We are 106 days into 2020 (yes, I remembered leap year), and I have finally produced my Top 10 Books of 2019 list. Better late than never, right? If you would like to peruse previous years, those are here and here.
Vincent and Theo by Deborah Heiligman
My foray into narrative nonfiction last year began with Vincent and Theo. Had I picked a lesser book, I may not have become so infatuated with the form. But thanks to the brilliance that is Deborah Heiligman, I fell in love with both nonfiction and, perhaps more surprisingly, Vincent van Gogh. After finishing this book, I cried for ten minutes and then spent the next two hours reading about the impressionists. (And I really cannot overstate how little I cared about such things before.) This book is impressive both in its honest portrayal of historical figures and the emotional punch delivered by its intricately woven narrative.
Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson
This poetic childhood memoir is an excellent read for people of all ages, not just younger audiences. As always, Woodson’s work is astonishing. It’s a difficult book to review, because I struggle to find the right words to encapsulate the magic of Woodson’s words. The sense of place, the incredible imagery, the emotional resonance in each and every poem—all of this is remarkable. While I would tell everyone to read Brown Girl Dreaming, it’s absolutely essential for artists interested in memory work. Nobody does it better. (At least nobody that I’ve read.)
The Farm by Joanne Ramos
I assume this book was pitched as a crossover between feminist dystopia and chick lit—a combination I didn’t know I needed in my life until now. It’s as if Margaret Atwood and Jennifer Weiner got stuck on a desert island together and would only be rescued if they co-wrote a book … but I digress. Overall, I enjoyed Ramos’s take on the horror of American capitalism. Like The Hunger Games, The Farm has enough light-hearted, gossipy elements to cleverly numb the reader to the white supremacy, eugenics, and reproductive violence that permeate this story. And then the band aid is ripped off at the most effective moment. I’m making The Farm sound extremely dark, which it is … but also isn’t. It’s an unsettling combination that I absolutely loved.
Most Dangerous by Steve Sheinkin
This was another YA narrative nonfiction I loved last year. Thanks to my shameful lack of knowledge about large chunks of American history, I was able to read Most Dangerous like a political thriller—perhaps the best compliment I can give this book. I don’t know if you’ve heard this before, but Watergate was WILD, y’all. But beyond the (obviously) exciting topic matter, Sheinkin does an excellent job of highlighting the right people and the right moments to create a page-turner. And, as always, Sheinkin does an admirable job juggling multiple points of view impressively and providing necessary historical context without distracting from the narrative.
Godless by Pete Hautman
This is a book I’ve meaning to read for a decade, but finally got around to last year. The religion major in me adored the concept of this National Book Award winner, and Hautman’s execution is perfect. The prose is funny, evocative, and sharp—all characteristics I look for in YA. And man, do I wish more YA books wrapped up in 200 pages! (I have always been an advocate of shorter books, and Godless is an excellent example of how well that works.)
Dry by Neal Shusterman and Jarrod Shusterman
This was the most stressful book I’ve ever read, a testament to the skills of both Shustermans. The opening sequence at Costco with everyone fighting over limited resources … let me just say, I was nervous for weeks about how much water I had access to in my home. While I wouldn’t recommend reading Dry during the pandemic (unless you want to kick your anxiety up another notch), this is a must-read YA dystopian. Or not-so-dystopian, which is why this book works so well. But be warned: there is an extremely heartbreaking scene with a dog, so you may cry. A lot.
Damsel by Elana K Arnold
For some reason, I was convinced that Damsel was for middle grade audiences. Which it really, really, really is not. But once I got over that shock, I was blown away. I haven’t read many contemporary fairy tales, but I have to imagine Damsel is a standout. The narrative is dark, twisted, violent, and has plenty of shock value, but Arnold’s exquisite prose makes all of this work beautifully. This definitely isn’t a book for the squeamish or faint of heart, but I would highly recommend.
Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo
It usually takes me years and years to read all the award winners, but I’m so glad Poet X jumped to the top of my list. For me, when verse novels work, they really, really, really work. (Spoiler alert: this is one of those.) The protagonist, Xiomara, experiences the world so viscerally and her voice shines in every line. Acevedo bleeds emotion onto the page, and it’s spectacular. Also, I listened to this one, which I recommend because Elizabeth Acevedo is a stellar performer in addition to being a gifted writer. However, the physical book is still sitting on my bookshelf and I plan to read that form at some point as I imagine it’s a vastly different experience.
Emergency Contact by Mary H.K. Choi
The characters Choi has created in Emergency Contact are witty, endearing, and vulnerable. But most of all, they feel like an honest reflection of their world and their generation. I love how Choi straddles the upper age limit of YA with a college freshman as one POV character and a slightly older love interest as the other. I am always in favor of college YA, and if Emergency Contact is any indication, the world needs more!
Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng
In last year’s Top 10 Books post, I raved about Little Fires Everywhere and called it my favorite book of all time. Well, I was wrong. In 2019, I read Celeste Ng’s stunning debut, Everything I Never Told You and subsequently decided that was my favorite book of all time. Given the high praise and numerous accolades Little Fires garnered, I know this might be a controversial statement. But I found the multigenerational storytelling in Everything to be absolutely exquisite, and her exploration of family relationships resonated with me in a way few books have. Thus, the top honor of 2019 (and life) goes to Everything I Never Told You. Put down whatever you’re reading right now (or finish it quickly, I suppose), and read this book!