2019 was another great year for me. I read piles of stellar books, and today I’m sharing my tip-top favorites.
I read a lot of books—just over 200 in 2019—so it’s not always easy to narrow it down to my absolute favorites. I decided to go with books that were well-written, that I enjoyed reading, that I found myself recommending to other readers, and that I couldn’t stop thinking about—even long after I finished the book.
I track my titles in my reading journal, and put a simple little star by especially noteworthy titles. Despite my best efforts at record-keeping, I’m probably forgetting a favorite here, because I always do.
Note: I’m omitting favorites I listened to on audio from this list. I’ll be sharing my favorite audiobooks next week—if you’re not currently subscribed for updates, sign up here.
My list of 2018 favorite books was balanced more evenly between fiction and nonfiction; this year it’s fiction-heavy. I’m not sure what that means; feel free to analyze my reading life in comments. (Ha!)
I would love to hear your favorite books of the year in the comments section. And if you’d like to find and enjoy more books you truly love in 2020, make sure you join us for our 2020 Reading Challenge: our #1 goal is to get you reading more great books that are just right for you.
I waited far too long to read Kindred by Octavia Butler, and I was riveted from the first page. Time travel meets slave narrative in this modern science fiction classic. When Dana, a modern Black woman from 1976, gets transported to the antebellum south in order to save one of her white ancestors, she preserves her own history. But it doesn't end there. As she keeps getting pulled back to the past, her trips grow more and more dangerous, and Dana must figure out how to survive in a reality far more terrifying than the history books ever suggested. If you still need a push to read Kindred, listen to Volume II Episode III of One Great Book. More info →
I didn't read this for so long because I thought it was going to be hard and heavy since it was written by a psychiatrist who has done a lot of work with trauma survivors, but if someone had told me how fascinating it would be, I would have picked it up immediately. Also interesting, it's changed the way I read some books because I'm noticing how well some authors demonstrate how their characters are acting out lingering affects of trauma. One of the highest compliments you can pay a nonfiction book is you want to change things in your life because you read it. More info →
This collaboration between two highly successful authors—one who primarily writes for kids, the other for grown-ups—is a modern version of The Parent Trap, about two twelve-year old girls who live on opposite coast who strike up an unwanted correspondence after they discover their dads fell in love at a building conference and are secretly dating. This is not good news to either of them, as they make clear in the ensuing emails that comprise the book. And then it gets worse, when the girls are forced to attend camp together because their fathers went them to become friends. Things go horribly wrong in more ways than one, but there's not a single page here that doesn’t feel fresh, funny, charming, and real. A feel-good story for readers of all ages—numerous adults loved it this summer, as did nearly everyone in my family. More info →
In this retelling of Jane Austen's comedy of manners, set in contemporary Toronto, Darcy becomes Khalid, a devout Muslim man whose mother is trying to marry him off. Elizabeth becomes Ayesha, a teacher who'd much prefer to be a poet. When they first meet, it's utter disaster: she thinks he's rigid and judgmental; he thinks she's not a good Muslim because of the drink (virgin) and cigarettes (not hers) she's holding. But circumstances bring them together again, of course. I loved the supporting cast featuring good friends, a cousin dreaming of a Bollywood-inspired wedding, an embarrassing mother, and a Shakespeare-quoting grandpa. If you're a P&P devotee, this is a delight. If you've never read the original, you can still enjoy this story about family, friendship, and love. More info →
Colson Whitehead brings Jim Crow-era Florida to life through the real story of a reform school in Tallahassee that claimed to rehabilitate delinquent boys and instead abused and terrorized them for over one hundred years. Elwood Curtis is bound for a local black college when an innocent mistake lands him at The Nickel Academy instead. Elwood finds comfort in Dr. Martin Luther King's words and holds to his ideals, whereas his friend Turner believes the world is crooked so you have to scheme to survive. All this leads to a decision with harrowing repercussions for their respective fates. This was a tough read emotionally, but such a good one. More info →
This is my very favorite book I read this year—and to think I almost didn't pick it up! When two college friends plan a long canoeing trip in northern Canada, they anticipate a peaceful yet memorable summer escape filled with whitewater paddling, fly fishing, and campfire cooking. The first hint of danger is a whiff of smoke, from an encroaching forest fire. The next comes from a man, seemingly in shock, who reports his wife disappeared in the woods. If these boys didn't feel compelled to do the right thing and go look for her, they’d be fine, but instead they step in to help—and are soon running for their lives, from disasters both natural and man-made. A tightly-written wilderness adventure, a lyrical mystery, and a heartrending story of friendship, rolled into one. More info →
When two rookie cops who meet at the NYC Police Academy strike up a friendship, it sets in motion a tragic chain of events that echo through the decades, through the lives of their children and their children’s children. I found this book exceptionally difficult to read—it's depressing and dark and triggers abound—yet I was eager to find out what would happen next to these doomed families, and the astonishing developments of the last 75 pages vaulted this to my best-of-the-year list. I'm a sucker for a good redemption story, and this one delivers. For fans of Atonement and Little Fires Everywhere. More info →
