Monday, December 30, 2019

My Favorite Books of 2019

2019 was a year of fits and starts when it came to my reading habits. I didn't have the greatest luck when it came to picking books. And anytime I selected too many relative duds in a row, or otherwise went too long without a book I enjoyed in hand, I started losing momentum with my reading habit very quickly. 

Perhaps because of all the work-related stress this year, I also felt like I was generally a far more fickle and picky reader in 2019 than I typically was in the past. I'd get into these strange moods, where books I would normally enjoy - some of them by longtime favorite authors, such as Guy Gavriel Kay - just weren't clicking with me. These days, I'm quite ruthless about dropping books I don't like and moving on to the next. Out of the 39 books I tried to read this year, I dropped and ultimately did not finish eight, most of them in the last quarter of the year, when things got truly hectic at the office and then stayed that way. 

My strange, capricious moods when it came to books may also have made me more receptive to works that many readers might find polarizing or odd. This is mostly seen with some of my "honorable mentions" for the year. A lot of those novels start with a fascinating premise, but even if I enjoyed the books greatly, I can acknowledge that there may be issues with the execution. 

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But with my main list of favorite books for the year, I can vouch for their excellence to any reader, or at least, to any reader interested in the relevant genres. As you'll see, my list is dominated by memoirs, which occupy two-thirds of the spots. (And in past years, my most enthusiastic book recommendations have generally been for other memoirs, including for Educated by Tara Westover and Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson. Clearly, I have a favorite genre!) A lot of my favorites for 2019 won't come as a real surprise, as I generally can't help but recommend good books shortly after I first read them. So I've already sung the praises of most of these works in other blog entries here this year. 

All You Can Ever Know by Nicole Chung: This was a lovely, understated book, one that nonetheless packs a huge punch because of the difficult family experiences that the author describes with great sensitivity and empathy. Through her experiences as a transracial adoptee and growing up in a predominantly white town, Nicole Chung also has some sharp, insightful things to say about race in the USA. 

Into the Drowning Deep by Mira Grant: I'm traditionally a huge sci-fi/fantasy fan, but haven't been reading as much from that genre in recent years. Seanan McGuire's series under her Mira Grant nom de plume are always delightfully creative, and they have a good sense of humor. This book is my favorite single volume yet from any of her Mira Grant series. Before reading this book, it had been a long time since I wanted to stay up hours past my usual bedtime to finish a book, because the story was so exciting and fully swept me up, and I really needed to know what would happen next. If you're a fan of sci-fi/fantasy, I highly recommend this book.

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman: I really enjoyed this novel, and found it charming and quite original. In the titular Eleanor Oliphant, Gail Honeyman created one of the most vivid, sharply-drawn, and intriguing characters I've encountered in any book in years. And I like that it has an uplifting, positive ending, one that Eleanor works hard for.

The Unwinding of the Miracle by Julie Yip-Williams: I first learned about this book from Kathy. It's an extremely powerful memoir. Julie Yip-Williams writes in such a direct and honest way.

Born a Crime by Trevor Noah: I'm quite a few years late to the party when it comes to reading and recommending this book. It's as great as everyone says it is. Trevor Noah has an incredible life story, and an incredible writer's voice. I didn't want this book to end, and if Trevor Noah ever publishes another memoir covering other periods of his life, I would buy it immediately. This book was that good!

Heavy by Kiese Laymon: I think I waited for this one longer than I've ever waited for any other ebook from the New York Public Library ("NYPL"), more than six months.* And it was absolutely worth the wait. Out of all the memoirs on my list, this is by far the most unflinching, the most unrelenting, and the most challenging, particularly when it comes to discussing racism in the US.

And now for those "honorable mentions," of novels I greatly enjoyed, but that I can't recommend quite as wholeheartedly: The Incendiaries by R.O. Kwon, My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh, and The Farm by Joanne Ramos. I found The Incendiaries delightfully strange and surreal, but I'm not sure that mine is an entirely accurate reading of the novel, since my experience of it seems inconsistent with a lot of reviews out there. As for My Year of Rest and Relaxation and The Farm, they're very different books, but they're similar in that they both started with an intriguing, creative premise, but there were significant issues with execution. Both novels also happen to have weak endings that sort of just fizzle out. The Farm, in particular, is a book that might not be what readers expect based on the summary. It starts with an idea that could easily go in a more dystopian, Handmaid's Tale-esque direction, but ends up being a sometimes-clumsy novel focused more on class inequality than anything else, without really examining the many other themes implicated by the novel's premise.

What were your favorite books that you read this year? How's the ebook selection at your local library? (The NYPL's is pretty good, but there are also a number of popular works that they never end up buying as ebooks.) What's the longest you've ever been on the library waiting list for a popular book, whether hard copy or ebook?

* Admittedly, this isn't the most accurate measure of a book's popularity, since the NYPL doesn't order the same number of ebook copies for every hyper-popular or well-reviewed book. Most similarly popular books have much larger orders. The entire NYPL system only has 11 ebook copies of Heavy, but typically has at least 30 to 40 copies of other popular ebooks, and sometimes a lot more than that. (I'm also aware that libraries may not be able to immediately buy ebook copies of every bestseller. There are also many hyper-popular bestsellers that the NYPL doesn't own any ebook copies of.) 

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