Wednesday, January 1, 2020

The Best Books I Read in 2019...

Well, another year (and another decade, amazingly) has passed us by. It's crazy to believe we're in 2020 now!

This past year, I read a record 211 books. This very well may be the most I've ever read in a year, although I don't know how many books I read when I was working at a bookstore in college and could read during slow times. Suffice it to say, if this isn't the most I've ever read in a year, it's the most in nearly 30 years!! (Egads.)

Lots of times people ask me, "How do you read so much?" Reading is my single favorite leisure activity and it's one of the primary ways I decompress. If I don't get to read a little each day, I feel somewhat off-balance. I've traveled a lot again this year, so lots of time in airports, on airplanes, and alone in hotel rooms gives me lots of reading time. I also don't watch television (which you may consider good or bad), so I read when I could be watching TV.

I didn't love every book I read; in fact, there were more than a few I stopped reading so I didn't bother to write reviews, and there were also more than a few (sadly) that petered out before the end, so I wound up skimming through the remainder of the book. I hope that's not a continuing trend!! And here's a funny thing: I have a to-be-read list (TBR) that is gigantic, yet there are times when I finish a book I have no idea what to read next. Go figure.

As I've done for the last 10 years, I went back through all of the books I've read and come up with a list of my favorites. Culling 211 books down to a finite number was really, really difficult, so what I've done is come up with a list of 26 (one is two volumes of the same book), along with a number of others which just fell short of the very best but they're still too good to miss.

I've linked to my original review of each so you can read more about each one. I'd love to hear your thoughts, and know which books you'd count among your favorites! I ranked my top 10 this year and then the remainder of the books will be in random order—ranking those would be far too complicated!!

The Best of the Best
  1. Red, White & Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston: Imagine if the First Son of the United States (his mother is finishing her first term as president, his father is a U.S. Congressman) has a love affair with Prince Henry of Wales, an heir to the throne (well, the "spare," actually). I read this sweet, sexy, emotional, truly special book last January and it never left my mind.

  2. Daisy Jones & The Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid: This book, written as an oral history of the (fictional) legendary band Daisy Jones & The Six, reads as if you were watching an episode of VH1's "Behind the Music" crossed with the amazing movie Almost Famous. One of two books by Reid on this list, and one of her books made my best-of-2018 list as well. She's one hell of a writer.

  3. A Scarcity of Condors by Suanne Laqueur: This is the third book in a trilogy by Laqueur—the first two books, An Exaltation of Larks and A Charm of Finches—made my top 5 in 2018. This is a gorgeous, sensitive, sexy, emotional book, full of moments that made me smile, made me blush, horrified me, and made me full-on ugly cry at times. The characters are simply gorgeous, fully drawn, and complex. It's a book about survival, about finding strength where there should be none, and about how love can help pull us through.

  4. We Contain Multitudes by Sarah Henstra: This is a gorgeously moving, beautifully told, thought-provoking story of friendship, love, truth, and secrets. The entire book is narrated in letters between two boys—Adam "Kurl" Kurlansky, a football player repeating his senior year of high school, and Jonathan Hopkirk, a quirky, fiercely intelligent sophomore with a passion for Walt Whitman's poetry, who is bullied nearly every day at school because of his sexuality. This book, to borrow a phrase from one of the main characters, utterly undid me.

  5. The Dearly Beloved by Cara Wall: How is this a debut novel? This one sneaks up on you with its gorgeous, contemplative story which grabs hold of your mind and your heart. It's the story of two men who meet in 1963 when they are hired as co-ministers an historic church in Greenwich Village. They couldn’t be more opposite from one another. It’s not a book that requires any knowledge of religion or faith—it’s more an exploration of how faith means different things to different people, and how it appears and disappears at different times in our lives.

  6. Find Me by Andre Aciman: While this is, in essence, a sequel to Call Me By Your Name, for the most part it’s more a book that follows some of the characters. If you go in expecting another whole book about Oliver and Elio you’ll be disappointed. This is a book about love, longing, all-consuming desire and the fear it might suddenly disappear. It’s also a book about what the heart wants and how strongly it clings to some people and some memories despite the passage of time.

