Choosing the 12 best books of 2019 from my reading list was not too hard this year, but not for the reason you’d expect. I only read 40 books in 2019 (although I suppose there is still time to bump the count), which is tremendously lower than my usual reading habits.‍

At the beginning of 2019, I promised myself that I would slow down in my reading. Between work and life in general, I found myself blazing through books without taking much time to process them for the majority of 2018. It takes a lot of joy out of it.

For many, recent programs like the Goodreads Reading Challenge are great as they make every reader accountable and try to frame reading goals in a user-friendly manner. But for me, it can be detrimental to my reading life because of my desire to meet the ambitious goals I set for myself.

Reducing the pressure on myself to consume quantity had two main effects on my reading life. I read more slowly, but I also read less in general. Not because of my pace, but because it was easier for me to get stuck in a bad book and then in a reading rut.

Regardless, I did have some pretty good reads this year (at least 12, that is) and if you haven’t read them yet, I would add them to your to-be-read pile as soon as you can!

My 12 Best Books of 2019

  • fiction
  • historical fiction

The Stationery Shop

  • By

  • Marjan Kamali

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Long story short

You should read this book if: you want to be swept off your feet by the familiarity of young love and the power it holds; you appreciate cultural novels written by authors who have a place in that culture; You love connecting to characters, and when your heart swells and aches with them.

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Bahman and Roya are 17 and in love, a feeling that many of us have known before. Set against the political unrest that encased Iran in 1953, their relationship blossoms. But then, by a trick of fate, the day they are destined to meet to bring their love to law, they are separated. Two lovers meant to meet once again continue down their paths, isolated from one another.

This book was pure magic to me. I walked into this novel thinking I would learn a bit more about Iran, about politics, and that the romance in the middle would be insignificant. I wildly underestimated what was to come. The reason I loved this book so much was because of how incredibly attached to the characters I became. I even became attached to the food and the places. I grew up in a small town in MA and I actually believe that Duxton was based on my own hometown Duxbury in at least name. If I wasn't already so invested in this novel, that would have officially done me in.

Every inch of this book was exquisite. From the intimate scene of cooking Persian food to the grappling with grief and loss. It is human and beautiful, and well worth a read.

  • fiction
  • romance

The Flatshare

  • By

  • Beth O'Leary

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This is a quirky romance where two strangers share a flat (one lives there at night and one during the day) and they develop a friendship through notes they leave for each other.

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I was lucky to receive an Advanced Reading Copy (ARC) of this book, and I am so happy that I picked it up. Ordinarily, I’m not big on romance novels. Even the quirky ones aren’t typically captivating enough for my snobby reading. Or maybe I just read so many when I was younger that I don’t have the taste for it anymore (I feel the same about peanuts for the record).

That being said, I loved this book. Quirky doesn’t even begin to cover it. The premise is that a freshly heartbroken young woman, Tiffany, somehow ends up accepting an offer to rent out the apartment of Leon, a night nurse who doesn’t exist anywhere but the hospital during the wee hours of the night. He only requests that she clear out during the day, which is when he sleeps, and when Tiffany goes to work. Leon and Tiffany don’t meet at first, as it’s Leon’s girlfriend that arranges to meet Tiffany and apparently, Leon couldn’t care less about who lives in his flat.

The relationship between these strangers in an awkward situation unfolds mostly through the notes that they leave for each other in their apartment. Honestly, this was my favorite angle in the book, and it’s what kept me reading.

I would recommend this one for anyone who’s looking for something a little more lighthearted. Fair warning: the book does deal with emotional abuse/control issues in relationships. But I found that it was well done overall, and enjoyed the time I spent reading something so sweet and human at its core.

  • fiction
  • romance

Daisy Jones & The Six

  • By

  • Taylor Jenkins Reid

  • - Narrated by

  • Jennifer Beals

  • Benjamin Bratt

  • Judy Greer

  • Pablo Schreiber

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A fictional rock band rises to glory and then abruptly falls apart. Told through an interview-style, this novel is about how music and the people who make it live and drift.

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I had to actively Google this fictional band 3 times just to check that it wasn’t real. That’s how good Taylor Jenkins Reed is at writing. I picked this one up because I absolutely adored The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo and I was certain this novel wouldn’t fail me either.

In fact, this is a novel that I would recommend to experience as an audiobook rather than in print. The plot surrounds the making and breaking of a fictional rock band and it is written in an interview style. The audiobook is full-cast and really brings to life the unique personalities of each character as they give an individual take on how things went wrong.

I devoured this novel in one sitting. It was one of the few books that I purchased days after its release and then finished within a week of publication date. I have no regrets.

  • non-fiction
  • history

Stasiland

Stories From Behind the Berlin Wall

  • By

  • Anna Funder

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A journalist takes on post-1989 Berlin in this nonfiction piece. Through the eyes of the people who lived the before-and-after existence, we get a window into how history has shaped modern-day Berlin.

