2019’s Best Reads
The following is a list of the books that were more personally enjoyable to me in 2019, regardless of year published. (For the best of what was published in 2019, see here.)
With small children, a major project at work, several extended business trips, and a kitchen renovation, my reading slipped this year compared to previous years, but I was still able to read a fair number of books. I did read many genre-centric books, but generally I feel myself slipping away from them. The inundated state of the market, the inundated state of my mind (hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of books the past decade), the underlying current of: “Maybe I’m approaching the end of that cycle in my life?”, and the desire to read more non-fiction seem the biggest influencers.
In no particular order, these are the books that poked their proverbial heads above the water in my (proverbial) mind the past year, starting with Fiction, and ending with Non-fiction:
The Refrigerator Monologues by Catherynne Valente – A collection of short stories about the women “kept in the refrigerator” of super heroes’ lives, Valente attaches a cape to her trademark dynamic diction and lets it fly in super (har har) fashion. While this premise would seem to play into the wheelhouse of extreme liberalism, Valente perpetually keeps her stories grounded in a relatable human reality that transcends the culture noise happening in the media these days. This is purple stretch lycra with blood and sweat—a highly underrated collection.
The Gradual by Christopher Priest – 2019 something of a Christopher Priest year for me (I read four of his books), The Gradual wasn’t the best (wait for it), but it’s main plot device was so simple yet intriguingly unpacked it sticks in mind. About a composer in a war-torn land who goes on tour of the Dream Archipelago to escape his demons, he finds all is not as he thought upon his return home. The main plot device is better left for the reader to discover, but suffice to say it is an interesting spin on scarring or tattooing that directly complements Priest’s presentation of the passage of time.
Vigilance by Robert Jackson Bennett – For those who know me personally, they are aware of how passionately I feel about gun control.* Therefore in Vigilance it’s immensely satisfying to see a writer spin one American ideal about 2nd Amendment rights into the absurd. Guns and reality tv are mashed together into a frighteningly plausible American scenario—particularly with Trump in office. The novella is hurt by a denouement which deconstructs the story, but otherwise hits dead center on the current gun debate in America.
The Silent Land by Graham Joyce – Another book whose premise is simple yet elegantly unpacked, a British couple awake at a ski lodge in the French Alps to discover that time has frozen and everybody has disappeared. At first living like kings at the 4-star resort, they later must deal with the reality of their situation. More personal than social, Joyce subtly but effectively rotates the story to portray people dealing with traumas in life. Wonderfully understated book.
The Secret Commonwealth by Philip Pullman – Delightfully great storytelling, this book, second in The Book of Dust trilogy, tells the story of Lyra as a young woman. Dealing with relationship troubles with her daemon as a result of their experiences in His Dark Materials…, Lyra finds new threats from the Magisterium abound, even as her own life falls in danger. Perfect beach read (as long as you read La Belle Sauvage first).
Ice by Anna Kavan – Novel as art, this story of a man chasing an ice princess is wonderfully feverish. Capturing a snowflake in a bottle, this extremely dynamic novel eschews any standard plot arc in favor of delivering to the reader a perpetual state of mind that can almost be palpably felt even if the reader has never dealt with the type of longing or desires the main character has.
The Hod King by Josiah Bancroft – Unless Bancroft entirely drops the ball with the fourth and final book in the Tower of Babel series, I think it’s fair to say The Hod King (third book) solidifies the series place as the best of fantasy in the 21 st century.. Part surreal, part fantastical, and all enjoyment, Thomas' quest to reunite with his lost wife in the Dali-meets-steampunk Tower of Babel represents everything that is a joy to imagine and read. If you haven’t read any of these books, go out and get Senlin Ascends and see for yourself that even in 2019 it’s possible for authors to be wholly original—and magical. (I’m leaning toward the Tolkien of the 21st century, but we’ll see how the fourth book turns out…)
The Rider by Tim Krabbe – If I had to choose the book which stuck out most in my mind this year, Krabbe’s The Rider would likely be it. A short but impactful novel (perhaps even novella?), it is essentially one rider’s stream-of-conscious recounting of a 150 km cycling race through the Swiss Alps. This inner dialogue so real and relatable in the heat of competition, the reader forgets about the dichotomy of winning and losing, and instead ponders their own thoughts and opinions we form of others around us as we race down the road of life.
