2019 Reading Recap – The Good, the Bad, and the Mediocre-at-Best

Usually, I would do a Top Ten Tuesday post since, you know, it’s a Tuesday. But this week’s theme is “Favorite Books I Read in 2019,” and I’ll let you in on a secret (which isn’t really a secret): I’m not very good at choosing favorites. I agonize over making selections of which books were the “best” I read each year, especially once I try to account for things like literary merit vs my own personal enjoyment, different criteria for books of different genres, new books vs classics, what to do about multiple good books in a series, and so on. Plus, with 105 books under my belt from this year alone, there’s just such a high chance that a generic “top ten” would leave out books that deserve more love. So instead, this is a little clustered “list” of my thoughts from the year, across different categories, genres, and more, with both favorites and least-favorites galore. (Hey, that rhymed.)

Note 1: If I have a review for a specific book, I’ve set it to link to my review; I only started seriously reviewing partway through the year, though, so not all of these will have that benefit. I also didn’t link if my review was just a mini-review for an audiobook.

Note 2: For logistical purposes, if I reread a book this year, it did not count toward this list. Obviously, if I was rereading it, it was because I loved it, and that’s just not fair to the other books.

Best Nonfiction

We Should All Be Feminists – short, sweet, and oh-so-important, this print adaptation of Chimamanda Ngozi-Adichie’s TED talk should be essential reading for everyone.

Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men – data science meets feminism in this exploration of the consequences of the gender data gap. Basically, research often ignores women, doesn’t factor in that women engage with the world differently than men, etc., and as a result, women are harmed in spheres ranging from transportation to technology design to the workplace and beyond. The author presents a well-thought-out, strongly-researched analysis that makes for a compelling read with ideas that will stick with you for a while.

Best Audiobook

Daisy Jones and the Six – this was no contest. I wasn’t sure if I would like this book, especially with all the hype it was getting, but oh my gosh. Beautifully written, and phenomenally acted by a full cast with some all-star vocal talents. The audio brought this one to life for me; I honestly don’t know whether I would have liked it as much if I had just read it on paper, but listening to it, I was mesmerized.

Best YA Contemporary

The Exact Opposite of Okay – in the age of #MeToo, books that deal with topics related to sexual assault are growing increasingly common. But in this book, the focus moves to other areas of sexual harrassment that teen girls deal with, including slut shaming, leaking nudes, and Nice Guys. Bonus: instead of feeling overwhelmingly depressing, the story is narrated by the hilarious and sarcastic main character who wants to go into comedy professionally (and also maybe kinda sorta uses humor as a coping mechanism…maybe…), so you can laugh even in the face of the shitty cultural double-standards women face every day.

I Wish You All the Best – a nonbinary main character, written by a nonbinary author? A story that shows examples of mental/emotional abuse inflicted by parents, which often flies under the radar (especially because it’s easy to rationalize or otherwise excuse it)? A cute love story and a heartbreaking coming-of-age at the same time? This one really has it all.

On the Come Up – maybe I’m in the minority, but I liked this book even better than the author’s first book, The Hate U Give. It has a more flawed and complex protagonist, which I always like, and it still manages to confront racial injustices, from police profiling to the need to play into the media’s idea of “what a black person acts like.” And on top of that, the rap lyrics Bri writes are straight fire.

Best Sci-Fi

This Is How You Lose the Time War – a book this short has no right being this gorgeous, but here we are: a love story between enemy agents that reads like straight literary fiction…until you remember the omnipresent narrative element of time travel.

Best Memoir

This is Going to Hurt: Secret Diaries of a Medical Resident – just in case I didn’t have enough reasons to want to go to med school, this book made me cackle with laughter while also driving home the absurd, sometimes horrible nature of today’s medical system.

Becoming – because there’s no way I could write this list without including Michelle Obama’s memoir. This woman is incredible–classy, kind, eloquent, and brilliant. There was a short moment in the book when she reflected on the moment she realized people stopped referring to her as a Harvard Law graduate and started referring to her as just Barack Obama’s wife. I think that moment exemplifies just why her story is so important. She’s done so much on her own, as an individual, and while her husband is a part of her life, he isn’t the entirety of it. This book fills in those gaps.

