Best Books of 2019

Here we are!  At the time I’m writing this I’ve read 110 books this year, though I’m hoping to finish a few more before the new year.  In any case, it’s not a record number of books read for me – in fact, it’s something like 20 fewer than last year – and quality, as always, varied.  I didn’t feel like I was having a particularly stellar reading year, but when it came down to the wire of putting this list together, there were about 15 books that I realized I was willing to go to war for, so even if there were a lot of duds for me this year, there were also a lot of stand-outs.

Honorable mentions to: In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado (this one in particular – I had a crisis about my last slot but refused to expand this list to 11), Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips, Walk Through Walls by Marina Abramović, and Rough Magic by Lara Prior-Palmer (incidentally, this one was a 4 star read for me at the time, but in hindsight it looks like I need to bump up its rating).

A few stats about this year’s final list:

4 are nonfiction (a record!)
4 are Irish/Northern Irish/about Ireland/Northern Ireland
2 are translated, both translated by women
7 are by women
1 is by an author of color (do better, me)

So, here we go!


10. Know My Name by Chanel Miller

“In fact I need you to know it was all true. The friendly guy who helps you move and assists senior citizens in the pool is the same guy who assaulted me. One person can be capable of both. Society often fails to wrap its head around the fact that these truths often coexist, they are not mutually exclusive. Bad qualities can hide inside a good person. That’s the terrifying part.”

Chanel Miller’s account of being sexually assaulted while unconscious by Brock Turner was always going to be an impactful and harrowing read, but it would do Miller a disservice to imply that the subject matter and cultural conversation surrounding this book are the only reasons why it’s appearing on so many best-of-year lists.  This book has been such a commercial and word-of-mouth success because Miller is an extraordinary writer, end of story.  This memoir is bold, righteous, angry; but it’s also thoughtfully structured and elegantly written.  I oppose the concept of ‘required reading’ for a lot of reasons, but I can highly recommend that everyone read this who is able to.


9. The Man Who Saw Everything by Deborah Levy

‘Hello, Saul. How’s it going?’
‘I’m trying to cross the road,’ I replied.
‘Yes,’ she said, ‘you’ve been trying to cross the road for thirty years but stuff happened on the way.’”

This was my first Deborah Levy so it’s probably too soon to proclaim myself her number one fan, but my god was this a brilliant place for me to start.  I was riveted by this book; I found it so intellectually stimulating with its impeccably bizarre structure and its clever trail of bread crumbs that Levy leaves the reader before you’re fully aware of what she’s doing, but I also found it so full of heart.  I was expecting to be challenged by this book, but I wasn’t expecting to be so moved by it.  And no, I’m not saying anything about the plot as I’d implore you to go in blind.


8. The Bird Tribunal by Agnes Ravatn
translated from the Norwegian by Rosie Hedger

“A more dependable person, that’s what I had to become, a woman in possession of a firmer character. If not now, then when? Out here I had what little I needed: solitude, long days at my disposal, a small number of predictable duties. I was liberated from the watchful gaze of others, free from their idle chit-chat, and I had a garden all of my own.”

I made it a priority to read more women in translation this year, and this odd little novella was the highlight for me.  Set in an isolated fjord town, it follows a woman who’s recently quit her job to become a caretaker for a reticent and sullen man who draws her into his life while keeping her at a firm distance.  I hesitate to categorize it as a thriller in the American marketing use of the word, but I was beyond thrilled by this book, staying up late into the night so I could see how this train wreck was going to end.  A brilliant gothic and atmospheric story that reads like a modernized classic.


7. A Spell of Winter by Helen Dunmore

“‘I saw an arm fall off a man once,’ said Kate.”

This was probably the biggest surprise of the year for me, which I only picked up as a part of a long-term goal I’m working toward of having read all of the Women’s Prize winners.  It’s not that I expected to dislike it, but reviews are a bit middling, and I think I was expecting it to be fine, but not a stand out.  But my god, did it ever stand out.  A Spell of Winter is a devastating gothic tragedy, subversive and unexpected and harrowing and twisted and just fucking brilliant.  This single book made such an impression on me that it left me wanting to read Dunmore’s entire (extensive) catalog.


6. Maus by Art Spiegelman

“I know this is insane, but I somehow wish I had been in Auschwitz with my parents so I could really know what they lived through! I guess it’s some kind of guilt about having had an easier life than they did.”

I believe this gets the distinction of being the only book to make me cry this year – and I didn’t just cry, I bawled.  I won’t get into the plot because I feel like everyone on earth had already read this before I did, but if by some miracle you haven’t yet, read it.  This is one of the most disturbing yet beautifully composed things I’ve ever read.  The interplay between Spiegelman’s text and illustrations is just masterful.  It’s a modern classic for a reason.


