It was never my intention to finish 100 books this year – I think my original goal was 40. And it’s highly likely that I’ll never finish 100 books in one calendar year ever again. 2019 was a year in which I wasn’t particularly busy, I lost access to most of my time-wasting internet at work, and the news was so generally horrible that I was in desperate need of distraction.
There was no real rhyme or reason to my reading habits this year, though I think I read more short-form fiction than I ever had before, and I also read a great deal of cosmic/weird horror, which I suppose isn’t necessarily that out of the ordinary – though given the state of the world, I suppose I needed some sort of reminder that things could always get worse, and weird horror is a great source of comfort in that regard.
I read some old stuff that I’d been meaning to get to – the first three Earthsea books, for one – and I managed to tackle a not-insignificant amount from my Kindle Library of Shame backlog. I discovered some new favorite authors (Sara Gran, Nathan Ballingrud, Sam Sykes), re-discovered some old favorites (Julian Barnes, Claire North, Anthony Marra), and since everyone needs one long multi-part epic to have hanging around, I finally started reading James S.A. Corey’s Expanse novels. (I should note here that I have zero interest in the show.)
And I’ll also say this – while it’s true that not everything I read this year clicked with me, there’s almost nothing that I read that was truly awful. There’s a few books that I couldn’t get into (most notably Marlon James’ “Black Leopard, Red Wolf”), and there’s one short little novella that I need burned from my memory because of how absolutely disgusting it was. My larger point is simply this – almost everything I read this year was awesome, which means that distilling 100 books into a top 10 is going to be very difficult indeed, which is why I’m doing a top 15 instead.
But before I get into the top 15, here are the ones that just missed the cutoff:
- Golden State, Ben Winters – the first 80% of this book is amazing, but the ending falls apart.
- Freshwater, Akwaeke Emezi – fascinating and beautifully written.
- Growing Things, Paul Tremblay – excellent collection of short stories that I’d recommend only after reading the rest of his work, as there’s one story in particular that ties all of his work together in one of the coolest (and funniest) stories I’ve ever read.
- To Rouse Leviathan, Matt Cardin – a very effective mixture of Lovecraft and Ligotti.
- Calypso, David Sedaris – man, I missed his voice. There are two pieces in here that rank among the funniest in his entire body of work.
- Less, Andrew Sean Greer – gorgeous and funny and sad and beautiful all at once. there’s a caveat here that applies to several other books i read this year, though, that is weird to talk about but I suppose must be addressed at some point.
- The Noise of Time, Julian Barnes – I read this right after watching The Death of Stalin, which made Shostakovich’s fears all the more real.
- The Pursuit of William Abbey, Claire North – a kind of companion piece to her excellent Harry August novel.
- 5 of the 6 Books in the Amazon Forward Collection. You can read each “book” in less than an hour. I’d skip Andy Weir’s “Randomize” – it suffers from the same problem as the rest of his work, in that the science is interesting, but the characters and the plotting are dull.
And so here are my top 15 books that I read in 2019. In no particular order, except for the first one below, which is one of the best books I’ve ever read:
There aren’t enough superlatives I can lay on this one that won’t make it weird. Every single word is carefully chosen and yet effortless to read. I’ve never wanted to hug a tree as badly as I did immediately upon finishing this one. Absolutely beautiful.
Yet another stunner from Whitehead, arguably even more powerful and gut-wrenching than “Underground Railroad.”
I’d heard about this one but hadn’t gotten around to it; then I saw it was free for Kindle Unlimited readers, of which I’m one; and then I completely devoured it. Fabulous modern retelling of ancient Greek myth; I have her “Song of Achilles” at the top of my to-read pile for 2020.
A heartbreaking, stunning collection of interconnected stories that moved me to tears. Between this and “A Constellation of Vital Phenomena”, Marra has become one of my favorite authors – I’ll read anything he puts his name on.
As noted above, I read a lot of short horror fiction this year, and this is arguably the best collection I read. I haven’t seen the movie that was made out of the title story, nor do I intend to – the story itself was more than enough to send shivers down my spine. These stories aren’t just scary – they’re meticulously crafted and written with great skill. His other collection, “North American Lake Monsters”, is also quite excellent.
This might be the scariest novel I read all year, though I’m not sure that was its intention; it’s certainly a hard-boiled masterpiece of police corruption. If even half of this book is based on reality, it’s amazing that we’re all still alive.
I read this pretty much in one sitting; it floored me. Consider the patriarchy thoroughly smashed.
The problem with reading 100 books in a year is that they tend to blend together, and if my Google spreadsheet is to be believed, I read this one and the one below pretty much one after the other. This one hit me particularly hard if only because it took me right back to my theater summer camp days; I might as well have been one of the characters in the book.
One of the better studies of young love and friendship and the crossed lines of class and power that I’ve come across.
Towles’ “A Gentleman in Moscow” will appear in my Best Books of the Decade; this one might just miss the cutoff but not for lack of effort. I might not be as into the Roaring 20s as I should, perhaps, but this opened the door for me.
If this isn’t as magnificent as “Stories of Your Life”, it’s still one of the best collections of philosophical science fiction ever written. Chiang is a genius, and his gift for prose is remarkable.
The only way I would’ve liked this book more is if I had any emotional investment in Fleetwood Mac, which, alas, I don’t. Even so, this is a very good book and very true-to-life; while most people will focus on the love story between the two leads, I couldn’t stop laughing at the one rhythm guitarist who was completely oblivious to everything that was happening; I know that guy particularly well.
This one is hard to describe, as it’s essentially 100 pieces of micro-fiction that are both self-contained and interlaced. I’ve never read anything quite like it, and I didn’t want to put it down.
Next to Nathan Ballingrud’s “Wounds” mentioned above, this is one of the best collections of cosmic horror I’ve ever read. Extremely effective and marvelously creepy.
I just finished this one yesterday, and it broke my heart into a thousand pieces. Breathtaking and beautiful.