  7. The Friend Zone by Abby Jimenez: You might be tempted to write this off as fluffy "chick-lit," but you'd be wrong. Sure, there is romance, humor, hot sex, talk of soulmates and futures, but there is also an extra layer of emotional complexity in this book. The story of a couple who meet-cute when he rear-ends her car, who want to be together despite numerous obstacles in their way, is utterly put-downable. Even when the book took a surprisingly emotional turn, the characters remained utterly true to themselves and the story, and I became even more invested.

  8. This Tender Land by William Kent Krueger: Two brothers are forced to escape the school they've been left in, a school that treats students with violence and cruelty, and they go on the run with their friend, a Native American boy who cannot speak, and an orphan girl, in 1930s Minnesota. Such a beautiful, thought-provoking, emotional book, this is the story of a harrowing journey, children forced to find the bravery of adults, with a little of the mystical thrown in for good measure.

  9. Lie with Me by Philippe Besson: Can we ever forget the raw emotions, the intensity, the longing of our first true love? How does that relationship affect the rest of our lives? Besson poignantly captures those feelings, the way every fiber of your being is affected, the way you want nothing more than that person and cannot bear the thought of being apart. And how you mourn the end of that relationship, how it feels like no pain you've ever experienced, so much more than your heart can bear.

  10. The Last True Poets of the Sea by Julia Drake: There’s so much to this story—the need to be loved and understood, family dysfunction, emotional issues, sexuality—and Drake did such a terrific job with it. Her writing is imbued with such rich emotion, her prose is poetic at times, and her characters are fascinating—they're layered, complex, and not entirely sympathetic. This book mesmerized me with its power, left me emotional, and touched my heart in an unforgettable way.



More of the Best

The Simple Wild by K.A. Tucker: Tucker's story of romance, family dysfunction, forgiveness, and desperately trying not to make the same mistakes your parents did really blew me away. Far from just being poignant, however, this book is funny, ridiculously sexy, and a love letter to Alaska. It's both a story of family relationships and a love story.

The Unbreakables by Lisa Barr: This is a smart, sexy, emotional story about a woman losing and then finding herself again, learning just how strong she can be, and recapturing dreams she thought had passed her by. The book is even better if you go into it knowing very little about the plot so the story can unfold around you, as Sophie's life unfolds around her, so I've kept the plot description vague.

Heartstopper Volume 1 and Heartstopper Volume 2 by Alice Oseman: These young adult graphic novels are the type of book I wish existed when I was a teenager. They're about identity, friendship, crushes, and the flush of first love, and they tell the story of two high school students—Charlie, who is openly gay, and Nick, a "rugby lad" who is straight, and the friendship that develops and deepens between them. I’d actually call this series Heartgrabber, because it took hold of my heart and won’t let go.

The Lost Man by Jane Harper: The Bright family lives in adjoining cattle ranches in the isolated Australian outback, but they're still more than a three-hour drive away from one another. Two brothers meet for the first time in a while when their middle brother is found dead on a remote part of the family cattle ranch. He was a victim of the brutal heat, but no one understands what made him brave the elements with no protection. This isn't quite a thriller, but there certainly is suspense, and Harper is an excellent storyteller.

The Girl He Used to Know by Tracey Garvis Graves: This is an utterly fascinating, emotional book about a relationship between two people who couldn't be more different from one another yet can't help but be drawn to one another. The book looks at the start of their relationship and then when they meet again 10 years later. Can a relationship that was so intense the first time pick up where it left off, after so much has transpired between them? The book boasts an incredible set of characters, with such complexity and depth, and this love story is a special one.

After the Flood by Kassandra Montag: Just over a century from now, our world has been taken over by massive flooding which obliterated much of the landscape, leaving only mountains and random pieces of land scattered through our world, with whole cities left underwater. Myra and her young daughter Pearl live off their small boat, fishing and salvaging to make ends meet, finding people to trade with in the few outposts that are left. This is beautifully written, bleak, tremendously poignant, and full of lyrical imagery and memorable characters.

It Ends with Us by Colleen Hoover: The first of two of Hoover's books on this list. This is a powerful, emotional novel about courage, all-consuming love, empathy, and the realization that doing something bad doesn’t necessarily make you a bad person, but loving someone doesn’t mean you have to love all of their flaws. This book has some steamy sex and some scenes of violence which may be a trigger for some, but I devoured it in just a few hours.

