Year in Review: Favourite Books of 2019
It is finally here: the end of 2019. With that the second to last in my Year in Review series; the one I look forward to seeing from other people the most: my favourites of 2019. This is going to be a long one, and a personal one to me, as I've decided to give a little more personal context to this year's picks than I usually do, if only for myself. If you don’t care about any of this, feel free to skip the italics and jump straight into the list.
2019 has been a trip; personally, mentally, physically, professionally and arguably even bookishly. It makrs the end of a year, as well as the end of a decade, that I look back on with very mixed feelings. In the final days of 2018, 7 years after the loss of my mother, my aunt (who was a foster mum to me ever since) past away due to ovarian cancer. Combined with my family’s genetic predisposition and my own cancer-history, this lead to screening, which had some consequences for me as well… I got very lucky: we couldn’t have been earlier. There was no chemo, no radiation: I got off with surgery and hormonal substitution alone. That being said: my faith in my body and my mental health suffered quite the blow. Besides all this, I started my full-time rotations, which were a huge transition from medical school as well. Books were a saviour this year for me: an escape, a helping hand and a source of comfort and relaxation. Despite my limited time, I devoured them desperately. I discovered different genre’s and different forms of reading (including audiobooks) and although there were less new all-time favourite, I still read some absolute masterpieces. You might be able to see this background reflected in the books I put on this list, especially within my top 5. Whether they offered a unique world to escape into, or resonated with me on a personal level, these books did something special for me this year.
With that context out of the way, out of the 103 books I finished this year: let’s count down my 10 favourites, plus 1 honourable mention. Some household rules as always: this list is not a list of the “objectively” best books, but simply the ones that I considered my favourites. Rereads of old favourites are not included and not all of these books are 2019-releases. For that list, click here.
Honourable mention: The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern
The Starless Sea was my most anticipated novel of the year without question. The reason that it’s an honourable mention, and not a full entry on this list, is because I’ve only just finished it and I feel like recentcy-bias is still very present here. I loved my experience reading this novel, especially the way Morgenstern’s lyrical writing completely transported me to this lush and mysterious subterranean world of The Starless Sea. As an experience it was great, yet as a novel it was a bit lacking in the “plot-department”. I’d like a bit more time to let this book sit with me, before I decide on a final verdict, as I feel this is the kind of novel I might change my mind on with time. That being said: for the experience alone, this was already a 5-star, and if you loved that dreamlike quality and magical writing in The Nightcircus the way I did, you’ll be sure to find that in The Starless Sea as well.
“The world changes too fast. You take your eyes off something that's always been there, and the next minute it's just a memory.”
I finished this book very early on in the year, yet I still think about it on a regular basis. In short: we follow Peter, a minister who has been send on a mission to preach his faith to an alien colony, lightyears away from earth. Saying that that is all this book is about, would not do it justice though. The Book of Strange New Things an ambitious novel that combines literary fiction with sci-fi, and the large scope of inter-species contact with the intimate relationship of a man lightyears away from home and his wife. I have a full review up here, where you can read more of my thoughts. In my opinion, this is a must read for fans of literary fiction, as well as characterdriven science fiction. I can see this going down in the cannon of the genre as a classic.
“Funerals are for the living,” This is my first out of two double features on this list, as I’ve already talked about this in my “Underrated Releases of 2019”. This novel focusses on a young sex-worker in Istanbul, in the first 10 minutes and 38 seconds after her heart stops beating. Laying in a back alley, as her brain slowly loses oxygen, Leila remembers her life in vivid sensuous memories. Stunningly written and expertly put together, this is one of the best explorations of essential memory I’ve come across: not as a series of neatly organized episodes, but a tangle of sensations linked by neurons firing and misfiring in a dying brain. This might sound too “experimental” to some, but to me it didn’t read as such as all, and came as close to perfection as anything. 10 minutes and 38 seconds in this strange world is a beautifully crafted homage to a life forgotten by most, but remembered by a few close friends, that managed to touch me on an emotional level like few others have.
Number 8: The Book of M by Peng Shepherd
”If only we were elephants. Then we could help each other…” There were two books with very similar themes and storylines competing for this spot in my mind: The Book of M by Peng Shepherd and Recursion by Blake Crouch. Both stories focus on the subject of memory (can you sense a theme in this list), in a sci-fi/postapocalyptic setting. The Book of M won with some ease however, as it has the far superior character development. This novel reminded me of Station Eleven with its atmosphere and focus on characters, while still maintaining a compelling plot. Although that made The Book of M the superior novel to me, I do recommend Recursion to readers interested in this topic, but looking for a more fastpaced and actionbased story. Full reviews for both The Book of M, as well as Recursion are up on my website.
