Erin Larson: Book Reviews & Essays

The Best Books I Read in 2019

The Best Books I Read in 2019


I won’t bother you with a lengthy preamble, but I would like to clarify a few things before I begin:


  1. This is a list of the best books I read in 2019, not a list of the best books published in 2019 that I read.
  2. Although I read more books in 2019 than I did in 2018, there were fewer books I truly loved, and so I have elected not to divide this into a “top ten” and “honorable mentions” as I did before. Instead, I have created a single list, organized alphabetically by title, and asterisked the titles about which I feel especially passionate. Happy reading!


*American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin – Terrance Hayes


A collection of poems, each bearing the same title and written during the first two hundred days of the Trump presidency, American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin explores Black bodies and reckons with violence against Black bodies in America. Hayes’ words spill into one another like stones carried along in a stream, and he captures the anger and the anxiety accompanying year after year of racial injustice. This is a collection you don’t want to miss.


*Becoming – Michelle Obama


Obama’s memoir is as wise and thoughtful as you would expect, and it is well-deserving of its many weeks on the list of NYT bestsellers. Michelle is an evocative storyteller, and she carefully frames her story as the story of a Black woman—with emphasis on those words as identities—who is always growing and always striving to be true to herself and her beliefs, from early childhood to middle age and the maelstrom of international politics. Barack and the White House are not centers of gravity here; this is Michelle’s story and Michelle’s alone, and she understands better than most that learning and changing are never-ending challenges. It’s not about who you have become; it’s about who you are becoming. You always have been, and always will be, becoming.


Black Leopard, Red Wolf – Marlon James


Black Leopard, Red Wolf is a fantasy novel (inspired by African mythology and the first of a trilogy which, Rashoman-style, will feature a different perspective in each successive entry) which has more in common with Joyce and Faulkner than Tolkien and Martin, and it is far more challenging—and far more rewarding—to read than most recent entries in the genre. Additional thoughts here.


*Blackwater – Michael McDowell


The best thing that happened to me this year, literarily-speaking, was discovering Michael McDowell: a writer of paperback horror (alongside various screenwriting credits) in the second half of the 20th century, he passed away when he was only forty-nine but left behind a number of novels now considered cult classics, including Blackwater, six short serials now available in a single omnibus edition. First and foremost, this is a family saga, the story of the Caskeys and their trials and tribulations over fifty years in Perdido, Alabama—but like lightning in the dark, Blackwater is shot through with scenes of sharp, shocking horror precipitated by Elinor Dammert, a river monster which takes human form and marries into the family. Each genre elevates the other, and the result is a sprawling tale which distills the best of Faulkner, Jackson, King, and O’Connor into something uniquely McDowell. Blackwater is a book to treasure.


Circe – Madeline Miller


With only two novels to her name as of Circe (you’ll find the other, The Song of Achilles, farther down on this list), Madeline Miller has quietly established herself as a master of mythological retellings. Her simple, elegant prose conjures deceptively deep emotional topographies within the framework of Greek myth, in this case the myth of the nymph and sorceress Circe, who you likely know from her encounter with Odysseus in The Odyssey. Miller doesn’t discard the sources of Circe’s story, but she adds dimension and modernity to it. This is good stuff.


Disappearing Earth – Julia Phillips


Russia. The Kamchatka peninsula. Two young girls go missing, and their disappearance leaves the local community shaken. But where most novels would launch into an investigation full of twists and turns, Disappearing Earth elects to focus instead on those who are affected, directly or indirectly, by the girls and their sudden vanishing. Additional thoughts here.


Everworld (#1-12) – K.A. Applegate


This late-90s/early-2000s fantasy series embodies everything you expect from the author of Animorphs: an imaginative world, layered characters, sudden, shocking violence, and a level of thematic depth which puts most adult fiction to shame. Five teenagers are pulled into a parallel universe known as Everworld, where the pagan gods of Earth have been living and are now under attack by an alien entity known as Ka Anor; Applegate uses this scenario to explore racism, sexism, and homophobia, and she unpacks questions about the nature of religion, skepticism, technology, civilization, morality, and how they intersect in the modern age.


Exhalation – Ted Chiang


Seventeen years after the publication of his first collection of short fiction (Stories of Your Life and Others), Ted Chiang returns with another set of mindbending speculative fiction tales which will make your brain feel fizzy with dizzying possibility. Additional thoughts here.


