I read 107 books in 2019, and about a quarter were non-fiction. I often have a hard time getting through non-fiction, with a top five or seven list at the end of the year, but this year I had a bunch of favorites and went for a top 10.
The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin – I’ve never read James Baldwin before, and now I’m kicking myself. He has such a profound, scathing, prophetic voice. The things he said about race more than 50 years ago are still painfully true today. It’s a quick read, but will take a lot longer (and multiple readings) to truly digest.
Sissy: A Coming of Gender Story by Jacob Tobia – A helpful and insightful memoir that gives a glimpse into the nonbinary perspective. Jacob makes the point that no single memoir can encapsulate the nonbinary experience and tries to avoid telling what’s become the typical tragic tale. What I found most interesting was Jacob’s experience in church. While they did have some rough patches, their church was ultimately affirming.
The Song Poet: A Memoir of My Father by Kao Kalia Yang – Really compelling memoir about a Hmong refugee who grew up in Laos and escaped war to struggle with racism in America. The introduction really didn’t hook me, but once it got into the father’s story it really got good. The audio version is voiced by the author, and her voice breaks up in some of the really tough parts, making for a powerful listen.
Tomboy by Liz Prince – Not only does this memoir skewer gender norms in a fun and playful style, but it’s a coming-of-age memoir about the most awkward time in our lives that explores dealing with gender issues. Nothing like a good awkward teen story.
They Called Us Enemy by George Takei, Justin Eisinger, Steven Scott, and Harmony Becker – A graphic memoir about George Takei’s childhood in the Japanese internment camps of World War II. The story of the internment is pretty rough, though Takei does a good job couching it in with the perspective of history and our strides forward since then (and slips backward). It’s a history we often don’t remember, which makes this an important read.
We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy by Ta-Nehisi Coates – I remember Ta-Nehisi Coates doing the round of interviews when the book came out, and there was a strain of a kind of incredulousness that he wasn’t more hopeful. After reading the book, I can see why. He sees Trump as a racist backlash to Obama, a return to who we are. The problem isn’t Trump, the problem is much deeper than that. And it doesn’t leave a lot of room for hope. Like other Coates books I’ve read, this one demands a lot more than a simple reading. I felt like I was scratching the surface and would need to revisit it multiple times to really grasp the ideas fully. Some powerful, well argued and well researched stuff.
Onigamiising: Seasons of an Ojibwe Year by Linda LeGarde Grover – A book of simple stories and remembrances, full of wonderful turns of phrase and memory and history and culture. The focus on Duluth and the seasons gives it a nice local feel, but the best part is just the explanations of Ojibwe cultural practices with a sense of how they’ve changed over time. But it’s a story your grandmother would tell, not a rote history lesson. It’s intriguing how often the Indian boarding schools are mentioned, an intergenerational trauma that many of us might remember as old history, forgetting how it continues to have an impact.
Diesel Heart by Melvin Carter Jr. – If you’ve ever met Melvin Carter Jr., it’s quickly apparent that he likes to talk. He tells stories and can jump from one topic to the next, always passionate and brutally honest. He has a raw voice that doesn’t sugar coat anything. Which makes his story of growing up in the latter half of the 20th century in St. Paul’s Rondo neighborhood gripping. He encounters a lifetime of racism, from St. Paul’s gutting of the Rondo neighborhood to serving in the Navy during Vietnam to serving on St. Paul’s mostly white police force for 28 years. It’s a memoir with a lot of heart and character. (Read my recap of his reading at Amore.)
I read 107 books this year and found a few winners. Here’s my list of top fiction. I’ve done a top 10 the past few years, but this year I went with 15. The top five are probably a few steps above the others, but they’re all worthy reads.
I’ll Be There by Holly Goldberg Sloan – This is one of those books that just comes at you with a quiet, tender story that just grabs you. I loved the characters and I love the simple, matter of fact asides the story continually offers (though it can make getting into the book a little harder). It reminds me a lot of a character I tried to write about a few times, and that might be why the story connected with me the way it did.
Sea of Rust by C. Robert Cargill – A more personal, localized, and urgent version of Robopacalypse. From the first chapter I was hooked. I loved the way it switched back and forth from current action to robot history, keeping me hooked and wanting to know more (even in the history chapters). Good stuff.
The Power by Naomi Alderman – Wow. This is a compelling book. The style really sucks you in and grabs you. Ultimately it’s a story about the power dynamic between men and women being flipped, and what happens to society if that were to happen. Naomi Alderman fleshes it out to a frightening degree. A few times that felt a little heavy handed, but honestly that just felt realistic. The power dynamic is heavy handed, so what do you expect.