5. Constellations by Sinéad Gleeson

“Leaving the home on that last night, I kiss her hands. You were so important, I tell her. You were so loved.”

This is one of those books that broke my heart and then managed to mend it again.  It’s usually the case with essay collections that some are notably weaker than others, but I didn’t think a single one of Gleeson’s essays was out of place in this collection.  All of these threads about death and illness and the female body and the lack of autonomy given to the female body in Ireland all dovetail into a singular, sensational book that has stayed with me ever since finishing it.  An absolute must-read for fans of feminist nonfiction and Maggie O’Farrell’s I Am, I Am, I Am.


4. Tell Them of Battles, Kings & Elephants by Mathias Énard
translated from the French by Charlotte Mandell

“Night does not communicate with the day. It burns up in it. Night is carried to the stake at dawn. And its people along with it—the drinkers, the poets, the lovers. We are a people of the banished, of the condemned. I do not know you. I know your Turkish friend; he is one of ours. Little by little he is vanishing from the world, swallowed up by the shadows and their mirages; we are brothers. I don’t know what pain or what pleasure propelled him to us, to stardust, maybe opium, maybe wine, maybe love; maybe some obscure wound of the soul deep-hidden in the folds of memory.”

This book is like an alternate history story told as a fever dream and I loved every bizarre second of it.  Énard imagines that Michelangelo accepted an invitation to travel to Constantinople and design a bridge for the Sultan Bayezid II, and the result is a sort of East-meets-West fable, brought to life by Charlotte Mandell’s stunning, lyrical translation and Énard’s lush and evocative setting.  I have never felt more immersed in a novella and I have never been sadder for one to end.


3. A Girl is a Half-formed Thing by Eimear McBride

“Him anxious. Not at all like. But I am happy. Satisfied that I’ve done wrong and now and now. What now? Calm sliding down into my boat and pushing out to sin. He’s on the shoreline getting small.”

This wasn’t my introduction to McBride, having read and felt rather mixed about The Lesser Bohemians.  But there is nothing mixed in my feelings about her debut, the single most depressing thing I’ve ever read after A Little Life, and one of the best meditations on trauma that I’ve ever read.  McBride’s singular, fragmentary style works so well in this book that it’s one of the best cases of harmony between style and content that I can think of.  Major trigger warnings for just about everything, particularly sexual assault, so I wouldn’t recommend this to everyone.  But god it’s good.


2. The Fire Starters by Jan Carson

“The Troubles is too less a word for all of this.  It is a word for minor inconveniences, such as overdrawn bank accounts, slow punctures, a woman’s time of the month.  It is not a violent word.  Surely we have earnt ourselves a violent word, something as blunt and brutal as ‘apartheid.’ Instead, we have a word like ‘scissors’, which can only be said in the plural.  The Troubles is/was one monster thing. The Troubles is/are many individual evils caught up together. (Other similar words include ‘trousers’ and ‘pliers’.) The Troubles is always written with a capital T as if it were an event, as the Battle of Hastings is an event with a fixed beginning and end, a point on the calendar year. History will no doubt prove it is actually a verb; an action that can be done to people over and over again, like stealing.”

In the biggest plot twist of the century, my favorite novel of the year belongs to my least favorite genre, magical realism.  That just goes to show Jan Carson’s power.  This is a sharp and funny and piercing story about a near-future resurgence of the Troubles, in which someone in Belfast has begun to light a series of fires around the city.  It also follows two men, an older man and former paramilitary, and a young doctor who fears that his newborn daughter might be a Siren.  Like a lot of Northern Irish lit, this is a book about how terror starts at home, about how you never know who you can trust, about how a legacy of violence leaves lasting scars on a community.  It’s also written with wit and warmth and a compelling sort of unease.  Please read it.


1. Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland by Patrick Radden Keefe

“Dating back to the Iliad, ancient Egypt and beyond, burial rites have formed a critical function in most human societies. Whether we cremate a loved one or inter her bones, humans possess a deep-set instinct to mark death in some deliberate, ceremonial fashion. Perhaps the cruelest feature of forced disappearance as an instrument of war is that it denies the bereaved any such closure, relegating them to a permanent limbo of uncertainty.”

Speaking of the Troubles.  On February 27, I wrote in my review: “I wish it weren’t only February because the statement ‘this is the best book I’ve read all year’ does not carry very much weight when we still have 10 months to go.”  Well, we made it, Patrick.  December 29 and this is my book of the year – in fact, it never had any real competition.  This is a nonfiction true crime account of the disappearance of Jean McConville in 1970s Belfast; a story which Radden Keefe weaves together with a relatively comprehensive history of the Troubles, all while also investigating an effort made by Boston College in the twenty-first century to curate an oral history of the Troubles.  This book has everything – it’s engaging, heart-wrenching, informative, thoughtful, measured, compassionate, brilliant.  Nothing I read this year left a stronger impression on me.