*feeld – Jos Charles


If Chaucer had been transgender, he might have written a collection of poetry like feeld. Written in faux-Middle English, feeld plays with spelling and syntactical disparity to pun on themes relating to queer experiences, and the result is quite unlike anything I’ve read before. I will be on the lookout for future work from Jos Charles, and I hope it comes sooner rather than later.


*Friday Black – Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah


Friday Black would make a perfect companion to American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin: like Terrance Hayes’ collection of poetry, Friday Black wrestles with Black bodies and the violence against Black bodies in America, but in this case through the lens of speculative short fiction. There are images here which will be burned into your brain for a long time.


*Gideon the Ninth – Tamsyn Muir


Gideon the Ninth was one of the most-hyped speculative fiction releases of 2019, and it actually lived up to the hype: a snarky, irreverent romp starring gay necromancers in space, Tamsyn Muir’s invigorating debut reads like an Agatha Christie murder mystery merged with a meme-saturated Twitter feed—and it’s just as fun as that sounds. Additional thoughts here.


*Human Hours – Catherine Barnett


Every poem in this collection—the best collection of poetry I read this year—is a vertical slice of breathtaking lyricism, but what truly makes Human Hours shine is the story that builds from poem to poem. This is an exploration of entropy, and in it, Catherine Barnett cuts to the question at the heart of the human condition: how do you deal with the fact that everything decays?


*In the Dream House – Carmen Maria Machado


Constructed in a fragmented narrative style reminiscent of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, Carmen Maria Machado’s memoir of abuse in a queer relationship is a harrowing descent into gaslit madness; her story is inextricably tied to taboos which web her in like a fly. But like Dante and Virgil, Machado and fellow survivor Val eventually emerge and, once again, see the stars.


Iphigenia in Tauris – Euripides


Of Euripides’ many surviving stage dramas, Medea has a tendency to hog all the attention—but my two-week marathon through the Greek playwright’s collected works in early 2019 uncovered some unexpected favorites. You’ll find another farther down this list, but the best of the bunch, for me, was Iphigenia in Tauris (sometimes called Iphigenia Among the Taurians), which concerns the reunification of siblings Orestes and Iphigenia after Artemis saved the latter from being sacrificed by her father, Agamemnon. It’s a wickedly funny and shockingly modern work which pokes fun at religion and culminates in one of the goofiest scenes Euripides ever wrote.


The Light Brigade – Kameron Hurley


The Light Brigade is a mindbending military science fiction novel in the vein of Starship Troopers, The Forever War, Ender’s Game, and Old Man’s War—and it more than lives up to its predecessors. Additional thoughts here.


*Locke & Key (Vol. 1-6) – Joe Hill & Gabriel Rodriguez


When I finally read this acclaimed comic series by Joe Hill & Gabriel Rodriguez in 2019 (it was originally published from 2008-2013), I immediately regretted not having prioritized it sooner. Central to the series are siblings Tyler, Kinsey, and Bode, who move into a mansion known as “Keyhouse” with their mother after their father is murdered; at Keyhouse, they discover keys with magical powers—such as the Anywhere Key, which allows the user to open doorways to places they’ve already been, and the Head Key, which allows the user to literally open their head and add or remove emotions, memories, or knowledge—and a mysterious, malevolent entity in pursuit of these keys. I have mixed feelings in regard to Rodriguez’s character art, which is angular and blocky in a way that does not appeal to me, but his ability to mimic cinematic techniques as his panels play out across the page is, in my experience, unrivaled. Hill’s writing is an elegant spiderweb of story and backstory woven seamlessly into a greater whole. Even if you’re not into comics, you’ll want to make an exception for Locke & Key. It’s that good.


Meander, Spiral, Explode: Design and Pattern in Narrative – Jane Alison


This nonfiction book may not have much appeal for those who don’t write their own fiction, but for those who do, it’s a lovely look at the many ways in which we can leave Freytag’s pyramid behind and construct fresh and inventive stories inspired by patterns found throughout the world. It’s a niche book for sure, but it’s one I’ll treasure for a long time to come.


*A Memory Called Empire – Arkady Martine


This dense debut from Byzantine historian Arkady Martine features a murder mystery (+1) and a queer romance (+1), but it truly shines in its exploration of culture and language and how they intersect with identity. Additional thoughts here.