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Almost anyone who knows me knows that I am not a huge fan of nonfiction. Consequently, I picked up this one with a load of skepticism ready. I was happily proved wrong.

The main reason I’m not a huge fan of nonfiction is that I find that authors of the genre often take 400-1000 pages to express an argument or prove a point that could be made in 50 pages. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good ramble, but I have different expectations for people that have to go through editors and publishers to get their work out there.

Stasiland is interesting because it’s written by an Australian journalist living in Berlin after the wall fell. But her main mission is to uncover what life was like in the years preceding and leading up to that fateful day in 1989. She has run-ins with characters from all walks of life including former officers, Stasi informants, musicians and locals in general. The book is rich and full of life as a result.

I obviously read this book as I wanted to learn a little more about the culture here in Berlin. The rest of the so-called “western” world places so much weight on World War II in terms of how history shaped a culture, but Berlin’s living memory is more aligned with the years of the Iron Curtain. Stasiland is a great little nugget for anyone looking to get a unique angle on a historical period that is often overlooked.

  • fiction
  • literary fiction

There, There

  • By

  • Tommy Orange

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This title discusses not only the trauma, violence, and abuse inflicted on Native American bodies by the American Government but also the damage done from within tribes.

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I had the extraordinary pleasure of meeting Tommy Orange and hearing him discuss his book at the Berlin Literary Festival this year. The most memorable moment was when he explained that he wrote the book because he was told he had to be a published author to get a job he wanted.

Who knew that the novel would be such a whirlwind success?

There, There is a great work of fiction to read if you’re looking for something that will help you diversify the authors in your repertoire. Representation in a reading list can be difficult to find. Even as someone who aims to be cognizant of what (or who) I am reading, I find the publishing world to be inundated with white faces. This book was a devastating but necessary break from that colorless reading pattern.

Although it’s dense in terms of talking points and crucial in terms of exposure to realities often left undiscussed in the USA, the novel is actually a quick read. You’ll just have to plan some extra time for mulling it all over.

  • fiction
  • romance

Valencia & Valentine

  • By

  • Suzy Krause

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Long story short

A quirky romance following the lives of two women as they tell their stories, this is a great, light read in line with recent titles in the romance genre about unique individuals who struggle with mental health but persevere nonetheless.

Long story

This one is for anyone who enjoyed the book Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine . Although, in part, it’s a love story, it’s mostly about battling mental illness and the victories and failures along the way.

For those of you who have not read Eleanor and have no idea what I am referencing, I’ll tell you a bit more. Valencia & Valentine is a novel that involves the stories of an older woman and a young woman that unravel throughout the book in alternating perspectives. One of the main characters struggles with mental illness (although it’s suggested at the start that both do) and part of her story is how she copes with (and avoids) the obstacles that come with this.

Also similar to Eleanor , it’s not the most accurate in terms of mental illness, but it sure does try to take a crack at it. The main reason I enjoyed it is because I find books like this one to be uniquely human. Characters in rom-coms that have legitimate flaws and challenges (instead of the default major life issue of “she’s a bit pudgy and so she can’t be loved”) add texture to the story.

  • fiction
  • scifi

Never Let Me Go

  • By

  • Kazuo Ishiguro

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Taking a side-step from the sci-fi I’m used to, this title examines the concept of human compassion when dealing with sentient beings.

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I feel like every time I start a little book blurb, I am talking about genres I don’t like. Here it is: I don’t usually like sci-fi. Before you click out in an angry rage, fantasy and sci-fi are two genres within fiction that I connected with more when I was younger. I think it’s just because I never got good exposure to it in my adult reading life, and also that I started to prefer consuming these genres on the screen rather than on the page.

Never Let Me Go had me from the first moment, though. I think it’s because it really isn’t explicitly sci-fi. In fact, the reader is kept in the dark for a large majority of the novel and it feels more like dystopia than sci-fi. It’s only when you figure out, “Hey... there’s something fishy going on here” that it suddenly nose-dives right into sci-fi and there’s no looking back.

This is a title that I prefer to just tell people is really good and leave it at that. It’s better if you don’t know much about it and can figure it out for yourself. Don’t even read the back if you can help it!

  • fiction
  • literary fiction

Normal People

  • By

  • Sally Rooney

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Long story short

This one may very well be worth all the hype. In her second novel, Rooney explores the idea of what “normal” means by following the complex relationship of two young people trying to find their way.

Long story

If you stepped into a bookstore or existed near one at any point in the last year and a half, you’ll have seen the cover of Sally Rooney’s Normal People. Similar to how I react to popular TV shows, I resisted reading it because of all the hype. I only picked it up because I was trying to get more interest in a local book club I ran, and I figured that if people recognized the cover, they were more likely to attend.

