Books That Made Me Happy 2019
Here’s big old book list for 2019.
I did something very weird and nerdy this year. Rather than group the books by type, I just rank them. (I actually kind of rank them every year, but I don’t normally use the ranking in this post because I don’t want it to seem like a competition).
To be extra nerdy, what I did this year was write a short program that randomly picked two books and asked me to compare them, and repeated that over and over, then did various math things to convert all those comparisons into a score and then a ranking. It’s super nerdy, but kind of fun (I have a weird idea of fun), and actually does a pretty good job of sorting my subjective feelings into something that almost looks objective.
Don’t take the rankings too seriously. I liked all these books, and I’m just making my own fun.
Anyway, I was originally planning to write about 25 books, but when the list was finished I found that there were more books that I wanted to write about.
So here goes, top 32 books of the year by me. Each has an elevator pitch to describe what it is and a few words about what I liked about it. I tried very hard to avoid focusing on the things I didn’t like about books, even though that’s very tempting in a short review. Take it as noted that none of these books are perfect, but I liked them all.
32: Wanderers, by Chuck Wendig
Elevator Pitch: A modern entry in the long-standing tradition of doorstopper-sized, multiple-POV, post-apocalyptic epics.
There’s a long tradition of 15-minutes-into-the-future SF epics, and Wanderers has all the markers: a seemingly small start that builds and builds, multiple POV characters from all walks of life who come together, clear human villains on top of the natural villains. That said, it doesn’t quite go where you expect, and the eventual reveal of what’s going on is genuinely creepy.
31: Storm of Locusts by Rebecca Roanhorse
Elevator Pitch: Sequel to Trail of Lightning about a monster killer in a post-apocalyptic Navajo nation where the gods have returned.
I don’t have a lot to say about this one, it’s good and it extends the first book in the way that sequels are supposed to – widens the world, gives hints of a larger story, adds characters, and so on.
30: The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon
Elevator Pitch: An entire fantasy trilogy worth of story helpfully packaged as a single book. With lots of dragons.
I read this one because it’s been a while since I read a weapons-grade doorstopper fantasy novel, and this is one. I was also intrigued because the reviews said that it actually ends. And it, in fact does, which is nice.
The story has multiple POV, and is about an epic battle between humanity and the forces of evil, represented by (at least some of) dragon-kind. Humanity is split due to a kind of a religious schism, and one thing I really liked about what Shannon does here is that I was able to understand both the schism and – when eventually revealed – the true story. That’s hard to give weight to and it’s one of many things that really works in this book.
29: Red, White & Royal Blue, by Casey McQuiston
Elevator Pitch: The son of the US president falls for the Prince of Wales. I think that’s a strong elevator pitch.
There’s nothing but to say this straight out, I’ve been reading a lot of romance fiction, of which a couple made this list. I decided that a) I like romantic comedy movies, so I’d probably like romantic comedy books, and b) a lot of my favorite SFF authors are at least romance-adjacent (Bujold, for example), and c) really good romance novels are very strong on how character and plot interact.
Anyway, this is more best-seller-y than some of the other romance related-stuff I read. There’s a joy to this book that I liked, which, given that it is about politics and came out in 2019 suggests either that the book has been in progress for a long time, or that the author has preternatural powers of compartmentalization.
28: The Raven Tower, by Ann Leckie
Elevator Pitch: Hmm… a little hard to elevator pitch. It’s a fantasy story from the POV of a very powerful, but not very mobile god?
I very much like fantasy stories with weird theologies, and weird magic systems based on them. The Raven Tower which is the story of a conflict between gods and men and gods, is definitely that. The book is largely narrated by a god who is, and I may be misremembering it, basically a sentient pile of rock with very strong powers. The book is told in two apparent POV’s that come together cleverly.
27: The Impeachers, by Brenda Wineapple
Elevator Pitch: Non-fiction about Andrew Johnson’s impeachment
Pretty much what it says there, it’s a straightforward account of the Johnson impeachment proceedings, written by an author who had no idea how relevant that would seem when the book came out. (Parenthetically, I still wish the Slow Burn podcast team had taken a swing at this story)
26: Magic For Liars by Sarah Gailey
Elevator Pitch: A magic school. Like Harry Potter, but with psychological realism.
I should say that, while I liked this book, there’s a significant group of people who loved this book, and it made a few top 5 lists. It’s real good, don’t get me wrong. It’s the story of a – for lack of a better word – muggle detective called in to investigate a murder at the magical high school where her somewhat estranged sister is on the faculty. The school is much less Hogwarts, and much more, say, Sunnydale High, which makes the book feel a lot more immediate and cool.
25: The Life and Afterlife of Harry Houdini by Joe Posnanski
Elevator Pitch: I think the title mostly gets it
This is not so much a biography of Houdini the person as it is a biography of Houdini the idea. Those overlap, but this book has a long section on, say, David Copperfield, and the still-existing Houdini fan communities. Posnanski went into this book cold, just trying to answer the question of why Houdini had long-term cultural staying power, and the result is a pretty fun set of essays on wonder, amazement, and magic.
