The Best—and Worst—Books I Read in 2019

I hit a book slump in February. Isn’t that the worst? I wanted to read, and yet every book I picked it up just wasn’t right for me, so I put it down. Or worse, I let it sit there for a week—a week of no reading—which delayed me trying the next book. Pick up, leave abandoned on my nightstand, finally pick up another book, only for the sad process to start again.

But thanks to a flurry of reading over the holidays, I read 43 books this year—compared with 52 the previous year. Not too shabby, unless I compare my tally to my mom’s. She’s read 220 books and we still have a few days left in the year! I would credit her retirement, but she probably read half that many when she was working as a full-time teacher and raising us kids back in the day. It’s clear where I got my love of reading.

I read 22 non-fiction books this year, meaning I read only 21 fiction books, which is a bit surprising. I usually read a good mix of both, but I clearly need more fiction in my life—it would have probably been greater except for that February book slump. Maybe I’m finding it harder to find good fiction. Plus, I love memoirs and nonfiction stories written by journalists. That said, my favorite books this year were all fiction. I only picked four, because no fifth-place contender even came close to my love for these best books. These are in the order I loved them:

The Best Books

1. “The Great Believers” by Rebecca Makkai
I want to hug this book and love it forever. I had heard it was good, but I didn’t know what I was in for. This book showed me that my favorite books are those in which I love the characters and want what’s best for them. I want to jump into the book and help them along, make their lives easier for them. My heart aches for them.

This book centers on Yale Tishman, a gay man in 1985 Chicago. All around him his friends are dying of AIDS. Soon, one of the few friends he has left is Fiona, the sister of a good friend, Nico. Makkai does an amazing job of describing the time period and community of these men, found families who are struck down by a terrifying fatal disease just as they start to feel a little bolder about coming out in their city. The book alternates between Yale’s story and Fiona’s 30 years in the future, as she heads to Paris to find her estranged adult daughter. She runs into an old friend from 1980s Chicago and is hit with memories of that time and all she lost.

This book also showed me how much I like authors who play well with structure—telling stories from different points of view and going back and forth between time periods.

2. “A Place for Us” by Fatima Farheen Mirza
Similar to “The Great Believers,” this book gives me characters I absolutely adore and want the best for, even if they are a family who doesn’t quite understand one another. I might get frustrated with their misunderstandings, but I recognize they’re all good people trying to figure it out and who love each other, despite their troubles. This book also has a unique structure in that the timeline jumps all over the place without any hint or explanation—you just have to figure it out, which was jarring at first, but I soon came to love that about the book.

3. “The Nickel Boys” by Colson Whitehead
This book is a masterpiece. The more I think about it, the more in awe I am of Whitehead’s writing and storytelling. There’s a reason he has a Pulitzer. I hesitated to buy this book because of the content, but I knew I had to read Whitehead again (he wrote the incredible “The Underground Railroad”). Inspired by a real reform school—which is more like a torture chamber—for young black boys in Florida during the Jim Crow years, “The Nickel Boys” is devastating and harsh. There’s no gratuitous violence; it’s more subtle, understated and woven throughout, in every word. That makes it all the more difficult. There is some hope in the book, but not much, and it will likely leave you heartbroken and angry. But the story of these two boys’ friendship is sad and beautiful. And it’s an important read, especially in the world we live in today.

4. “Ask Again, Yes” by Mary Beth Keane
This book was recommended to me by Anne Bogel on her podcast What Should I Read Next. I had the honor of her playing my voicemail message on episode 185 this year in which she was recommending books to listeners. I told her two of the books I loved most recently were two books I just recommended to you—“The Great Believers” and “A Place for Us”—and explained my newfound discovery of loving books in which I truly, deeply love the characters and what happens to them. Bogel based this recommendation on that, and it was spot on.

The book starts out with two cops in the 1970s and quickly moves forward to the future and to their kids, Kate and Peter, who are inseparable best friends nearly since birth. But when tragedy strikes both families, they are torn apart and Kate and Peter are separated as kids through no fault of their own. You follow both of them as they grow up, affected by the tragedy and always thinking of each other and if and how to find each other again. The book is full of flawed characters—a few you want to hate but most you love and sympathize with.

Best Thrillers and Sci-Fi
I love thrillers, murder mysteries, dystopian and time travel books. These books fit the bill this year.

1. “Recursion” by Blake Crouch
I’m a sucker for a good time-travel book. I bought this because I enjoyed Crouch’s book “Dark Matter,” but I didn’t know time travel would be part of the book till I started reading. Like “Dark Matter,” “Recursion” started out slower for me, but it soon picked up steam. I read almost all of it in two nights but then had to put it down and get some sleep and focus on a lot of work the next few days. I kept thinking about those last critical 30 pages I needed to read all week!