I was right! And also glad I finally gave it a chance. Normal People really is a book about normal people in many ways. I think that literature has become better at discussing trauma and the baggage we carry around with us in our daily lives. The novel explores the relationships and heartbreak that two young people experience during some of the most emotionally formative years of their lives.

This book is undeniably human, and a great one for discussion at your book clubs. It prompts the expected questions such as “what is normal, really?” but delves deeper into the human experience by encouraging us to explore how it is that we come to do so much damage to each other, especially those we care about.

  • non-fiction
  • science

Inside of a Dog

What Dogs See, Smell, and Know

  • By

  • Alexandra Horowitz

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Long story short

Through extensive research on studies and observations of the dogs in her life, Horowitz shines a light on the inner lives of dogs.

Long story

One sneaky little piece of nonfiction made it onto my reading list this year. In an attempt to better understand my new rescue, Loki, I took a paperback journey through the eyes, nose, and everything of a dog.

This is a great book for anyone who is curious about some of the science behind why dogs are the way that they are. And although it does not necessarily yield incredible fixes for your pup’s naughty behavior, it might help you understand why all of your toilet paper MUST be shredded when you leave the house.

I’d recommend this to anyone who wants to understand their dog a bit more, and also to people who maybe anthropomorphize dogs a bit too much. This nugget will debunk a lot of the “pack” myths that you believe to be true, and help to provide insight that will strengthen your bond with your four-legged best friend.

  • fiction
  • literary fiction

Conversations With Friends

  • By

  • Sally Rooney

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Long story short

The lines between friends and something more are constantly blurred in this debut novel which explores identity, relationships, and love.

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Another Sally Rooney because that was just the type of reading year I had. In fact, in the past 18 months, I have really taken to reading through an author’s works. After enjoying Normal People so much, I thought I should give Rooney’s debut novel a shot.

Surprisingly enough, the theme of normal people is discussed far more in Conversations with Friends than in Rooney’s more recent book. It’s a story that focuses on a few main characters and a couple of love triangles that end up in the mix. The novel has that air of literary romance that is often more existential than most people experience but still gives way to some interesting perspectives on love, sex, and friendship.

  • fiction
  • literary fiction

Convenience Store Woman

  • By

  • Sayaka Murata

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Long story short

Short, sweet, and to-the-point, this Japanese novella follows a young woman who can’t grasp why social norms demand of her what she’s unhappy giving.

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I absolutely adore Japanese novellas. I have no idea why beyond the fact that Japanese writing in translation delights me. After living in Asia for roughly 5 years, there are some obsessions that I don’t think will ever die out. To be fair, I think I was obsessed with Japanese literary culture even before I moved to Asia.

Convenience Store Woman is truly a thought-provoking book. It’s a great angle on how we change the people and spaces we interact with every day. It’s also a testament to normalcy and how harshly we judge others against social norms that aren’t even necessarily fair.

I think that this type of book often gets labeled as “quirky” and therefore superficial, but that’s not the case at all. I feel like I could read this novella and think about something new every single time. And that, to me, is the definition of a solid read.

  • fiction
  • historical fiction

Human Acts

  • By

  • Han Kang

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Long story short

Political injustice reaches new levels in this novel surrounding an uprising in South Korea. Despite its fictional package, the truth resounds in Kang's attempt to capture a moment in history with lifelong implications.

Long story

A friend of mine gave me this short, but powerful novel at a book swap when she was done reading it. It came with a glaring warning that it was graphic and tragic. I can confirm that this small book looms large and, in many ways, will leave you devastated.

Although technically a fictional account, Human Acts describes very real events. It follows the violence that descended upon the civilians of Gwangju in South Korea following student uprisings. It is a story of the horrors that a human can inflict upon another human.

Han Kang has such a stripped-down and brutal way of expressing herself through her prose. Her other works are as celebrated as this novel, and I completely understand why. Human Acts is such an important piece as it’s only one small example of the violence that we inflict on each other across the world. If we can do it within the confines of our own borders, what’s stopping us from pursuing that violence abroad? History clearly shows there are no bounds to terror. This is worth a read for anyone who has an interest in the truths untold, but please know that it’s not for the faint-hearted.

Overall, 2019 was a solid reading year in that I feel like I got a lot out of the books I chose to complete. I wish that I had been a bit more focused on my literary life, but I do think the balance needed to shift a bit for me to cope with all the other happenings of the year.

Here’s to 2020 being full of literary loves!

Did you read anything dazzling this year? Let me know on Instagram!

Madeline wearing her Fin in the sun hat

Hi, I'm Madeline.

As both an avid reader and passionate crafter, I aim to combine my passions and share them with the world through ofbooksandhooks . Here, you'll find book and crochet pairings, season's readings, and more. Please feel free to reach out to me directly on Instagram if you have any questions. Enjoy!