The Murders of Molly Southbourne – Tade Thompson


How’s this for a premise: every time Molly Southbourne bleeds, her blood generates a clone which, after a few days of docility, tries to kill her. When Molly is young, she befriends and experiments sexually with the clones—but eventually, she becomes an expert at murdering herself. This is a novella, so it’s a quick read, but it’s a helluva ride. I only wish the sequel, The Survival of Molly Southbourne, had lived up to the immense promise of its predecessor.


*On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous – Ocean Vuong


Ocean Vuong is a poet, and it shows in this achingly-beautiful debut novel about the gay son of a Vietnamese immigrant coming to terms with both his own identity and his relationship with his abusive mother. Additional thoughts here.


The Only Harmless Great Thing – Brooke Bolander


Brooke Bolander draws upon real history in this speculative fiction novella about an alternate timeline in which humans coerced elephants into warning future generations about the dangers of nuclear waste and radiation. The Only Harmless Great Thing is beautifully written and packed with more ideas than most full-length novels. I can’t wait for Bolander’s next work.


The Phoenician Women – Euripides


Another never-talked-about play from Euripides, The Phoenician Women turns its focus away from bloodshed and instead attempts to reckon with what is left behind: grieving women who have lost sons, brothers, and husbands to the meat grinder of war. It’s a powerful and moving work, and it deserves a place alongside established classics such as Medea and Antigone.


The Picture of Dorian Gray – Oscar Wilde


Come on, do you really need me to pitch The Picture of Dorian Gray? There’s a reason it’s been a classic for more than a century (and yes, I’d spent many a year feeling guilty for not having read it). Wilde’s prose, while occasionally overwrought and overindulgent, is sharp and witty, and the tale is as powerful as it is simple. If you haven’t gotten around to it yet, you should.


*The Rabbit Listened – Cori Doerrfeld


This picture book about the importance of not only having empathy, but about how we exhibit empathy, serves as yet another reminder that literature for children is telling more thoughtful, more mature stories than almost anything on the adult market right now. A true treasure.


The Raven Tower – Ann Leckie


This stand-alone fantasy novel, loosely built upon the bones of Hamlet but featuring a trans character and told from the perspective of a literal boulder, is utterly unlike anything else in the genre right now. Additional thoughts here.


*A Room of One’s Own – Virginia Woolf


This is another case in which I really don’t need to say anything: it’s Virginia Woolf and you should read it, whether you’re an artist or not. Woolf has a keen understanding of the relationship between womanhood and the ability (or inability) to create, publicize, and be exposed to art, and her words are as essential and invigorating as they were when she wrote them ninety years ago.


*The Song of Achilles – Madeline Miller


Whereas Wolfgang Peterson’s 2004 blockbuster Troy drained the homoerotic subtext from the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus like a heteronormative vampire, Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles reframes The Iliad as a queer romance, and the result is one of the most unfettered and most unforgettable love stories to be published so far this century. Read it.


The Ten Thousand Doors of January – Alix E. Harrow


This stunning debut takes the portal fantasy subgenre and turns it inside out, abandoning adventures in other worlds and instead exploring how other worlds—and other countries, other people, other stories—expand our minds, our dreams, our empathies. The Ten Thousand Doors of January is a book you don’t want to miss; I am eagerly awaiting Harrow’s next novel.


This Is How You Lose the Time War – Amal El-Mohtar & Max Gladstone


This epistolary novella is constructed from messages written to and from “Red” and “Blue,” two time-travelling soldiers from alternate futures who slip backwards and forwards through history, tweaking events to ensure their own timeline comes to fruition. But these messages of mutual admiration soon transform from platonic to romantic, and the result is a love story which, quite literally, transcends time. This Is How You Lost the Time War is a short but beautiful book.


*We Have Always Lived in the Castle – Shirley Jackson


I have been a longtime admirer of Jackson’s short fiction—few stories have had more influence on my development as a reader and a writer than “The Lottery”—but my first experience with her final novel, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, exceeded every expectation. We Have Always Lived in the Castle ranks not only as the best book I read this year, but as one of the best books I’ve ever read; this is a masterpiece of American fiction, and it deserves your attention.


By Erin Larson