The Books I Loved Best in 2019

in order of reading, after some caveats

Now is the winter of our list content.* Everyone everywhere is producing gift-giving guides and Year’s Bests, broken down by genre, by region, by bookstore, by newspaper. From a critical perspective, I most value the lists that contain plenty of books I haven’t heard of; from an author’s perspective, I most value the lists that contain my book; from a reader’s perspective, I most value lists from people whose taste I know and trust.

The intersection of all these circles is undoubtedly NPR’s Book Concierge, a fantastic yearly resource with top recommendations from staff and freelancers that allows you to stack tags like “The Dark Side” and “Seriously Great Writing” to find books like Carmen Maria Machado’s memoir In the Dream House alongside Tamsyn Muir’s gothic space mystery Gideon the Ninth. I’ve contributed reviews to it every year since 2014, but this is the first year I have a book on it: This Is How You Lose the Time War crouches at the crossroads between “Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Speculative Fiction,” “Love Stories,” and “Seriously Great Writing,” which delights me immensely.

For myself — on top of reviewing books for NPR and writing the Otherworldly column in the NYTBR — I actually managed to keep track of all my reading month by month, a rare Bullet Journal success! I’m defining “book” as anything with covers that I read to completion, so there are a few single issues of comics alongside collected trade paperbacks of comics alongside short-story-length miniature books from a micropress, but there are enough gigantic behemoth novels on here to even it all out.

By that count, anyway, I’ve read 50 books (so far) this year, which is significantly less than usual for me; in addition to not counting articles and chapters read for dissertation purposes, a lot of my reading time this year was eaten up by a summer’s worth of travel, book launch, and reading/commenting on student short stories in Clarion West and Viable Paradise (both of which have reading obligations before the actual workshop begins). I’ve listed them all farther below, with links to the items I’ve reviewed, but from that I wanted to distil for you the things I loved the most that came out this year.**

That, incidentally, is my only criterion here: what I loved best. I haven’t grouped them into categories, because the only category is my love of them; there’s fiction and non-fiction in prose and in comics. This is not a list of what I thought was most technically ambitious or accomplished or impressive (Empress of Forever, Jade War, The Bird King, The Wicked + the Divine), nor what I think is an important and worthy book deserving of your time and attention (Palestine + 100, Queen of the Conquered, Homesick) not even what I simply enjoyed and admired for being beautiful, well-wrought books (Sal and Gabi Break the Universe, Steel Crow Saga, Desdemona and the Deep). There are plenty of those, and I invite you to peruse any of the reviews I’ve written for plot summaries and more nuanced perspectives! This is the list of books I loved best, helplessly and without justification, the books that forced me to talk about them really quickly and loudly and urgently, books that swelled my heart with passion, books I am in some ways still thinking about, books that made me vocalise my reactions to them while reading in gasps and shouts.

(The fact that there are ten is an accident! They are ranked only in the order that I read them!)

The Books I Loved Best in 2019

The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow

I blurbed this book and part of that blurb is on the front cover and says “Unbearably beautiful” and that is accurate but the whole blurb was "The Ten Thousand Doors of January healed hurts I didn't even know I had. An unbearably beautiful story about growing up, and everything we fight to keep along the way." If you read The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern (which I really enjoyed!) but wanted a more urgent plot that says things about identity and cruelty and the state of the world, this is that book; if you like portal fantasies, mystery, and coming to terms with the uncomfortable reality of loving people who are trying to destroy you, I will be very confused if you don’t love this book.

The Raven Tower by Ann Leckie

I loved this so much. Imagine if Hamlet were narrated by Elsinore Castle in the second person in a world with multiple gods who’ve all gone mysteriously silent. The voice of this book is just pure mesmerism, and I locked eyes with it and couldn’t put it down. If it looks dauntingly long, be advised that it’s actually a very short novel, mysteriously puffed up to look twice its size like a bird in winter.

A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine

Every time I start talking about this book it sounds like I’m making excuses for it, because my instinct is to begin explaining why I’m so vulnerable to all the things inside it that make me love it so helplessly. It is, in point of fact, an objectively exceptional book, but talking about the ways in which it’s exceptional feel like reductive box-ticking (the world-building, the characters, the nuanced emotional experience of being colonized oh wait that’s one of my things). Anyway this book has a civilization in it that values poetry as much as architecture and doesn’t see a lot of difference between those things, and in my head it feels like filigree and cloth of gold, a pure piping voice, shimmering.

Die vol. 1: Fantasy Heartbreaker by Kieron Gillen and Stephanie Hans

I think Kieron has described this book as “Goth Jumanji” while recognizing that’s a useful shorthand that doesn’t really get to the core of what it’s about (growing up, being haunted, the selves we invent to help us survive adolescence, the ways those selves calcify). For me, when I think of Stephanie Hans’ art, I can’t breathe. Also I want to drink it? I just want to gaspingly slurp up those colours, that composition, I don’t even really know how to talk about art, especially in comics, but reading this felt like a second heart started beating in my chest just so the book could rip it out. When I think of it, I feel it in my chest and mouth. I curse my propensity for buying comics in trade because I have to wait until January for the next volume, but I live in a house where book stacks need to be structurally sound and floppies just won’t cut it.

Giant Days by John Allison, Max Sarin, Whitney Cogar

This is the purest ongoing comic I have maybe ever read. It has made me laugh more than anything else I can remember reading in the last ten years. It is ease for the heart, it is university shenanigans in Sheffield, it is friendship among women, it is wacky and wonderful and warm as a hug. It’s going to end next year and I’ll never be ready.

