Of the fifty-five books I read in 2019, some stood out a little more than others. I decided to do a "Best" list... of qualities rather than by genre or author nationality or any of the more usual qualities. (There are more than enough of those out there.)
There were a lot of books I wanted to read in 2019 that I simply didn't get to, or didn't finish because my mind just wasn't in the right headspace. This list is only books I did read, and did love, and do feel really confident telling other people to read.
Not all these books will be for every person, but maybe one or three or five will pique your interest. I generally try not to recommend any book that has problematic representation and most of these books are very current, but if I have missed any iffy content (by which I mean racist, ableist, or otherwise, NOT sex, etc.) please let me know so I can adjust accordingly.
If nothing else, 2019 was a really good reading year for me. Hopefully 2020 will be just as much fun!
Best First Page
- A Princess In Theory by Alyssa Cole (2018)
Yes, Cole's first Reluctant Royals book has maybe the best first page (and chapter) I have ever read... but it only works as well as it does because the WHOLE BOOK is just as funny and well-written as that very first page. It delivers.
I'll say this and only this: Nigerian prince email scams. I literally spat my Coca Cola out reading the first page. All over the iPad I was reading on. On the bus.
The book itself is unapologetically intelligent. Cole writes whole people with varied interests and jobs that actually affect the plot, which, sadly, is not always a given in women-centred fiction.
I read this early in the year and ended up reading twenty romance novels this year, but Cole set a high bar that was not always reached. A Princess in Theory is the beginning of a 'collection' (more than a series) and the next book, A Duke By Default , hit me even harder in the feels for strict identifying-with-the-heroine's-mental-health-situation reasons. It was equally amazing if a little less hilarious. I plan to read the rest of the series this year.
- Sadie by Courtney Summers (2018)
Sadie is perhaps the most unique book I read all year. It alternates narration between the protagonist, Sadie, and a podcaster investigating her disappearance. Courtney would most likely be flattered if I said this was by far the creepiest book I read this year. It was unsettling, gutting, uncomfortable and perfectly executed.
Sadie's voice is angry, frustrated, and determined. The podcaster's chapters - with the confusion and pain of hindsight - are desperate and impotent. The contrast is powerful, as is Sadie's own refusal to let go of her (totally legitimate) rage. I wouldn't read this book on a bad day... unless you (like me) are sometimes galvanized into feeling better by allowing your rage to boil over a little. Sadie is not a comfortable book. It's rightfully furious. It asks a lot of ugly questions and you may not get the answers you want. But it is one of the top five books I read this year.
Sadie was the first of Summers' books I've read, but I'm planning to re-read it in French this year and I'm also hoping to pick up her 2008 debut, Cracked Up To Be, that's being re-released in February of 2020.
- Gods of Jade and Shadow by Silvia Moreno-Garcia (2019)
I won't even lie: I bought this book on pre-order last winter when I saw the cover reveal because it was too gorgeous not to own. It arrived four days before it was supposed to be released (whoops?) the day I was heading to the spa. I read a solid half of it at Le Nordik. It was perfection.
The single best word for Gods of Jade and Shadow is TRANSPORTING. It transports you to a different time (the 1920s), a different place (Jazz-era Mexico), and, for many of us, to a different belief system. It is masterful and fun, at once easy to read and vivid in how it describes Casiopea's world and her perspective.
But then, how could a road trip with the Mayan god of death be anything less that fun?
- SpiderGwen by Jason Latour, Robbi Rodriguez, Chris Visions (2015/2017)
Paul got me this for Christmas in 2018 and it was sooooo good!
I have been a pretty chill spidey-fan since the mid-nineties when I was inducted into the fold by the nine-year-old boy I babysat after school three days a week. After years of being disappointed by screen versions of Spiderman, we were blessed by Spiderman: Homecoming and then Into the Spiderverse. I've never read a ton of comic books for reasons I've only been able to articulate in the past few years as I've hit my thirties, so I wasn't really aware of Miles or Gwen until the film. Since then, I have become a bit obsessed.
As much as I love Peter Parker (especially Tom Holland's iteration), Gwen Stacey was a revelation. This collection of comics is gorgeously drawn and written and an amazing addition to the Spiderverse. I haven't had the TIME, or I'd have already read all the rest of the SpiderGwen comics (including those by Seanan McGuire!) but they are on my To Read for 2020.
Best Shameless Canadiana
- When The Moon Comes by Paul Harbridge (2017)
I feel a special compulsion to buy books about hockey, especially gorgeous books like When The Moon Comes, which is written and illustrated by two incredibly talented creators.
Reading this books is eerie and atmospheric, incredibly nostalgic for those of us old enough (or remote enough) to remember or have experience skating on ponds, rivers or lakes, and illustrated in a way that highlights how much this experience borders on spiritual for some of us.
Absolutely perfect for children and adults alike, it will make you long for outside ice and full moons and the first perfect game of the season.
- Avalon High by Meg Cabot (2006)
I'm a long-time Meg Cabot fangirl. Her books got me through some of the roughest years of my early twenties, but the book of hers I always find myself re-reading (though I don't own it! I keep stealing my sister-in-law's copy!) is Avalon High.
There's something so sweet about this book that always hits the spot on a day when I am in serious need of unwinding and recharging. I just finished re-binge-watching BBC's Merlin and the ending left me... wanting. Cabot's Arthur retelling is a delightful high school version of the return of the Once and Future King.