Number 7: The Diviners by Libba Bray
“I salute your spunk, but I question your sanity,” The number seven spot on this list goes to the first two books in The Diviners series, both of which I read this year. I didn’t get immediately excited upon hearing this was a YA urban fantasy/paranormal series, yet I’m so happy I gave this a shot. The Diviners evaded all the genre-cliché’s and blew me away with how funny, suspenseful, atmospheric and filled with character depth it was. As far as YA-series go, this has to be in my top 3 to 5. I haven’t personally reviewed either of them yet, but there are plenty of discussions and glowing reviews out there that I completely agree with. I absolutely love these characters and this world and can’t wait to see how the series continues. On that note: Lair of Dreams was the single sequel I read that I felt improved over the first book. As I have a poor trackrecord with second books in series, that says a lot about Libba Brays skill.
Number 6: Muse of Nightmares by Laini Taylor
“Once upon a time there was a silence that dreamed of becoming a song, and then I found you, and now everything is music.”
It feels almost redundant to bring Muse of Nightmares up in this list, as I already filled last year’s Best of the Year with gushing over Strange the Dreamer, as well as anticipation for this sequel. Despite my anticipation, I only had the time to pick it up in 2019, and it didn’t disappoint. The Strange the Dreamer duology is difficult to explain, and best experienced for yourself. If you enjoy mysterious, almost dreamlike fantasy written in the lush, lyrical prose that Laini Taylor is known for, you cannot pass this up. My full review for the duology can be found here.
Number 5: This is Going to Hurt by Adam Kay
“A great doctor must have a huge heart and a distended aorta through which pumps a vast lake of compassion and human kindness.” From hereon out, you’re going to see increasingly more of “me” in the books I chose. This is Going to Hurt is in the number 5 spot, as a representative of the medical non-fiction I read this year (other than, of course, my study books). Out of all the different views, Adam Kay’s insights into the medical profession resonated most with me. In stead of showing only one side of the story (either the worst the medical world has to offer, or a praise into high heavens of the saints of doctors that a patient has encountered), This is Going to Hurt is the most well rounded book I’ve read on the topic. It showcases the good, the bad and the ugly of life as a doctor. It made me laugh, and almost tear up a little, within the span of minutes, as the reality of being a doctor also can. After When Breath Becomes Air, this is another book that I’d put on the list of required reading for every medical worker.
Number 4: August Isle by Ali Standish
August Isle is the second and last double mention, that also appeared in my “Underrated 2019 Releases”. I’m going to repeat what I wrote there, as I honestly don’t have much more to add: I often talk about middle-grade being this magical genre to me, that can sometimes transcend its age-category and touch me in a way that little (young) adult novels can... There is something about the coming-of-age story of a young child that is relatable and relevant to all of us and provides a window to discuss harder topics in a disarming way. This is one of those stories. We follow twelve-year-old Miranda, who is forced to spend her summer vacation with her aunt on the same island her mother used to. She’s always wanted to go there, but never without her mother. Over the summer we see her navigate her feelings of loneliness and resent towards her mother, find one of the purest friendships with two of the local children, and discover the family history that is riddled all over the island. I adored seeing Miranda grow in many ways, but especially in her confidence and bravery, and was utterly destroyed by some of the revelations near the end. This is an empowering story for all ages, that desperately deserves more people to love it.
Number 3: Bridge of Clay by Markus Zusak
Before even putting a word on paper, I already knew the three books that would make up my top three of the year. It took me the longest, however, to put them in a particular order and I’m still not entirely happy with it. To me, Bridge of Clay was not a “third favourite”-kind of book: it’s an all-time favourite for sure. So were the other two however, especially for the time in my life in which I read them. Therefore one of them had to be number three, and it happened to be this one. That doesn’t take anything away from the fact that Bridge of Clay is a masterpiece by one of my all-time favourite authors, most famous for his previous novel The Book Thief. Markus Zusak is an artist with words, and his words can emotionally touch me in a way that little others can. I fell in love with all these flawed characters, connected like magnets, pulling and pushing each other away in this system of a slightly dysfunctional family. The way it handles grief, not just the kind that immediately follows a death, but the extended kind that drags out over months, sometimes even before the loss has fully occurred, was what resonated most with me however. After The Book Thief, I should have known: leave it to Markus Zusak to do Death justice. Bridge of Clay might not be for everybody, but it nestled its way deep into my heart, and is there to stay. You can find my full review here.
