My Most Notable Reads of 2019

In 2018, I rediscovered my love for reading and promised myself that I would read consistently throughout 2019. By the end of the year, I finished 26 books. Some were particularly bad, some were fun to read but overall forgettable, and some have kept me up at night thinking about the writing long after I put the book down. Here are 10 books that stood out most to me as exceptionally good stories with captivating writing styles.

  1. 1. "The New Jim Crow" by Michelle Alexander

    I loved this book so much I wrote a whole article on it. More and more people are becoming aware of modern racial injustice in the US and how it stems from a long history of institutional discrimination. Even more people are learning how the “War on Drugs” is racially motivated and perpetuates pressing issues such as mass incarceration rates, specifically for black men. This book lays out the evidence for these claims and more, and it’s helpful to know this information the next time someone tries to claim that racism is no longer a part of our legal system. This book has changed the way I view drug laws and contemporary racial issues in America (through a historical lens meticulously outlined in this book). If you read any book on this list, I would implore you to read this one. In 2020, I am making it one of my goals to read more of Michelle Alexander’s work and more work in general about race in America.

  2. 2. "Speak: The Graphic Novel" by Laurie Halse Anderson, Illustrated by Emily Carroll

    As a word of caution, look up the content warnings if you feel like topics such as sexual assault, depression, and self-harm would be triggering for you. I can’t emphasize enough that this is an emotionally heavy read. I read this book when I was younger, and I watched the movie with Kristen Stewart. While those pieces are great, neither affected me nearly as much as this graphic novel. If you haven’t heard this story, it is about a girl, Melinda, dealing with the aftermath of sexual assault that she experienced right before the start of her freshman year in high school. The topic is intense, but Anderson captures Melinda’s experience with great nuance. You get to see how family dynamics, the ruthless social environment that is high school, and Melinda’s coming-of-age all influence how she deals with her trauma. Also, the subplot of Melinda’s growth as an artist is showcased beautifully through the illustrations in this book. The illustrations, in general, are haunting, moving, and really bring home the intensity of Melinda’s emotions. This book is as beautiful as it is important; it spreads the message of why rape survivors should have the space to speak up about their experience, but also why they may choose not to.

  3. 3. "Spider" by Patrick McGrath

    This was a departure for me, and I’m pretty sure I impulsively picked this book up in the bargain section of a local bookstore. Spider takes place in London, spanning from the 1920s up to the 50s. Spider, the main character, journals about his harrowing childhood in between entries about his current life after returning to London for the first time in twenty years. It is labeled as psychological horror and a mystery, but it has limited gore, which is great for me as I love a creepy story but faint at the sight of blood. It is a great book to read on a gloomy day (to match the countless descriptions of the pea soup fog in London). I felt like I got a look into someone’s mind who's been severely affected by his childhood trauma. It posits him as a great unreliable narrator that you still come to love over the course of the story, even as the details become more and more macabre. Overall, I’m very pleased that I read this book. It was a nice break from nonfiction made me realize that my favorite fiction is mystery and thriller. Read this if you want a good ol’ thriller/horror/murder mystery.

  4. 4. "West of the Jordan" by Laila Halaby

    Yet another book I found on the bargain shelves, West of the Jordan incorporates the perspectives of four young girls who are all cousins: some live in America, some in Jordan, and all have Palestinian roots. Each girl has her own storyline, although each story has overlapping themes of managing identity through two distinct cultural identities (Jordanian and American) and coming of age as a woman navigating these cultural divides. It took me a while to get into this book as the different names and the complex relations were hard to keep track of, but the writing was very engaging and made me empathize with all the protagonists. As somebody who isn’t the best at keeping up with global politics, reading how political conflicts along the West Bank affect the girls’ lives inspired me to research more about the complex history of the region as well as educate myself about the issues that affect Palestinians today. I aim to read more of Laila Halaby’s work this year. A great read for people who are into coming-of-age novels, as well as realistic fiction set in an area that is of great importance in current events.

  5. 5. "Under the Tuscan Sun" by Frances Mayes

    If you ever saw the movie, know that it is very, very loosely based on this book. The movie has a lot of romance involved, and while some might be disappointed by the lack of romantic drama in the book, I couldn’t have been more pleased. This book focuses on Frances Mayes’ restoration of a small property in Tuscany, Italy. Reading her eloquent detailing of the Italian hills, olive groves, and the people she meets through the house restoration made me want to immediately drop out of college and book a flight to Tuscany to live in my own stone house. In a way, her writing allows you to do that, to teleport over to a picturesque place where the way of living is romantic in nature, and where people come together to work, to dine, and to enjoy each other’s company. It is relaxing to read, and you can see how all the work put into the restoration is healing for Mayes. Definitely read this if you’re craving a getaway to the Italian countryside or looking to appreciate the small joys in life.