His Hideous Heart edited by Dahlia Adler

I was reading a different book, and it was boring me, but I didn’t realize just how much of a slog I was finding it until I picked up His Hideous Heart and everything in me just dissolved into joy. It’s a wonderful anthology of Edgar Allan Poe retellings, plus all the original stories! It terrified and delighted me! It reminded me of how much and for how long I’d loved Poe’s stories and enabled me to revisit them and glory in how well they hold up, even when the retellings are so welcome.

In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado

I was unprepared for this book and read it in what felt like one long held breath. Awe, fury, terror, soul-rattling sympathy, and the indescribable gratitude of being alive at the same time as such a ferociously talented woman.

Making Comics by Lynda Barry

This book makes me feel like I could make art, and reminds us that the capacity to do so is as much our birthright as language, and spells that out in a deeply compassionate, numinous exploration of what drawing is, what cartoons are, what monsters are. I want to learn about writing from the way Lynda Barry talks about drawing, in addition to following her syllabus from beginning to end. Looking at it makes me happy.

Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir

This book doesn’t need my recommendation. It’s in its eighth or ninth printing, it’s doing fine. That in no wise detracts from my love of its style, its substance, its deep wells of passionate feeling sublimated into tense and thrumming silence, its meticulousness, its architecture, its atmosphere, its originality. I loved it furiously. I want the sequel immediately.

Catfishing on Catnet by Naomi Kritzer

This book was published in November and I need everyone to read it immediately! It’s absolutely gripping, it’s a million times better than the (Hugo Award winning!) short story from which it grew. It’s got compassionate AI and is full of teenagers who sound like teenagers talking to each other and figuring themselves out in the kind of internet I remember existing when I was a teenager, a place you could make secret friends who’d anchor you when your world felt upside down and challenge you if you got too complacent. It’s also a thriller? Somehow? It’s marvellous. The kind of book that makes me happy there’ll be a sequel, because this book is also tremendously satisfying in its own right. I want to give it to every teen I know. If you loved Martha Wells’ Murderbot I’ll be baffled if you don’t love this.


And that’s that! Here for completion’s sake are all the books I read this year!

January

The Ten Thousand Doors of January
by Alix Harrow (for blurb)
The Ruin of Kings
by Jenn Lyons (NYTBR)
The Raven Tower by Ann Leckie (NYTBR)
Snow White Learns Witchcraft by Theodora Goss (NYTBR)
The Light Brigade by Kameron Hurley (NYTBR)
A Conspiracy of Truths by Alexandra Rowland (2018)
The True Queen by Zen Cho
The Wicked + the Divine, vol. 7: Mothering Invention by Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie
Gwenpool vol. 4 by Christopher Hastings and Clayton Cowles
The Deep by Rivers Solomon and clipping. (blurb)
These Savage Shores issue 1 by Ram V and Sumit Kumar
These Savage Shores issue 2 by Ram V and Sumit Kumar

February

The Bird King by G. Willow Wilson (NPR)
The Haunting of Tram Car 015 by P. Djeli Clark (NPR)
Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James (NPR)
Seven Little Tales by Terri Windling (2018)
Black Hat by Tom Hirons (2018)
Nine Praise Riddles by Rima Staines (2018)

March

The Psychology of Time Travel by Kate Mascarenhas (NYTBR)
A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine (NYTBR)
Sal and Gabi Break the Universe by Carlos Hernandez
The Wicked + the Divine vol. 8: Old is the New New by Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie

April

Exhalation by Ted Chiang (NYTBR)
Desdemona and the Deep by CSE Cooney

May

Lent by Jo Walton (NPR)
Jade War by Fonda Lee

June

Wanderers by Chuck Wendig
Unraveling by Karen Lord

July

A Brightness Long Ago by Guy Gavriel Kay
The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin

August

Palestine + 100 edited by Basma Ghalayini (NPR)

September

Future of Another Timeline by Annalee Newitz (NYTBR)
Steel Crow Saga by Paul Krueger (NYTBR)
Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir (NYTBR)
His Hideous Heart edited by Dahlia Adler (NYTBR)
The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison (2014)

October

The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern (NPR)
Giant Days vol. 9 by John Allison, Max Sarin, Whitney Cogar, and Liz Fleming
Giant Days vol. 10 by John Allison, Max Sarin, Whitney Cogar, and Julia Madrigal
Giant Days vol. 11 by John Allison, Max Sarin, Whitney Cogar
The Wicked + the Divine vol. 9: Okay by Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie
Die vol. 1: Fantasy Heartbreaker by Kieron Gillen and Stephanie Hans

November

Nancy by Olivia Jaimes
Equal Rites
by Terry Pratchett (re-read for Desert Island Discworld)
In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado
Making Comics by Lynda Barry
Queen of the Conquered by Kacen Callender (NYTBR)
Homesick by Nino Cipri (NYTBR)
Catfishing on Catnet by Naomi Kritzer (NYTBR)

December

The Revisionaries by A. R. Moxon (NPR)


*Remember the star in the very first line of this very long newsletter? I did! I totally made this same pun in my column but I don’t have my edits back yet so it may yet be cut from the newspaper of record but if it isn’t and you see it twice, well, I liked it enough to risk the embarrassment.

**The only reason for this caveat is that I read The Goblin Emperor for the first time this year even though it came out in 2014 and I love it FULLY as passionately and entirely as anything else I listed but I wanted to stay focused on this year’s stuff.