The Music of What Happens by Bill Konigsberg: It's sweet and funny and romantic, but it's also poignant and deals with some serious issues as well. Max and Jordan meet cute at Jordan's family's food truck, which he and his mother are attempting to resurrect, despite neither of them knowing anything about operating one. These characters felt authentic and dealt with real problems, and I totally believed that the two would fall for each other. I also believed in their struggles, the things about their friends and family that bothered them but they never spoke up about, and the unique perspectives each brought to their own lives and their burgeoning relationship.

One True Loves by Taylor Jenkins Reid: An amazing book about love, grief, family, and finding your way after setbacks. Emma meets Jesse in high school; they move to California after college and get married. The day before their 1st anniversary, Jesse gets on a helicopter for work and disappears, and is presumed dead. As Emma moves through her grief, and once again finds it in her heart to trust and love again, she meets Sam. They fall in love and get engaged. And then Jesse is found alive, and ready to resume his life with Emma. This is the second book of Reid's on this list. She is freaking amazing.

Where the Forest Meets the Stars by Glendy Vanderah: There are books you read that you enjoy, there are books that you love, and then there are the books you hold in your heart. This debut novel is one to cherish. It's a story about friendship, love, bravery, and how the family we choose is often more important to us than the family we belong to, and it is also one in which the presence of a seemingly magical child transforms those in desperate need of rescue. The book has its own magic, buoyed by Vanderah's masterful storytelling, gorgeous imagery, and the story's immense heart. Unique and beautiful.

Modern Love: True Stories of Love, Loss, and Redemption edited by Daniel Jones: A column that has appeared in the New York Times since 2004, "Modern Love" is an exploration of love in its many forms—romantic, familial, filial, platonic—and the way it is manifested both positively and negatively. This book is a collection of those columns. Some hit more common themes—rebuilding after a relationship or marriage ends, the excitement and despair of dating, dealing with parental disapproval, getting a second chance at love. Others are more unusual—the woman bringing her husband (soon to become her wife) to the first stage of gender reassignment surgery, the woman writing an "ad" of sorts to find her husband a new love after her impending death, the fears of a mother of a teenage boy with autism as he begins seeing girls in a romantic and sexual way. Perfect for those who love love, or the saps among us.

In Five Years by Rebecca Serle: An amazing, emotional story full of twists and turns. It was a story about love in its many forms, friendship, ambition, and destiny. Dannie is a planner. Everything happens the way she's planned it out. She and her boyfriend David get engaged as she expects, and everything seems right. That night she falls asleep and awakens to a dream in which she’s in another NYC apartment, wearing a different engagement ring, and she’s with another man. She finds out the dream is taking place five years in the future. And then she wakes up. Who was this man? What happened to the future she planned? As time hurtles toward that date five years later she learns a lot about things she can and cannot control, and how those things shape her life.

Regretting You by Colleen Hoover: Morgan was 17 when she gave birth to her daughter, Clara. She and her boyfriend Chris got married when they found out she was pregnant, and the course of her life was different than she imagined it would be. Now, 16 years later, she wonders what’s next. Clara seems destined to follow in her footsteps in ways that make Morgan worry she’ll repeat her mistakes. But when Chris is killed in an accident, it upends their lives in many ways, and Morgan is trying desperately to protect her daughter from truths that might destroy her. Should Morgan sacrifice her relationship with her daughter to protect her, though? Hoover delivers a story with rich character development, strong emotions, and situations that could happen to real people.

The Book of Dreams by Nina George: This is about the thin line between life and death, of how keeping a person alive is often more for ourselves than the actual person. It's a book about love—both its presence and its absence—and how both can consume you. But more than that, this is a book about relationships, about finding the courage to act, to say the things you've always wanted, to never let regret occupy your mind. It's gorgeously written, brimming with vivid imagery and emotion.

The Flatshare by Beth O'Leary: This book was just sweet and fun and it made me happy! When Tiffy is in need of a place to live, she agrees to share Leon's flat, and even sleep in his bed, since the two work on opposite shifts and will never see each other. The two interact via post-it notes and memos, which grow from basic requests to much more personal conversations. And as each deals with their own crises, they are each other’s greatest support, despite having never met each other. When a missed alarm clock leads to their meet-cute (and meet-wet), they begin to fall for each other.


More Not to Miss
We Are Lost and Found by Helene Dunbar

The Rest of the Story by Sarah Dessen

Run Away by Harlan Coben

The Bookish Life of Nina Hill by Abbi Waxman

Birthday by Meredith Russo

Courting Mr. Lincoln by Louis Bayard

The Editor by Steven Rowley

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