There aren't a lot of books I've read more than three times, but I think I've read Avalon High about eight times now. It's a safe, sweet place and, it never disappoints me. Somehow I *always* forget how utterly cute it is, and how strangely healthy the relationships are between all the main characters; they provide much-needed scripts for how to deal with uncomfortable situations and, blessedly, maturity and honesty that are (often) seriously under-represented in YA.
For a book that was published nearly 14 years ago, it hold up pretty decently to re-reading.
Best "Late to the Party" Discovery
- The Near Witch by V.E. Schwab (2011)
Admittedly, I had read two of Victoria Schwab's YA novels, but I had not read her adult books until this year. I read the A Darker Shade of Magic series, which was good, but I really loved The Near Witch. It was a strange, quiet little book that we absolutely need more of.
I got a copy of the re-released book (which is gorgeous!) thanks to my wonderful friend Deets, who got me the Barnes & Noble -only copy I really wanted that I could not get in Canada for less than 80$ (WUT?!). Bless you, Deets, you gorgeous creature.
It is uneasy and loaded and the build up is probably too quiet for a lot of people, but I found it wonderful. The stakes are high from the start, the suspense is the kind that makes you want to scream at certain characters. Strangely, I keep finding myself hoping that her forthcoming novel, The Invisible Life of Addie Larue, is more like The Near Witch than ADSOM. Guess I'll get to find out in October!
Best Book Club Book
- Born A Crime by Trevor Noah (2017)
You don't always get a say in what you read in Book Club, but last winter Noah's memoir was my pick for my book club and it was a pretty solid favourite. It is HARD not to be enchanted by Trevor Noah's stories which, even when they leave your jaw on the floor are often told with his usual flare for words, making them hilarious, or, in the very least, incredibly well told. His childhood is dramatic
Best Got-It-Off-My-TBR/Finally Finished It
I did not.
This was a bad year for this. What I did succeed at has been not beating myself up for not finishing books that were too much for me or not the right time to read. I read a lot of romance novels this year because I *NEEDED* the escape. I was stressed. With two books and diving into the deep end of self-promotion, I have never, in my entire life, been so healthy but so stressed.
Maybe in 2020 I will finish a couple of the books that have been sitting on my Unfinished Pile since 2014. Maybe not. But I'm not a bad person if they are still there in 366 days. Because life happens. And some years are about launching two books and a series and learning a lot about how to sell books and growing All The Veg in a giant garden and then getting married. Those books of my Unfinished Pile will be there when I am ready to read them.
The "Better Than It Had Any Right To Be" Award
- Stepsister by Jennifer Donnelly (2019)
Giving Donnelly the "Better Than It Had Any Right To Be" honours is not me throwing shade. I've seen and read a lot of fairy tale adaptations and very few of them ever go DEEP. The concept - the story of one of Cinderella's stepsisters- could have been so shallow, so pithy; instead it has a soul.
I don't generally hold out a ton of hope that a book will do something unexpected and moving, especially not with something like a fairy tale retelling, but Jennifer Donnelly wrote one of my top five favourite books of ALL TIME (Revolution, 2010) which I have read several more times than Goodreads would lead you to believe. (I read it several times before you could log multiple reads.) Revolution ripped my heart out, and I've been meaning to read more of Donnelly's work, so when I saw that she had a fairy tale retelling coming out, I pounced on it!
Isabelle is an ugly stepsister, but you love her right from the start. She *knows* she's living her life wrong... but she's gotten so far from her own self that she can't seem to find her way back anymore. You love her, despite her flaws, and you root for her because she is all of us, trying to find our truest self. Trying to be happy, trying to find the lost pieces of our heart.
It is a fairy tale in the spirit of the original fairy tales: dark, ugly, not particularly easy to swallow. But it is also so much more than that. Donnelly weaves mythology and history, real places and fictitious events, the familiar and the fantastical into a stunning whole that leaves you desperately hoping that the movie adaptation doesn't hit any snags. This story is stunning in so many ways. There's no way I will only read this book once.
- Space Opera by Catherynne M. Valente (2019)
Okay, this book is my instinctive answer to everyone who keeps asking "What's the single best book your read this year" so saying it wins the "best ending" accolades is a total cheat.
Space Opera is amazing start to finish; so much so that I live tweeted the first few chapters From The Bath the night I started it because I was laughing so hard. I keep recommending it because there is something so universal about it. It's also insanely funny, sometimes bordering on ludicrous, reminiscent of Terry Pratchett or Douglas Adams... only a Xennial American woman. You might not think that makes that much of a difference, but it DOES. It matters a lot. Valente is my rough contemporary and I genuinely felt like the book was written For Me.
Space Opera is bonkers, it is queer, it is almost hallucinogenic, like if David Bowie and Freddie Mercury and Bjork tried to run an intergallactic Eurovision after doing LSD.
The reason I've crowned it "Best Ending" is because the ending really does MAKE the book. On the whole, Space Opera is life affirming, giving readers a strange pat on the back even if they aren't exactly who or what or where they want to be in their life. It's a testament to the eternal truth that you can never predict how life will go, and that there is always hope, even in the darkest hour.
And now, I may need to go re-read this book tonight so that I go into 2020 feeling like miracles are coming my way!