Number 2: Middlegame by Seanan McGuire
“The mind is an imperfect engine, and it does what it will with the information it receives.”
It’s been a few months and I still haven’t put my thoughts on this novel to paper, because my brain has yet to fully recover from the absolute mindfuck that this novel was. I haven’t encountered such an ambitious and epic adult fantasy since The Name of the Wind, and my love for it is along similar levels. Yes, I realise how bold of a claim that is, and no, this book is not like The Name of the Wind. Middlegame is a sci-fi-fantasy cross over about a set of twins, separated at birth, who re-find each other through unconventional means of communication. There are other forces at play however. People who want to prevent them from reuniting against all costs. The twins soon find out they aren’t what they thought they were, and end up constricted in a complex web of alchemy, science that boarders on magic and secret societies out for the highest possible goal: Godhood. Just like Bridge of Clay, this novel is either a big hit or a big miss for most people, and I struggle therefor to recommend it to everybody. The best way I can describe it in a spoiler free way, is that this book is very “science-focussed”, and at times asks you to put in the same “scientific curiosity” and deduction as the characters do. If the blurb text confuses but intrigues you at the same time, and if that makes you curious to pick this book up instead of scare you away, then I highly recommend you give this a try. Take it from someone who has never before liked a novel by this author: this is something completely new, and completely amazing.
“People think they have to say something, and it never makes me feel better.” “I know. I’ve decided language isn’t as advanced as we think it is. We’re still apes trying to express our thoughts with grunts while most of what we want to communicate stays locked in our brains.”
Like I mentioned: ordering my three favourite books of the year was rarely so difficult, as I loved them almost equally, but for different reasons. The reason Where the Forest Meets the Stars is at number one, is simply because it was the perfect book at the perfect time. I read this at a difficult time, and at that moment, this book genuinely helped me. We follow Jo, a young woman has recently lost her mother to breast cancer, after which she had to be screened and treated for an earlier form of cancer as well. (see where the similarities are…) After her treatment she returns to her graduate thesis, for which she isolates herself in a cabin in a remote community to study the local birds. Her isolation is broken when a young girl shows up, barefoot and covered in bruises, insisting that she is an alien send from the stars in order to witness 5 miracles on earth. Concerned about the child’s wellbeing and home-situation, Jo takes her in temporarily and enlists the help of her reclusive neighbour Gabe to help her solve the mystery of this strange child. This leads to the most extraordinary and touching bond between them, and an emotional journey for the three of them separately, as well as together. The short summary is: this book was an emotional journey for me as well. I read the first half in the physical copy I bought, and listed to the second half on audio, whilst taking a walk. I ended up walking for literal hours because I was completely lost in the novel and my own thoughts. Afterwards, I cried over this book, because I couldn’t (yet) cry over what had happened in my own life. I loved and laughed, because despite the heavy subject matter, this novel is filled with self-deprecating humour (that isn’t cynical!), respect and above all else: hope. It’s a hard hitting story, yet at no point is it hopeless, which was just what I needed.
In the end, I don’t know if I’m the best person to “objectively” recommend this book to anyone. It’s status as a new favourite is obviously very personal to me, so if you’re on the fence about it, maybe check out some reviews by other people as well. If you were to ask me “objectively”, I’d still say this is an easy 4- to 5-star read, just based on content and the beautiful way the characters are explored. I’m not sure if Glendy Vanderah will come out with more work in the future, but if her debut is this good, I’ll be sure to be the first in line when her next novel hits stores.
With that, dear friends, we have finally reached the end of 2019, the end of a decade and the start of a new year. I hope you had an amazing (reading) year and I wish you all the very best for 2020. If you plan on celebrating New-Years, please be sure to practice safety with fireworks and alcohol: I’m sorry, I’ve seen too many accidents within the past few years as a med-student… I will be back later this week for the final parts of my year in review: my 2020 reading goals and Bookish trends I hope we’ll leave behind in the twenty-tens. Until then, happy reading and a happy new year!