  6. 6. "The Testaments" by Margaret Atwood

    First of all, if you haven’t read The Handmaid’s Tale yet, please go read that. If you have already, then it’s time to read the newly published sequel (of sorts). The Testaments takes place 15 years after the end of the first book and follows three women both in and outside of the dystopian nation of Gilead. In this way, it’s not your normal sequel as it doesn’t follow what happens to Offred, the main character of the first book. However, I almost prefer the sudden departure, as you get to see more into international relations with Gilead, as well as see how such a repressive nation continues to hold power (or does it?). Plus, brand new characters allow for brand new understandings of Gilead, especially regarding the new generation that has grown up under Gilead’s rule. There is a lot to chew on with this new novel, so read this one with some friends to have a lengthy discussion about it when you finish--because you’ll definitely want to discuss this book once you’ve finished.

  7. 7. "Where the Crawdads Sing" by Delia Owens

    These last four books I chose partly because they’re all incredibly popular and have received numerous literary awards. After reading this one, I can tell you with confidence that it deserves the hype. This book alternates between two timelines, the past and the present, in a small town near the marshes of North Carolina. The past tells the story of Kya, a girl who grows up in the marshes, isolated from the people living in town. Her parents are absent and neglectful, her poverty prevents her from making friends, and her isolation leads her to find comfort in the natural beauty of the marsh. The present timeline is about the murder of a man in town and how Kya finds herself involved. Similar to Under the Tuscan Sun, I’d read this for the natural imagery alone, but watching the two storylines slowly weave together kept me thoroughly engaged in the plot. If you’re doubting my amateur attempt at reviewing this book, just go on any website and read the reviews.

  8. 8. "The Goldfinch" by Donna Tartt

    While this book came out in 2016, the story has been made anew by the 2019 film adaptation. While the film didn’t garner the greatest reviews (and I myself felt let down by it), the book is a lot easier to understand. While this book is the longest in this list, do not feel intimidated by its length. The book follows the life of Theo, from being a pre-teen and losing his mother in a terrorist bombing in the Metropolitan Museum of New York to adulthood as he deals with his loss. His melancholy character is contrasted by the search for a priceless painting called “The Goldfinch” lost during the same bombing Theo survived. I felt attached to nearly every main character in this book and enjoyed the journey throughout Theo’s life. Although this book has a very dark tone, there are some beautiful reflections on life, death, and art; I can’t help but hold this book close as one of my favorites of the year. Read this if you’re looking for an emotional, longer read that will stay with you long after you put the book down.

  9. 9. "Everything I Never Told You" by Celeste Ng

    I usually read several books at a time, so I found this one while I was reading The Goldfinch and needed something shorter and easier to digest. However, that isn’t a dig at this book. Good things come in little packages, and this book is no exception. Another murder mystery (I can’t stop, y’all), but this one deals with the family of the victim and their relationships with one another before and after the tragedy. Being a mixed-race family, they deal with racism from their town as well as internalized racism that greatly affects family dynamics. It is interesting to see how the father’s experience as a son of Chinese immigrants and the mother’s experience as a white woman in the 1970s intersect and clash with each other as they try and define their family identity. Aptly named, Everything I Never Told You encapsulates everything that goes unsaid in families, and how those unsaid things come to a head when people are pushed to their limits. Read this if you want a quick but explosive read.

  10. 10. "The Secret History" by Donna Tartt

    I chose to return to Donna Tartt for my final book of the year, this time going back to her debut novel, which is, surprise, surprise, a murder mystery! This one takes place in a small private college in Vermont where character Richard Papen finds himself suddenly immersed in a cult-like group of Classics majors. These students live as close to an ancient Greek lifestyle as they can get, with their overall aversion to modern technology, and their affinity for prose, pretentiousness, and copious amounts of alcohol. However, their lives slowly devolve into madness after a murder, which they do their best to cover up. I love this book because you can see how the six friends go from eccentric students to people who commit evil acts, and their unraveling is oh-so entertaining. Read this book for an atmospheric experience, a dark tale set in college (it’s always fun to read characters in your own demographic), and great character studies about what drives an otherwise good person to do bad things.

I’d like to say that I’ll focus less on stories that involve murder this year, but I’ve already set out to read all of the Sherlock Holmes series, and I’m currently reading another book involving murder set in a college, so. I guess I wouldn’t like to say that at all. Overall, the best thing I got out of achieving my reading goal was falling back in love with reading as a hobby. It’s so incredibly calming while still providing fuel for my daydreams and creative inspiration. It also feels a lot better to spend hours reading than to play games on my phone. I feel like I’ve actually accomplished something, and it gives my mind a meaningful direction to wander, whereas playing my 15th game of Solitaire more often than not leads to anxious mind loops. If you’ve been looking to read for pleasure this year, hopefully, one of these books can also be your spark.