Best Literary Fiction

Quichotte – a triumph by Salman Rushdie, simultaneously satirizing Don Quixote and contemporary culture, particularly our obsession with television. Oh, and he also talks about immigrant experiences, mental health, drug addiction, the need for human connection, racism, politics, and possibly the end of the world (including…mastodons?). Because of course he does.

A People’s History of Heaven – five girls in an Indian slum fight to keep their homes from being destroyed while reflecting on their time growing up together. Though they differ in religion, sexuality, life goals, and disability, they are fiercely loyal to each other and to the people they love, and the resulting narrative is diverse, colorful, and told through lovely writing.

Best Fantasy

Literally everything I read by Brandon Sanderson – what can I say? The guy’s a genius. This year, I read Warbreaker, Shadows of Self, The Bands of Mourning, The Emperor’s Soul, and Mistborn: Secret History, all of which were straight-up phenomenal.

In an Absent Dream – the fourth installment in Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children series might be my favorite of the series so far; a bookish girl caught between the family she loves but feels ignored by, and a magical world where she feels like she really belongs.

The Ten Thousand Doors of January – portal fantasy isn’t anything new, but this debut novel by Alix E. Harrow excels thanks to a fresh perspective: the story takes place in the early 20th century, and the main character is a biracial girl, the ward of a wealthy man, with a father who is often absent while searching the world for treasures. The blend of historical fiction and fantasy is captivating, but even more so is the intoxicating beauty that is Harrow’s writing. From cover to cover, the book is packed with clever lines and artful turns of phrase that transport you just as easily as the magical portals that the main character finds herself walking through.

Best Graphic Novel

(Side note: I actually only read two graphic novels this year, but I loved them both so much that I’m listing both of them. Deal with it.)

On a Sunbeam – first off, the author of this one is the same age as me (23, for anyone who was curious) and she already has published multiple graphic novels, so in case you needed a reason to feel like you’re not accomplishing enough in life…here you go. But this book was beautiful: a sci-fi space epic/queer romance (yes, seriously both of those) with gorgeous artwork and color schemes. Clocking in at over 500 pages, it should have taken a while to read, but I flew through it in about two days.

Watchmen – after putting this one off for years, despite an enthusiastic recommendation from a friend that I read it, I finally caved, and now I understand why it has been beloved by so many since its release in the 1980s. This one is dense, and it’s a lot of work, but it is brilliant in its complexity and masterful in its execution.

Best YA Fantasy

Spin the Dawn – think Mulan, except instead of fighting, the girl has to pretend she is a boy in order to sew clothes for the emperor and his new bride. Hello, inverted gender norms! Of course, this one also has plenty of vibrant worldbuilding, some lovely magic (including a pair of enchanted scissors), and a heroine whose deep love for her family propels the story forward.

Fireborne – yes, this book had dragons–lots of them. That in and of itself is great. But what made this one really stand out for me was the way that it wasn’t just about two teens; the overarching political themes, including oppression, censorship, the myth of meritocracy, and the flaws inherent in Plato’s Republic, were significant to the plot but never heavy-handed, and for that, it gets a nod of favor from me.

Carry On – way more fun (and way more emotional) than a riff on Drarry fanfiction has any right to be. That’s really all I can say here. That, and don’t read the sequel, because that one was straight-up not good. Speaking of disappointment…

Most Disappointing Reads

(i.e. thought I would love them, ended up being average)

The Grace Year – I expected a feminist revelation from this one, which was compared to “Handmaid’s Tale meets Lord of the Flies.” What I got was a story that took place in a poorly-executed world, prominently featured insta-love, and struggled with pacing.

We Hunt the Flame – I’ve been trying really hard this year to support #OwnVoices authors, and when I heard about this Arabian-inspired fantasy, written by an author of Arab descent, I rushed to pick it up. Sadly, its compelling leads could not compensate for the fact that a lot of the story was just plain boring.

Serpent & Dove – I had so many people tell me this book was amazing and that it was a must-read, one of the best books of the year, etc. I figured, witch and witch hunter fall in love, and also there are big threats to their world? Cool, I guess? Except for the first half of the book, both of them are boring and annoying as heck, and the author doesn’t do a great job of introducing the reader to the world and its magic. It’s fine to throw the reader into an invented world headfirst, but if they’re 200 pages in and still don’t have a clue how the world’s magic works, that’s a flaw with the writing. The end of the book was a lot better, which leaves me in quite a pickle over what to do when the sequel comes out: satisfy my curiosity? Or don’t risk further disappointment?