So there we have it, my best books of 2019.  What were yours?

Most Disappointing Books of 2019

I’m going for the ‘most disappointing’ angle rather than ‘worst’.  My ratings for these books range from 1 to 3 stars.  Otherwise I think this speaks for itself.  Here we go!


10. Homesick for Another World by Ottessa Moshfegh

I discovered Ottessa Moshfegh in 2018 and devoured her two novels My Year of Rest and Relaxation and Eileen, so it was with excitement that I approached her short story collection Homesick for Another World, but my god this did not work for me.  I find that her novels succeed because of, or in spite of, her fantastically unlikable protagonists, because over the course of a full-length novel she has the space to adequately explore her protagonists’ psyches.  Not so in short stories, where characters seem to be awful for the sake of provoking the reader into thinking ‘oh, how awful’; there never felt like there was much depth beyond that and it started grating before too long.  All that said, the final story in this collection was a standout.  If you’re going to read one, make it that one.


9. Notes to Self by Emilie Pine

This was a case where the disappointment arose from the fact that this book seemed so tailor-made for me; I can rarely go wrong with Irish feminist essay collections, and this one has been SO critically acclaimed that I was confident of its brilliance before even starting.  It just fell flat for me.  I felt like Emilie Pine never managed to say anything new or novel in any of these essays.  Some worked for me more than others, but a few weeks after finishing not a single one stands out to me.


8. Praise Song for the Butterflies by Bernice L. McFadden

A perfectly adequate book that I had to watch spontaneously self-combust before my eyes with an ending that effectively destroyed everything that came before it.  Full, spoiler-filled thoughts here.  But basically, this should win an award for the worst ending of all time.  No exaggeration.


7. The Dragon Republic by R.F. Kuang

I’m not a big fantasy reader, as you may have gleaned, but a childhood love of Harry Potter left me with a lifelong desire to find another fantasy series that, if it doesn’t have that same impact on me, as least comes close.  That’s why I was so thrilled to find The Poppy War, an engaging, propulsive, original-yet-comfortingly-familiar, darker-than-dark fantasy debut that blends Chinese military history with Chinese mythology.  I unreservedly loved every minute of it and eagerly started an ARC of The Dragon Republic months before it was due to come out.  I didn’t even bother finishing it by its publication date, because reading this book ended up being like pulling teeth.  The stakes felt low, the repetition grew wearisome, and the least interesting characters and conflicts were pulled to the forefront.  I’ll still be reading the third and final book in the trilogy when it’s published, and I still adore The Poppy War, but The Dragon Republic was a massive, massive disappointment.


6. The Cassandra by Sharma Shields

In my review of this book I cited that my issues with it were: the characters, the plot, the themes, and its failure as an adaptation.  So, in short, I didn’t like a single thing about it.  This was an incredibly shallow, ill-conceived Greek mythology adaptation that placed the Cassandra figure in Hanford, the research facility in the U.S. that developed the atomic bomb during WWII.  Everything was one-dimensional to the extreme; the plot constantly drove the characters and not the other way around, which is something that I especially hate.


5. The Power by Naomi Alderman

The Power, my least favorite Women’s Prize winner that I’ve read, is set in a dystopian future where suddenly girls have developed the ability to generate electric shocks from their fingertips.  It follows a group of characters, not one of whom has a distinct personality, across several years, meandering through their lives in a way that managed to side-step any real plot or action, instead focusing on extremely tedious details that managed to kill any momentum that Alderman was trying to achieve with the novel’s framing.  I hated this so much I was skimming it by the end.


4. Valerie by Sara Stridsberg
translated from the Swedish by Deborah Bragan-Turner

This fictionalization of Valerie Solanas’s life bored me to tears.  I didn’t get on with Stridsberg’s writing and I just didn’t care enough to try to engage with… whatever she was attempting to achieve with this book.  It read like a series of ideas without any semblance of a narrative to ground them; I found myself wondering why this was bothering to be a novel and not a long-form essay.


3. On Swift Horses by Shannon Pufahl

I haven’t even written a review of this yet, but I’m thrilled I was able to finish it in time to include it here.  I hated this.  It follows two characters in the postwar US, Muriel and Julius, both vaguely discontent with their lives.  The dust jacket tells you more than that, but I’m not going to, because it turns out it’s one of those cases where the dust jacket narrates the entire plot to you.  Nothing happens in this book; the characters are indistinct (I could not think of a single adjective to describe Julius aside from gay – that’s still the only thing I know about him); the writing is dreadful (it is trying so hard to sound Deep and Literary that it manages to say nothing of real importance for 300 pages); this ultimately reads like a very, very, very unpolished first draft of something that has potential buried somewhere very deep inside it.