This book is first about memory, but then dives into ideas about changing the past and the consequences of that. This book gave time travel a new twist that I thoroughly enjoyed (which is saying a lot for a genre that has been overdone) and did not see coming—even more rare. Crouch’s stories and ideas are so interesting and mind-bending that I can’t help plow through his books.

2. “The Lost Man” by Jane Harper
Jane Harper is back! After I loved her first book, “The Dry,” I was sorely disappointed in her second book, “Force of Nature.” In fact, that made it on my list of most disappointing books last year. But her sense of character and atmosphere are back in full force in her third book. While I still think “The Dry” is her best book, this is a close second.

Three brothers and some family members live way, way out in the Australian Outback, isolated from everyone else unless they want to take the long drive into the nearest town. At the beginning of the book, one of the brothers, Cameron, turns up dead. So, who killed him and why? Even with that premise, this book doesn’t feel suspenseful. It’s more about a family with secrets and longstanding drama that we hear unfold over the course of the book. Yes, we eventually hear what happened to Cameron, but that was anticlimactic; I think the ending came quite abruptly and ended too soon. A few things were rushed toward the end. But Harper is a master at making the unforgiving Australian dessert a main character of the book, which is what makes her books so unique and interesting from your standard mystery or suspense.

3. “My Name Is Memory” by Ann Brashares
This young adult book really surprised me and has stuck with me. I cannot wait for the sequel this spring. If you want to channel your angsty 15-year-old female self, this book is for you. This reminds me of the “Twilight” movies (not the terribly written books)—all the love and “we can’t be together”ness and angst, angst, angst. I loved it.

Turns out most humans are reincarnated, but Daniel is unique in that he remembers all of his lives. Way back in A.D. something, he meets and later falls in love with a girl, originally named Sophie. Life after life, he looks for her, finding her sometimes, sometimes waiting 200 years to see her again. She’s always a different age, looks different, is a different person, but he recognizes her soul, as he agonizingly realizes Sophie doesn’t remember him. There’s no way for him to make her see they are soulmates. But in present day, they are finally both the same age, in high school, then college, and he agonizes over trying to tell her the truth. Meanwhile, Sophie, now Lucy, gets a weird reading from a psychic and then starts to have strange, vivid dreams about other lives. Will Lucy ever remember who they are to each other so they can figure out a way to be together?

Non-fiction Honorable Mentions
These non-fiction books were great, but not great enough to bump my top four books of the year. However, they’re so good that I wanted to share them with you.

1. “Midnight in Chernobyl” by Adam Higginbotham
This book has made a lot of “best books” lists this year and is considered the definitive story about the nuclear disaster, exhaustive in its research and details. The book is a masterpiece of investigative journalism and nonfiction storytelling. It’s incredibly researched over years of reporting and weaves an impeccably detailed and horrifying account of the worst nuclear disaster in history. This all means that it’s highly technical and scientific—you won’t understand a lot of the details, but you’ll get the greater meaning and it shouldn’t stop you from enjoying the book (if one can “enjoy” a book about such a disaster).

The stories of the people affected by the disaster are riveting and heartbreaking. As the reader, you know the amount of radiation the workers and the firefighters and the city population were soon going to face, making it all the more horrifying as you read their individual stories. The book also takes a very wide step back and looks at how the secrecy, corruption and loyalty to the USSR’s communist system led to the disaster and how the disaster ultimately led to the fall of the Soviet Union. 

2. “Maid” by Stephanie Land
I’m in a Facebook writers group with Land (along with thousands of others). I don’t know her personally, but it’s been great to see someone who is so talented and had such a harsh life—and who I have about six degrees of separation from—get so much acclaim. This memoir should be required reading. It gives a glimpse into a young white woman’s life as a poor single mom on food stamps working as a house cleaner while trying to raise her daughter. Land does a great job of showing how the system is set against the poor and includes institutional prejudice, requiring people who receive government benefits to take drug tests, forcing them to go to a class to explain how to “sell” lower-income housing vouchers to landlords. She also shows us how people react to her situation, judging what she buys with her food stamps, criticizing her for being unable to afford an apartment that doesn’t come with black mold.

Land works for a small company that cleans people’s houses, and she shines a light on how people treat cleaning people and what they expect them to do in their homes. Some people are kind, while others want her to be invisible and just take care of their messes, never stopping to think she makes about $9/hour cleaning after them all day, getting nerve damage and spending most of her money on gas just to get to her job.