Best YA Historical

Like a Love Story – weird to think that 1989 is considered “historical fiction” now, but it was 30 years ago, so I think it counts. This book takes place at the height of the AIDS crisis in NYC, and that oft-forgotten chapter of queer history (including ACT UP protests) forms the backbone of the narrative. The author spins a beautiful, sometimes heartbreaking story about identity, friendship, family, cultural expectations, and more. Plus, diversity in main characters: two gay boys, one of whom is an Iranian immigrant, and a plus-size girl who dreams of going into fashion.

The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy – yes, this is somewhere between historical and fantasy (mostly historical, but there are some fictional aquatic creatures?), but listen: this might be the best ace representation I’ve ever read. Plus, Felicity is a smart, spunky main character, and the whole story is so fun even as it navigates topics like historical sexism in academia.

Best Short Story Collection

Laughter at the Academy – classic Seanan McGuire: creepy, beautiful, magical, whimsical, unsettling, thought-provoking fun.

Someone Who Will Love You in All Your Damaged Glory – I finished this one just last night, and it was amazing. Deeply funny. Deeply profound. Deeply weird. Exactly what you would expect from the creator of BoJack Horseman.

Most-Loathed Reads

(i.e. these books were just plain awful)

Again, But Better – plot holes, cringy main character, bad writing, some really questionable character choices that are treated as normal…it’s pretty clear this author only got a publishing deal because she’s a famous BookTuber. I still can’t believe this was a finalist for a Goodreads Choice Award (though I have a whole rant about the flaws with that award system as a whole, too…)

Let’s Talk About Love – if Again, But Better was a trainwreck, this one was the shrapnel left after the train blows up–all the badness, without the cool explosion. The main character was whiny and immature, there was no real plot, the love interest was super boring and generic, the representation of asexuality was poorly handled, a super unhealthy and codependent relationship was dismissed as “normal friendship,” the ending was unsatisfying, the audiobook narrator was awful…basically, do yourself a favor and don’t bother with this one.

Surprise Favorites

A Gentleman in Moscow – got this one as a Christmas gift last year (thanks, Paul!), and I was shocked at how quickly it captured me with its lively prose and fascinating cast of characters. I don’t always love historical fiction–as you can see, I didn’t even have a category for it here–but this one reads like a contemporary classic.

Red, White & Royal Blue – I never thought I would see the day that I would read and enjoy a straight-up romance, but here we are. I guess making it cute and funny, removing insta-love and gross/weird sexual descriptions, and adding some political context made this one work for me. Loved, loved, loved it.

Crier’s War – somewhere on the border of fantasy and sci-fi, Nina Varela’s debut novel is cleanly written with excellent worldbuilding and a compelling pair of female leads (who also happen to have a stellar queer romance forming between them). This one wasn’t on my radar until I received a copy of it from the publisher, but it blew me away completely, and I’m already anxiously awaiting the sequel. Also, I sent the author an email asking a question and she was so freaking sweet in her response, so that made me feel pretty cool, too.

In Conclusion…

I read a ton of great books this year, and yeah, I probably have at least a quarter of them on this list, but I think that’s just an indication of how lucky I’ve been this year that so many of them were good–even if there were those few that I marked as being basically awful.

How was your year in reading? Did you finish everything you wanted to? Have any favorites in common with me? Got any you loved this year that didn’t make the list? Let me know in the comments!

Much love,

Kathryn (“K-Specks”)


2 thoughts on “2019 Reading Recap – The Good, the Bad, and the Mediocre-at-Best

  1. dinipandareads January 1, 2020 / 9:56 am

    Wow, you really had an amazing reading year 😍 This is a great recap of everything! There are so many on your list that I can’t wait to read and hope to *finally* read in 2020! Hope you have a wonderfully bookish year ahead, Kathryn! Happy reading 😊

    Liked by 1 person

    • Kathryn Speckels January 5, 2020 / 5:33 pm

      Thank you!! I hope you love whichever ones from this list you ultimately get around to. 2020 will also be a year of catching up on everything I wanted to read in 2019 but didn’t get around to, so we will be in the same boat I guess πŸ˜‚


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