It has been a long year, friends. Last week I sat down to try to write a reflection on 2019, what my intentions were for the year, and what I learned and accomplished over the past twelve months. However, I discovered that that was far too overwhelming a task for my exhausted December brain. I am proud of the things I accomplished this year, whether that be writing or research work I did, or inner work and efforts to move towards balance and peace in myself. But it was also a really hard year with lots of mental health struggles, and feelings of isolation and loneliness. And when life feels hard one of my favorite palliative coping mechanisms is losing myself in a book! So, I’ve compiled a list of my top 9 favorite books I read in 2019.
Right now I mostly read YA (young adult) novels because I really like the earnestness with which many YA novels approach issues of identity, relationships, mental health, etc. and find that they are a bit less cynical than many novels marketed exclusively towards adults. While dealing with depressive symptoms I almost exclusively read books with happy/hopeful endings, and I lean towards slightly lighter subject matter than I otherwise might. Basically, if you’re looking for gritty realism and shocking plot twists in your reading material, this list probably isn’t for you! However, if you, like me, enjoy a heartfelt read that still has some beautiful moments of depth in it, then I highly recommend the following (in no particular order):
“The Sun Is Also a Star” by Nicola Yoon
If you have spoken to me this year there’s probably a 70% chance I’ve already mentioned this book! The novel follows two immigrant teenagers over the course of one day as they grapple with their futures, families, and falling in love. Over the course of their story we are also introduced to many of the people they cross paths with, learning about their lives, desires, and fears through mini “histories” provided by the narrator. These histories give the story a rich context of culture and emotion, poignantly highlighting the interconnection of human experience. Yoon weaves current social issues, family dynamics, and romance into the fabric of her writing in a way that feels honest and real, yet hopeful. I love the journey this book took me on.
“Ayesha At Last” by Uzma Jalaluddin
As many of you probably know, I’ve been a big Jane Austen fan since I was about 13 years old, and I love seeing modern interpretations of her work in film and literature! This modern comedy, inspired by Pride and Prejudice (and a dash of Shakespeare–mistaken identities, anyone?), is set in a Muslim community in Toronto. The characters are unique, well-written, and their discussions about religion, culture, family, and romantic ideals are compelling, thoughtful and nuanced. This book is clever, funny, and romantic, while also offering insight into the diversity of beliefs and cultural attitudes within Islam, and the microaggressions Muslims in North America face. Jalaluddin’s characters simultaneously fall in love and stand against they injustice they witness with authenticity, spirit, and wit.
“Pride” by Ibi Zoboi
While we’re talking about Pride and Prejudice interpretations, I have to mention “Pride.” Set in modern Bushwick, this take on Jane Austen’s class-conscious comedy explores identity, community, and first love amidst the tensions and frustrations of gentrification. Zuri Benitez’s fierce love for her community and culture is palpable through the pages as Zoboi crafts rich depictions of her and her family’s life in their community. “It’s a truth universally acknowledged that when rich people move into the hood, where it’s a little bit broken and a little bit forgotten, the first thing they want to do is clean it up.”
“Field Notes on Love” by Jennifer E. Smith
This might be the fluffiest book on this list, but it’s so full of sweet “falling in love with a boy on a cross-country train journey” goodness that I had to include it. Having adventures, chasing your dreams, creating art, and falling in love? What more could you want? A thoroughly enjoyable escape from reality that still touches on some relatable truths about failure, identity, and love.
“Starbird Murphy and the World Outside” by Karen Finneyfrock
Starbird Murphy grew up on a communal farm… or a cult, according to outsiders and some ex-farm residents. At sixteen she gets her “calling” and moves to Seattle to work as a waitress at the farm’s restaurant. Living in the World Outside, Starbird attends school for the first time, handles money for the first time, and regularly interacts with people outside of her community for the first time. This book is pretty unique not only in its subject matter, but in the nuance with which is handles it. What is a cult anyway? How do you know if you’re being brainwashed? As you grow up, how do you find yourself and make your own path while still staying connected to your community? I was also surprised that Starbird’s perspective raises some poignant questions about the World Outside which gives insight into why people might be vulnerable to cult indoctrination, and doesn’t paint a black and white picture of the cult itself.