2. The Club by Takis Würger
translated from the German by Charlotte Collins

A German orphan infiltrates one of Cambridge’s elite dining clubs in this bizarrely terrible… I don’t even know what this was trying to be.  Thriller?  Character study?  Potent social commentary?  It managed to be none of the above, with writing so laughable these are actual lines from the book (tw for sexual assault):

“I couldn’t stop thinking about how wounded she had seemed when she told me about being raped. I wondered what it meant for us.”

“Basically, I was living proof that money, a place at Cambridge, and a big dick don’t make you happy. Fuck.”

 “Charlotte fell asleep on my elbow. After my parents’ death I’d thought I could never love again, because the fear of losing someone was too great. I had grown cold inside. Now here was this woman, lying on my arm.”

‘I’m not going to play this game much longer,’ I said. 
I got up to leave, but she grabbed my hand.  I could feel her strength.  She was so strong I didn’t dare move.  I knew I would do everything Alex asked of me.

The girl would be raped, I would testify against Josh in court, and he would receive his punishment.  I would have to allow this crime to take place, otherwise the Butterflies would just keep doing it to other women.  Perhaps that was why old people walked with a stoop, bowed down by the weight of decisions which may have been right but still felt wrong.

So SUFFICE IT TO SAY this is hands down the worst book I have read in my life.  The only reason it isn’t #1 here is because the conceit of this list is ‘most disappointing’ rather than ‘worst’, and frankly I didn’t have any particular expectations going into this.  But it was still so bad that it had to get the #2 spot.


1. When All Is Said by Anne Griffin

An elderly working class Irish man looks back on his life and toasts the five people who had the biggest impact on him in When All Is Said.  This gets the coveted #1 spot, because of all the books on this list, this is the one that seemed like it would be the most up my alley.  It’s sad, it’s dark, it’s Irish.  But this really did not work for me; it’s told in the first person and I never believed Maurice’s narrative voice (much too polished and articulate for an older working class man) and because of that, I never really believed any of the rest of it.  It was too articulate, too on the nose, and too emotionally hollow of a reading experience for something that promised to break my heart.  I don’t think I experienced a single emotion while reading this aside from vague annoyance.

So there we have it, my worst/least favorite/most disappointing books of 2019.  What are yours?

Favorite Book Covers of 2019

Kicking off my end of year round up series with a fun one: favorite covers.

To be completely honest with you, I don’t think 2019 was a very strong year for book covers.  While compiling this list I kept finding myself drawn to 2020 releases, but I wanted to stick with books published this year.  That said, there were some highlights!  It’s interesting to me that I was drawn to a lot of busy covers this year (with notable exceptions) when in general I describe my taste as preferring minimalist cover design.  Case in point: this is probably my favorite cover ever.  But for whatever reason, these are the ones that won me over this year.

I’m also (evidently) a sucker for the white text on a black and white photo design.  Sorry.

I’m also including one title from late 2018 that I hadn’t included in my previous year’s post.  Sorry sorry.


  1. Throw Me to the Wolves by Patrick McGuinness (Bloomsbury)
  2. On Swift Horses by Shannon Pufahl (Fourth Estate, UK)
  3. Find Me by André Aciman (FSG)
  4. Night Boat to Tangier by Kevin Barry (Canongate, UK)
  5. On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong (Penguin Press)
  6. Lie With Me by Philippe Besson (Scribner)
  7. The End of Loneliness by Benedict Wells (Penguin Books)
  8. Liar by Ayelet Gundar-Goshen (Pushkin Press)
  9. Divide Me By Zero by Lara Vapnyar (Tin House Books)
  10. Valerie by Sara Stridsberg (FSG)
  11. Tell Them of Battles, Kings & Elephants by Mathias Énard (New Directions)

What’s your favorite cover from 2019?  Comment and let me know!

My Life in Books, 2019

I’m not sure who created this meme, but I’m borrowing it from Laura!

Using only books you have read this year (2019), answer these questions. Try not to repeat a book title.

In high school I was Homesick for Another World (Ottessa Moshfegh)

People might be surprised by All My Puny Sorrows (Miriam Toews)

I will never be A Natural (Ross Raisin)

My fantasy job is In the Dream House (Carmen Maria Machado)

At the end of a long day I need Ordinary People (Diana Evans)

I hate A Spell of Winter (Helen Dunmore)

Wish I had The Power (Naomi Alderman)

My family reunions are Troubles (JG Farrell)

At a party you’d find me with Bottled Goods (Sophie van Llewyn)

I’ve never been to The Heavens (Sandra Newman)

A happy day includes Cleanness (Garth Greenwell)

Motto I live by The Trick is to Keep Breathing (Janice Galloway)

On my bucket list is Forest Bathing (Qing Li)

In my next life, I want to have Rough Magic (Lara Prior-Palmer)

Tagging whoever wants to do this!