The novel was inspired by the life of Mildred Harnack, a real historical figure whose story was previously untold because the U.S. government deliberately buried it after the war. Harnack was one of dozens of members of the network of American and German resistance fighters the Gestapo called die Rote Kapelle (Red Orchestra). The bulk of the action takes places between the wars, beginning in 1929; I was initially surprised that a novel about Nazi Germany before and during WWII began SO early, but Chiaverini's chosen timeline serves her story well: as a reader, you see events escalate over time through these women’s eyes: first they’re incredulous, then increasingly horrified, all the while asking each other, what do we do? The setup feels leisurely (even in print) but the payoff is worth it. More info →
I read this back in April and it's really stayed with me: I still think about it, and recommend it, all the time. Psychotherapist Gottlieb employs an unusual two-pronged approach to show us how therapy really works, and to examine how we grow, change, and connect to each other. First, Gottlieb introduces us to four of her patients, taking us inside the room to show us what happens in their sessions. But Gottlieb is also in therapy herself, thanks to a sudden breakup, and through her eyes, we get the patient's perspective as well. I so enjoyed getting to know the people in these pages, session by session, and rooted hard for them as they worked through the process. Part memoir, part educational glimpse into the profession: if you like to learn something from the books you read, and you enjoy a good story, well told, add this to your list. More info →
I'm so glad this is the year I discovered William Kent Krueger: I read three of his titles this year, and would have included another Krueger title in this list had I not forced myself to whittle it down to a halfway-manageable number! This standalone coming-of-age story focuses on three Minnesota kids during the Great Depression, whose respective situations become ever more impossible due to human cruelty and circumstance. They realize no one is going to save them, so they have to save themselves—and that's when the Huck Finn comparisons start kicking in. I alternated between text and audio on this one, and it was excellent in both formats. A great story, well told. My husband Will just finished this one and he also loved it. More info →
This was so good I've already read this twice—once in the striking hard copy, and once on audio, narrated by Tom Hanks. I love sibling stories and meaty family sagas, as well as stories told with a reflective, wistful tone. This one delivers on all counts. Cyril Conroy means to surprise his wife with the Dutch House, a grand old mansion outside of Philadelphia. But a symbol of wealth and success for some is a symbol of greed and excess to others—including, crucially, Cyril's wife—and the family falls apart over the purchase. In alternating timelines, we get the whole story, over five decades, from Cyril's son Danny. (If you want to hear the incredible story of how Kate DiCamillo wrote the perfect final paragraph without reading the book, you must listen to this episode of What Should I Read Next!) More info →
This debut is a coming-of-age story for right now, and addresses hard and heavy topics and yet remains a DELIGHT thanks to Reid's sparkling voice. On page one, we meet Emira, a twenty-five year old babysitter to a Philadelphia family. Emira's out with friends when the mother calls to ask if Emira can rush over and get their daughter out of the house for a bit. This is strange because it's almost 11:00 p.m., but something has happened at the house. This is important: Emira is black; the Chamberlains are white. Emira picks up the little girl and takes her down the road to the pricey grocery store. They're having a good time, enjoying being out past bedtime, when the trouble begins. This is the first domino in a chain of events that changes the lives of everyone involved forever. This all happens in the first 20 pages and I don't want to say more, because whatever you're thinking right now, that is not the direction this story goes in. Confident and complex and a total page-turner. More info →
I’m a committed re-reader, and this year I revisited quite a few books I’d previously read and loved. These were my favorite two. (Although for a bonus third, I could have included The Dutch House, which I first read and then listened to.)
I so enjoyed revisiting this old favorite for MMD Book Club in January. This is the book that hooked me on Sarah Addison Allen's writing and it was our flight selection to accompany the newer release Harry's Trees. What to say about this book? The romance is cheesy, the magic is impossible, but put them together and it sings. A few love scenes are a little racy (ahem). If you're not down with supernatural food or a magical apple tree, skip this one—but you should know how many readers call this "a wonderful surprise." A must-read for fans of The Language of Flowers. Sweet, sparkly, and thoroughly Southern. I LOVED discussing this book with the author's fellow North Carolinian Kendra Adachi in Episode 27, "Books good enough to make you turn off the tv (even if you love tv)." More info →
This was one of my favorite books of 2017, one of my favorite rereads in 2018, and I'm calling it a favorite again this year. Notice a trend? Family stories are commonplace in fiction, but I love this one for its intricate plotting, nuanced characters, true-to-life feel, and ultimate hopefulness. This is the story of an unlikely but successful marriage between a floundering American professor and a British film star who hated the limelight so much she faked her own death and disappeared ... until an unexpected bit of news, twenty years old but newly discovered, threatens to unravel everything they've built together. If you want to hear me talk more about this story, told in interlocking scenes from different viewpoints, occurring between 1944 and 2016, it's the subject of One Great Book episode 8. More info →