This is an important book, but it’s also a love letter to her oldest daughter; Land worked her butt off to get out of poverty and make a better life for her and her child.

3. “Chase Darkness with Me” by Billy Jensen
This book is for anyone who loved Michelle McNamera’s true crime book “I’ll Be Gone In The Dark” and/or the Bear Brook podcast. Jensen was the writer who was friends and sleuthing partners with McNamara and finished her book after her death. In this book, he talks about his journey from writer to an investigative journalist covering unsolved cold cases, to—after McNamara’s death—someone who wants to focus on actually solving those cases. He does solve a few, as he becomes obsessed with the next and the next case, but if you’re looking to hear how he solved every case, you’ll be disappointed. Real life isn’t like that, and some of the cases he discusses are still unsolved. Jensen’s specialty is using Facebook targeted ads to show videos and photos of suspects to a very geotargeted section of the population that live or work in the area the crime occurred, with the assumption that someone knows something. It’s an approach that more law enforcement should be using. Any true crime fan who wants to see the behind-the-scenes of how to solve a crime will like this book. But keep in mind this is Jensen’s story and not a dive into the minds of these criminals.

4. “Atomic Habits” by James Clear
This was the first book I read in 2019, and it was a great start to the new year and a kick-start to my business, my podcast and my personal life. I’m a productivity and habit nerd. I try to simplify and enrich my personal life and business by instilling as many good habits—and knocking out the bad ones—as possible. I believe creating a life full of habits actually saves you time, improves your life and makes things easier. So, Clear was preaching to my choir, and I was already employing several of the strategies he shares in his book. But I love how deep he dives into the science of habits and how he starts out each chapter with a story illustrating the importance of habits. I also like his concepts of how to make habits stick, outlining them in four “laws”—make habits obvious, attractive, easy and/or satisfying. He gives concrete examples for each law and then dives further into tactics you can try. I definitely picked up a few new tactics to try out, so I recommend this book for longtime habit nerds who just love reading about habit creation, as well as those who desperately need some helping creating good habits and/or shedding bad ones.

The Worst Book of the Year
The Tattooist of Auschwitz” by Heather Morris
Wow, how I hated this book. It was a quick read, though, so I finished it, thinking I was missing something. Why do so many people rave about this book? Why does it have a 4.26 rating on Goodreads when it’s so awful?

It’s about a Jewish man named Lale who is sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1942. He speaks several languages, so he is soon forced to become the tattooist who inks numbers on prisoners’ arms. This is based on a true story and is a real-life love story. But that doesn’t save the horrible writing. Morris writes without any emotional build-up or tension. I wasn’t scared or sad at any point—and it’s about the Holocaust! The writer just basically writes, “this happened, then this happened, then this thing happened. Oh, and then this HORRIBLE thing happened, but back to the boring bits …” I can’t believe the praise for this book.

Unfinished Disappointments
Here are a few books I blame for my book slump earlier this year. These books are loved by so many, but they were impossible for me to finish reading.

1. “Girl, Wash Your Face” by Rachel Hollis
It’s almost too easy to put this book on the list because it’s so obviously awful. But so many people loved it, and I heard interviews with Hollis that I enjoyed (before I read the book). The gimmick is that Hollis begins each chapter with a lie she’s told herself and then talks us through how she overcame that lie. While fluffy, I thought this might be a good pep talk or self-care book. No. I was instantly put off by her tone of privilege but it was the boyfriend story that made me want to throw the book across the room. She describes a horribly emotionally abusive and neglectful boyfriend whom she finally tells off—and then that supposedly improves their relationship so much that she marries him! She marries the jerk and then brags later about how great they are together now. I had to stop. I couldn’t even get to the part where she talks about setting a big goal for herself, which ends up being to buy an extremely expensive Birkin bag. Not exactly an empowering message for women or girls.

2. “The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics” by Daniel James Brown
No less than three people raved about this book with me, but I could not get into it. I am sure I would love the uplifting true story, but the writing read like a book report to me. I was so bored after about 25 pages that I had to stop.

3. “The River” by Peter Heller
This book received rave reviews this year, and I was excited to read about an adventure gone wrong. I love survivor stories and adventure tales. This one is about two college men who go on a canoeing trip down a desolate Canadian river. But then they are faced with a wildfire in the distance and a couple arguing in which the woman later seems to have disappeared. Murder mystery? Wildfire terror? Run-for-your-life tale? I never found out because I was so bored by the endless descriptions of the trees, the birds, the canoe, the equipment … plus the lack of dialogue in the first few chapters that I sent this book back to the library.

That’s my list. How was your reading in 2019? What did you love and hate?

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