourers of memoirs, and lovers of all things queer.
The Emperor’s Babe by Bernardine Evaristo
Recently making headlines with her new release, Girl, Woman, Other, Bernardine Evaristo first caught my attention with The Emperor’s Babe, perhaps the most unique book I have ever read. Written in verse, it explores race, gender, and sexuality through history by being set in Ancient Rome and having women of colour and queer characters at its centre. The format of the text might seem off-putting, but the verse flows well and suits the author’s punchy style, many of the lines hitting hard. The protagonist is unlikable to the core, but as she struggles through the ranks of society, it becomes hard not to empathise with her. Her friends and family exist on their own margins, and despite the protagonist’s self-centred nature dominating the narrative, their stories remain impressive and memorable. This is a book truly like no other, and I cannot wait to pick up the author’s newest release.
The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson
There is nothing quite as hard as a reader as finding books that make you feel seen. The more we read, the more banal and obvious certain narratives become, and things celebrated as relatable and original often fall flat. Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts is a breath of fresh air in this situation, transporting you to a different dimension with its stunning writing and innovative imagery. Based on the story of the Greek ship Argo, on which Jason and the Argonauts sailed in Ancient mythology, the book’s title captures many of the themes that this genre-bending memoir explores. Like a ship that floats on treacherous waters, so Nelson’s words seem to float with all their magic, illuminating impossible concepts such as love and gender in just a few sentences. Subtly bringing in the Argo’s mythological history throughout the entire text, this is a memoir that will change your perception of identity and sexuality, and that will redefine the meaning of fluidity.
Crooked Kingdom (Dregs #2) by Leigh Bardugo
Leigh Bardugo’s Dregs duology is well-loved in the YA community, and for good reason. Following the events of the author’s best-selling Grisha trilogy, but entirely separate from it, this spin-off follows a gang of criminal teenagers who are hired to break into a seemingly impenetrable prison up in the cold, cold north. The characterisation is the most striking aspect of this duology, alongside the impressive world building and interesting magical system. Having six leading characters, each with their own point of view, is a great undertaking that could have easily backfired, but Bardugo pulls it off, and the result is a cast of unforgettable misfits. We encounter a violent and angry boy who is plotting his revenge; a tiny girl who climbs like an acrobat and is attempting to escape her trauma; two star-crossed ex-soldiers fighting on opposite sides of a war and attempting to overcome their respective prejudice; a sarcastic sharpshooter who loves gambling and makes for some much-needed comic relief; and a shy but feisty boy who is escaping the cruelty of his father. This mismatch of outcasts grew on me over the course of the two books, and I continue to be awestruck by the author’s ability to make each character stand out as unique and vital to the story in their own way. If you love YA fantasy with plenty of sass, angst, and genuine characters, I would highly recommend this duology.
Stalking Darkness (Nightrunner #2) by Lynn Flewelling
What to say about the Nightrunner series except that it is a little ridiculous and also completely stole my heart? The seven-book series follows Alec, who is falsely imprisoned at the start of book one (classic move), and Seregil, equal parts heroic and full of nonsense. It’s all classic fantasy, with wizards in towers, necromancy, political intrigue, and of course one or two cursed objects. But it’s also at its heart a gay love story, and Alec and Seregil completely broke me for any future romance book I might read. Despite all of the series’ fantasy cliches and 90s nonsense, the two protagonists follow the friends-to-lovers trope that is incredibly dear to me, and they make for a caring, communicative couple that is entirely free of toxicity. The build-up to their relationship lasts two whole, very long books, and by the end of book two I was basically screaming inside because why the hell are you not together yet! Following the second book, undoubtedly the peak of the series with its whole finally-they’re-dating thing and fast-paced action, the third book slows down and focuses mostly on political conflict and exploring Seregil’s past. The fourth book is definitely the worst one, falling into a frustrating slavery plot that I found problematic and unnecessary. Books five and six redeem that mistake of an instalment with a much nicer and more pleasantly angsty story, and book seven finally gets close to being my favourite of the series. It rounds off Alec and Seregil’s dramatic arc with a wonderfully entertaining narrative that features ghosts, a murder mystery, an evil theatre performer, and travel between different dimensions. That sounds ridiculous, and it kind of is, but the different elements somehow come together beautifully, and make for a final instalment that completely broke my heart. I also recommended the first book in the series as one of the best books from the 20th Century.
Gaze Back by Marylyn Tan
2019 brought many things into my life, and one of them is my new favourite poetry collection. In Gaze Back, Singaporean poet Marylyn Tan finds a way to write about the tensions between religion, sexuality, and the female body, without falling back on cliches. Growing up with a passionately atheist dad, I have heard my share of religious criticism – add an English Literature degree and a Catholic girlfriend, and not much that is said about Jesus surprises me anymore. But Marylyn Tan evokes something unconventional and new with her vision of Jesus as a young girl walking home alone at night, and her phrasing of the prophet’s struggles made me laugh in all of its recklessness. Another poem in the collection is written in HTML code, enforcing its exploration of societal norms and standards with its binary system that leaves no space for nuance. Gaze Back is all around a wonderful, exciting collection of poems that don’t hide the ugly side of life, but illuminate it in all of its glory. It’s witchy, it’s playful, it’s daring, and it’s memorable – all of the things a good poetry collection should be.
Trans: A Memoir by Juliet Jacques
One of my final reads of the year is also one of my favourites, and my first plunge into Verso’s tempting publishing catalogue. Juliet Jacques’ memoir about being trans, working-class, and a journalist is everything I love in a memoir, reconstructing her life through music, film, and literature. Jacques discusses her time as a teenager, university student, and struggling adult to the backdrop of a conservative Britain; she is an admin worker for the NHS, and depends on this system for her job, her mental health, and her sex-reassignment surgery. But she is also a journalist who wants to write about art, a topic that won’t seem to pay, and voices her frustrations with this problem throughout her memoir. I found this struggle very relatable, as this book came to me while I was desperately applying to jobs I didn’t want after exhausting all the ones I did want. The author generally has a solid political standpoint grounded in socialism, and does not try to be apolitical and pleasing to a more upper-class audience. This is a wonderfully structured memoir steeped in art, edgy music, and British charity-shop culture, and one that I found refreshing in the midst of middle-class queer narratives.