The Last Thing You Surrender by Leonard Pitts Jr. – A brutally honest exploration of racial issues during World War II. It’s a great story with a lot of heart and a lot of depth.
Polaris Rising by Jessie Mihalik – This was just a flat-out fun space adventure.
A Study in Honor by Claire O’Dell – The description made me think this was a near-future retread of Sherlock Holmes that might be fun but would have a fair bit of camp. While it does play on Sherlock Holmes, it’s not a fun, witty adventure. Instead it paints a bleak picture of a nation plunged into civil war in reaction to gun safety measures and civil rights. We follow Janet Watson, an army surgeon who loses her arm, as she tries to place her life back together while struggling with PTSD. It does eventually slip into a mystery, but it’s much more focused on the struggle to reaclimate after war. The world building is incredible and Watson’s gritty pain is real and ugly.
The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates – The writing of Ta-Nehisi Coates is always pretty dense, and his first novel is no exception. But it does suck you in a tell a powerful story. I’m not entirely sure how I feel about it. Giving real events fantastic explanations always puts me off. The Underground Railroad actually happened and the real story doesn’t need that kind of embellishment. But still. It’s incredibly well written, and while I’m usually not one for literary works, this one definitely kept me interested.
Here and Now and Then by Mike Chen – This is a fun time travel story that follows an agent trapped in the past (circa 2030) who has to start his life over again, only to get pulled back to his present (2142). It’s typical time travel complicated (not too confusing) and spends more time on the family relationships than the hard science, making for an enjoyable read.
Autonomous by Annalee Newitz – A sci-fi Law and Order of sorts, that follows a do-gooder pirate drug dealer and the robot agent tracking her down. Set in the mid-22nd century, this is the kind of story that can often can too weird and far out to follow. But it’s really engaging and interesting, throwing in all kinds of history and bringing us along with out being too fantastical or unrealistic.
Fool’s War by Sarah Zettel – This was a really fun space adventure that dove into artificial intelligence and the potential threats they pose. That sounds like it could be a little too heady, but the author managed it in a pretty approachable, fast-paced manner. Kept me hooked. I’m also impressed the sci-fi concepts from more than 20 years ago really held up. There’s also an interesting sub-thread where the main character is Muslim. It doesn’t have that much to do with the overall story, but it’s an engaging piece we don’t often see.
The Bird King by G. Willow Wilson – I was really excited to see another novel from Ms. Marvel co-creator G. Willow Wilson. Overall it was a good read, but I felt like I really wasn’t hooked until the second half. The flight of Fatima and Hassan didn’t hook me like it should have, and it wasn’t until Gwennec came on the scene that the story really took off. I think the story felt more conflicted then, and it resonated a lot more. All in all, it’s a different kind of fantasy novel, and that’s part of what I love about Wilson’s writing.
The Bookshop on the Corner by Jenny Colgan – I have a soft spot for books about book lovers. This love letter to book lovers is just a fun read about a librarian who loses her job and starts a mobile bookstore in rural Scotland, falling in love along the way.
Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech – Oh Gooseberry. What a wonderfully sad little story about change and loss.
The Future of Another Timeline by Annalee Newitz – This is a fun time travel story (if a story with lots of murder can be called fun) in a world where time travel is normalized. It’s all about men’s rights advocates trying to edit women’s rights away while a group of feminists try to defend the timeline. It’s a little mind-bending, but if you don’t dwell on that it’s lots of good fun.
Erasure by Percival Everett – I find Percival Everett’s work to be so beguiling. In some ways it feels like I’m reading snobbish literary fiction, the kind that bores me, but then it take interesting twists and is written in a style that pulls me in. Erasure is no different. The main character, Monk, is a prolific but virtually unknown author and professor, a not-too-far-off caricature of Everett himself. Disgusted by a popular ghetto novel, Monk decides to write his own parody and pass it off as someone else’s—and of course it becomes wildly successful making Monk rich. We get the entire novel Monk writes, making for a bizarre novel-within-a-novel experience. Overall, it’s a weird book, but also so intriguing.
Let’s give an honorable mention to Cat Pictures Please and Other Stories by Naomi Kritzer. As much as I like stories, I have a hard time with short story collections. I often can’t even finish them. But this one I devoured. Kritzer’s latest novel is in my Christmas stack, and I can’t wait to read it.
It’s nowhere near my record, but it is up slightly from last year.
My reading still hasn’t returned to 2012-2016 levels, but I suspect that has a lot to do with continued rejection of YA and middle grade stories (only 11% this year, last year it was 25%). Sci-fi amounted to 37%, pushing up from a third or less in previous years.