The Testaments by Margaret Atwood – It’s always a risk for a writer to return, years later, to a world they seemed to have finished with. With A Handmaid’s Tale, there didn’t seem anything else to say: the message was loud and clear, making for one of the greatest dystopian novels ever written. Seeming to want to jump into the contemporary cultural fray—or at least keep the the dialogue fresh and vigorous with blindered leadership in place, with The Testaments Atwood returns to the world of Gilead with a story that doesn’t add anything new to A Handmaid’s Tale thematically, but likewise doesn’t do it any disservices, shoring up the ideas with a brilliant story that will have the reader turning pages well into the night.
The Iron Dragon’s Mother by Michael Swanwick – Another return to a world seeming to have been finished with, Swanwick, like Atwood, makes the return worthwhile, writing a book that plays to his strengths as a rebel against anything resembling formulaic fantastika, all the while developing and retaining the human qualities of his characters. The best part is, the reader need not have read either The Iron Dragon’s Daughter or The Dragons of Babel. It can be appreciated as is, and is the best of the novels published in 2019 I read.
The Separation by Christopher Priest – Yes, the second entry by Priest on the list. (Sorry, it’s not my fault he is a phenomenal writer, and besides I warned you earlier.) An alternate history/histories about a pair of twins in WWII, Priest looks at handful of what-ifs surrounding Churchill and Goerring, all the while using the merging and separating identities of the twins to interrogate the human layer. Brilliant book, and if not his best, certainly in contention.
Report on Probability A by Brian Aldiss – One of the oddest science fiction books you could ever read, Aldiss’ parallel universe story is as quotidian as quotidian can be yet uses it science fictional premise to highlight the truly social nature of our species. I could describe it further, but it almost needs to be experienced for itself.
Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari – A fascinating cloud-level view of humanity’s appearance and evolution, Harari forms the anthropological and sociological bookend to John Gray’s philosophical Straw Dogs. The reader might be able to pick on a few of the details, but the overall trajectory is undeniable, and is a hard but necessary truth to be confronted with.
The Spy and the Traitor by Ben Macintyre – The Spy and the Traitor is the utterly fascinating true story of Oleg Gordievsky, a Russian who spied for the West in the Cold War. The stuff of John Le Carre in real life, Gordievsky’s story is one of the most captivating biographies I have ever read.
The Self-Driven Child by William Stixrud and Ned Johnson – Confucius is famous for saying “everything in moderation”, something I’ve often taken to mean: “look for the middle ground”. With The Self-Driven Child Stixrud and Johnson find the perfect balance between our most-loved little ones complete freedom and complete control. Not a cage of rules and not a limitless horizon, the two psychologists explain a number of ideas that support giving children the proper medium between the two so as to ultimately help them become independent adults themselves. While the focus is on children, it’s a fascinating secondary aspect for the adult reader to look back at their own childhood, what they were and were not allowed, and reflect how they want to raise their own children. An invaluable book.
Koh-i-noor: The History of the World’s Most Infamous Diamond by Anita Anand and William Dalrymple – The subtitle capturing the book’s substance, Anand and Dalrymple lay out the past of a lifeless stone in a way that brings to life the peoples and cultures who have been involved with it in one way or another. From assassinations to crowns, unknown ownership to political tool, numinous object to object of diplomatic dispute, it’s a unique slice of world history that runs through Asia, the Middle East, and Europe in glittering (sorry, couldn't resist), fashion.
Raising a Screen Smart Kid byJulianna Miner – The perfect book for parents with pre-teens, adolescents, and teens in 2019, Miner gives both factual and practical advice on how to implement electronic devices, social media, and everything that comes in tow with those technologies in the lives of our children. Neither a conservative or liberal view, Miner understands that devices aren’t going away, but at the same time understands complete freedom is likewise in poor thought, and thus wonderfully balances her approach by setting reasonable limits parents can relate to.
*My view on guns can be summed up by the following:
Anger + Fist = Bloody Nose
Anger + Gun = Corpse
Anger is a fundamental aspect of human nature that can never be limited, therefore it’s best to limit the second part of the equation—guns, the part we as humans have some control over (as many countries have proven)—if we want to reduce innocent corpses.