Last year I started a new bookish Thanksgiving tradition: looking back at some of the books that aren’t quite going to make my favorites list for the year and exploring why I’m still thankful to have read them! (Here’s the link to my 2018 almost-favorites if you’re curious.)
Since I’ve not had the best reading year, putting this list together has been a great reminder that there have nevertheless been some gems in my 2019 reading! I’ll post about my actual top favorites next month, but these are books that I really liked, that I can’t let go without mentioning again! It’s not an exhaustive list of all the books I’ve enjoyed this year, not even when combined with my favorites list. I’ve narrowed it down to a reasonable length: 10 books. I’ve even made an attempt to rank them! (Titles are linked to my reviews if you’re looking for more info.)
10. The Silent Companions by Laura Purcell. This is a historical gothic/horror novel with a unique supernatural element. It stands out for its atmosphere and tension, its hint of modern feminism as a lens through which challenges in historic women’s lives are examined, and it’s pacey plot. What held me back from favorite status here is that the plot was really the main focus (evil paintings taking over a secluded house!), and plots don’t tend to stick in my memory very well. I’ll remember I loved reading this one, but the specifics (except for those evil paintings, of course) will fade away pretty quickly, I’m afraid.
9. My Sister the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite. Longlisted for the Women’s Prize and the Booker, this little book captured a lot of attention this year. It’s a quick-paced mystery about a woman murdering her boyfriends and the sister who helps clean up after her. The deaths and details are intriguing, but what stood out to me most were the strong women and their close bond. I had so much fun reading this one, but it’s missing from my favorites list because it didn’t leave me with much food for thought; closing the cover really is the end of the experience with this one.
8. The Handmaid’s Tale: The Graphic Novel by Margaret Atwood and Renee Nault. I thoroughly appreciated Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale a few years back, and this graphic novel format of the same story reignited my interest. The standout elements were the bold colors and clean lines of the artwork, and the superb narration. Everything about this was gearing me up for 5-star favorite status (even though the original novel was only a 4 for me!), but what held me back was the ending, deviating from the classic script just enough to change the entire direction of the story, paving the way for The Testaments and marring the read for me.
7. Women Talking by Miriam Toews. This short novel, based on the true tragedy of numerous sexual assaults in a Menonite colony, stood out to me for it’s jaw-dropping details, the cleverness involved in effectively utilizing a male narrator in a story about female power and voice, and for the intricate way the characters’ actions are tied up in their religion. The only aspect that held me back was the utter lack of plot; the title is perfectly informative in describing what happens in this book, and while I loved the statements it made, I have to admit it wasn’t a story with much momentum.
6. Tell Me How it Ends by Valeria Luiselli. In little more than a hundred (nonfiction) pages, Luiselli manages both to educate her readers about the children caught up in the US border crisis, and to give a sharp tug to the heartstrings. It’s a standout for its emotive prose, its bravery in speaking out against the US government, and its unique structure: framed around the 40-question form immigrating children need to fill out upon entering America. The only thing holding me back here- through no fault of Luiselli’s- is that this is an ongoing problem, which understandably means there are no answers or conclusions here.
5. A Spell of Winter by Helen Dunmore. The most compulsively readable Women’s Prize winner I’ve read so far, this historical gothic-toned tragedy kept me up nights because I just had to know what would happen next. It’s darkly beautiful and absolutely haunting, which are standout details in my opinion. I adored the style and atmosphere through most of the novel, and appreciated the focus on how women have been stifled and taken advantage of through history. What held me back is a shift in tone and direction at the end, along with how incredibly sad some of the details left me.
4. Ask Me About My Uterus by Abby Norman. Someone in my life talked to me about endometriosis this year, I heard about this book soon after, and was shocked to realize how big a problem it is for women not only to get diagnosed, but treated properly for this condition. What stands out most here is the way Norman uses her own diagnosis in this memoir as a springboard to explore a larger issue in medicine- unfair treatment of ailing women- both in history and modern day. Similar to my hang-up with the Luiselli piece, I’m holding back here mainly for a lack of resolution to an ongoing problem; I was left with plenty of questions, though I understand Norman couldn’t possibly have answered all of them.
3. Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk, translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones. Much like with the 2019 Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Overstory, the plot didn’t entirely work for me with this one, though I appreciated basically everything else. I don’t often read (and even less often enjoy) books that focus heavily on animals, but the standout narrative voice (an old, eccentric Polish woman) hooked me immediately, and by the time I closed the novel I couldn’t look at animals the same way as before. (The narrator tries convincing her village that animals are murdering humans in revenge for their mistreatment.) What held me back was only that the structuring of this story as a mystery felt like tacking a cheap thrill onto a story that might have been a bit stronger as a straightforward exploration of a very intriguing premise.
2. Human Acts by Han Kang. This brutal little book delves into a student uprising in 1980 Korea; it’s a fictional account of the real event. The stand out element for me here was the way Kang posits that both vulnerability and abuse of power are inevitable human traits, necessarily existing side by side. It’s incredibly dark and sad, but certainly hard-hitting and effective. The only aspect that held me back was the frequent switch of perspective, not only from one character to another but also in point of view (1st, 2nd, 3rd person); these switches could be confusing at times, and did not always seem to serve any productive purpose.
1. Mary’s Monster: Love, Madness, and How Mary Shelley Created Frankenstein by Lita Judge. Here we have a graphic fictionalized biography of Mary Shelley (author of Frankenstein); it also includes the famous monster and plays up themes found in Shelley’s novel, transposed onto the stage of her real life. Standout features are the soft gray-scale artwork, the free verse narration, and the impeccable blending of fact and fiction. What held me back from including this on my favorites list is that it took me a while to get into this one; the book opens with Shelley’s childhood, through which both the “plot” and the writing are more simplistic and just felt a bit too YA or even MG for my current taste. (It becomes much more adult later on, I would not recommend to an MG or young YA audience- perhaps 16+.)
There you have it, folks: my 2019 almost-favorites!
After writing all of those little paragraphs for each book, I’m realizing it was a bad idea to end them all on the downside I found to each of these books- the goal was to talk them up and hopefully persuade some more readers to give these titles a chance! Even though each of these stories comes with a reason it won’t be on my favorites list, these were all highly enjoyable 4- or 5-star reads for me that didn’t miss the mark by much! Some of the “flaws” I’ve mentioned are inevitable side effects of their topics (as with the ongoing-problem nonfiction pieces) or personal opinions that other readers might feel very differently about (like the ending of The Handmaid’s Tale: The Graphic Novel, which I think Testaments fans will appreciate, or Mary’s Monster feeling too young at first, which is unlikely to bother readers who pick up MG/YA more regularly than I’ve been doing).
And so, I’ll close here with a reminder that there’s more to reading than lists and numbers (even though both are present in this post…). Take a moment to look back at your reading year with me and appreciate the upsides to some of the books that you won’t be featuring on your favorites list; consider what you’ve gained even from the books you aren’t going to be gushing about at the end of the year. Sure, we all find some duds, but at the end of the day, we still love reading.
The Literary Elephant