“A Taxonomy of Love” by Rachel Allen
This book does a good job of dealing with disability, difference, grief, family, friendship, love, and growing up in a way that feels honest and relatively easy to read. It also has a disabled main character! Spencer has tourettes which is consistently incorporated into his experiences in the story without being his primary personality trait or identifier. Spencer is in love with his friend, Hope, and the book follows the two characters through the messiness of their teen years as they experience first heartbreaks, loss, family frustrations, growing together, and growing apart. The lead characters are flawed and sometimes frustrating, but I found myself consistently rooting for their growth and happiness, and sympathizing with their motivations. The author also utilizes illustrated taxonomy systems that Spencers uses to make sense of the world, and I always think it’s fun when book incorporate a visual element like that!
“Everything Beautiful Is Not Ruined” by Danielle Younge-Ullman*
I don’t really know how to begin to describe this book. The main character, Ingrid, used to travel all over the world with her opera singer mother. When the book begins, she’s in a 3-week wilderness backpacking program for “troubled teens” against her will. Ingrid doesn’t feel like she belongs there, but is determined to see it through so she can uphold her side of a pact with her mother. Whilst in the wilderness, Ingrid is forced to confront the pain and anger she carries with her and find the strength and courage within herself to return to her everyday life. Told through a blend flashbacks, diary entries, and present-tense narration, this story explores grief, mental health, codependency, parent-child relationships, and the painful (but important) process of finding yourself in writing that feels visceral and immediate. The writing is alternatingly beautiful and blunt, lending itself well to the emotional scope of the book. The characters are multifaceted and flawed, and the relationships in the story feel real in their complexity. A rich, emotional journey that is honest (but not cynical) about the messiness of being human.
“A Semi-Definitive List of Worst Nightmares” by Krystal Sutherland*
I bought this book for two people this Christmas and plan to make at least two of my family members read my copy, just to give you a preview of how much I loved it. According to Esther Solar’s grandfather their whole family has been cursed by death; each member of the family suffers one great fear that they believe will ultimately kill them. Esther, however, doesn’t know what her one great fear is… because everytime something scares her a little she adds it to a list of things to avoid. Until a childhood friend walks back into her life and challenges her to take on the list. Part heart-wrenching illustration of family and mental illness, part love story, part mystery, and part coming of age journey this book was so engaging, poignant, and emotional that I had a hard time putting it down. The characters are interesting and vibrant, and the book’s discussion of fear, mental health, and relationships feels relevant. Between the unique characters, dark tone, and quirky aesthetics this book feels a bit Addams Family meets Royal Tenenbaums. Despite its dark tone and heavy themes, this book radiates earnestness, love, and hope. It’s also BEAUTIFULLY written. Honestly, I just love it so much. Please read it.
“Twelve Days of Dash and Lily” by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan
I thought I’d end with a holiday-themed book! As a teenager I loved “Dash and Lily’s Book of Dares” and when I found this sequel I was both delighted and nervous (I actually put off reading it for a year or so). However, the book genuinely surprised me by being exactly the read I needed this holiday season. Previously the very embodiment of Christmas spirit, Lily has had a hard year and doesn’t know how to engage with the holiday this year. Her family and boyfriend, Dash, are worried and try whatever they can to cajole Lily back to her old self. Meanwhile Dash and Lily both cope with fears about their relationship as the honeymoon phase comes to an end, and questions about who they are and where they’re going. Ultimately a book about growing up, the grief that comes with it, figuring out how to live with uncertainty, and learning to make your own magic despite it all, “Twelve Days of Dash and Lily” is honest, hopeful, and heartwarming. Just right for reading while you sip cocoa next to a lit Christmas tree.
*Both of these books include discussion of suicide, self harm, sexual assault, and domestic abuse. (Other books on this list might also reference sensitive topics–I recall that The Sun Is Also a Star mentions a side character’s suicidal ideation–but I know they come up in these two in particular.)
Big thanks to those of you who have kept up with my writing this year! I am super excited to focus primarily on my fiction writing next year, and will continue using this blog to share about that process from time to time. If you’d like more consistent updates about my 2020 writing project, please check out my patreon.
Thanks again for your support this year! Happy holidays!