24: The Library Book. By Susan Orlean
Elevator Pitch: It’s Susan Orlean writing about libraries.
Most of this book is about a library fire in the LA metro library in 1986. The description of the fire itself is harrowing. Orlean also talks about the history of the LA library system, which is surprisingly interesting. She also writes about the true-crime arson case that followed the fire, which is a little less satisfying, and about the changing role of libraries in America, which is fine, but maybe doesn’t quite fit? The best parts here are pretty amazing, though.
23: Blackfish City, by Sam Miller
Elevator Pitch: Classic cyberpunk with modern themes.
It’s not so much that Blackfish City is the book that Gibson or Sterling would write today – both of them are still writing and writing nothing like this book. It’s more that it’s what 1984 William Gibson would write if transported to 2019. It’s got all the Cyberpunk themes – AI, body mods, street tech, huge inequality, moral grey areas – plus a very 2019 focus on climate change. The book takes place on an artificial island that is one of the few places supporting advanced civilization after climate change and attendant disruptions. It’s good, and unsettling, and still kind of has some of that Neuromancer-punk aesthetic.
22: Jade War by Fonda Lee
Elevator pitch (for the series): Martial Arts Gangster Movie. With Magic.
Book two in a trilogy, and it does what books two do. Expands the world, new characters, new threats. It does so with a certain style that feels very cinematic. I’d love to see what a filmed version of this would look like.
21: The Art of Theft. By Sherry Thomas
Elevator Pitch: Sherlock Holmes is a cover story invented by one Charlotte Holmes to allow her to make a living as a woman in Victorian England.
Book four of a series that remains much more charming and fun that it has any right to be. This one is more of a heist story than a mystery, or maybe a mystery wrapped in a heist story. It’s still fun.
20: To Be Taught, If Fortunate by Becky Chambers
Elevator Pitch: Four scientists explore new planets while Earth may be collapsing.
So, this is not part of the Wayfarers series. It’s a standalone novella. And while the four scientists do have some interpersonal issues, it’s mostly about the exploration and the question of what the purpose of exploration is. One of the planets they visit is terrible, and the annoying description is so vivid that I still think about it regularly.
19: Empress of Forever, by Max Gladstone
Elevator Pitch: What if Max Gladstone wrote anime?
I should say, a lot of people loved this book, and I basically liked it. Most of the book is a super-far-future indistinguishable from magic story where the characters wield unimaginable power, and Gladstone describes it all with verve. It’s a book where the first few chapters are very different from the story as a whole, and I think I was a little sad to see that setting go, and it blocked me from appreciating all of the rest of the book.
18: The Iron Dragon’s Mother, Michael Swanwick
Elevator Pitch: Dragon pilot is framed for murder.
Okay, that’s the plot, but it really says nothing about the book. This is Swanwick’s third book in a very, very loosely affiliated series, which mostly don’t share plot, or even really setting, but rather share a common tone where the fantasy world is crammed with a mix of modern industrial bits and classic fantasy tropes. So we have dragon pilots, but the dragons are like B-12 bombers. (This and Priory of the Orange Tree both have characters who pilot dragons and could not possibly be less alike in any other way). Anyway, this kind of thing was basically unheard of when the first book came out in 1993, and is pretty common now, but Swanwick mixes tropes with an abandon that’s fun even when the material gets dark.
17: In an Absent Dream by Seanan McGuire
Elevator Pitch: The Wayward Children series continues
This series goes back and forth between moving the story forward and flashbacks about the characters, all of whom were heroes of portal fantasy stories who left their portal world. In this world, we see the Goblin Market, and it’s about bargains and choices and consequences in a very McGuire kind of way. These books seem endlessly inventive about their portal worlds, it feels like McGuire could spin them out forever.
16: The Psychology of Time Travel, by Kate Mascarenhas
Elevator Pitch: What if time travel was invented by five British women in 1967?
In a year that was full of time travel stories that also had LGBTQ themes – there are at least four on this list – this one may have gotten a little overlooked. The main character is the granddaughter of one of the original woman, the one who was kicked out of the team. It’s a bit mystery, a bit romance, and a lot of how time travel might mess with your head if you are a time traveler or even if you just know a time traveler. There’s a lot of focus on the jargon that professional time travelers would develop. It treats time travel differently than most time travel stories.
15: The Light Brigade by Kameron Hurley
Elevator Pitch: What if The Forever War, but with Time Travel?
Speaking of. In this book, the military beams soldiers across the solar system. Our main character, Dietz, is quickly disoriented and comes to believe that the beaming is making Deitz unstuck in time, experiencing all the battles out of order. This is a no-paradox, no-changing-time kind of time travel book, and it’s very satisfyingly plotted. Most of it is quite dark military SF, but with some hope that the forever war can finally end.
14: The Vanishing Stair by Maureen Johnson
Elevator Pitch: Multi-generational murder mystery at a school for geniuses in Vermont.
Before reading this series (and book three came out in Jan 2020, we’ll get to it next year), I would have said that a mystery trilogy based on a single mystery was basically impossible, which should show you how much I respect what Johnson is doing here. If you are me, and believe The Westing Game is the greatest kids book ever, this book is clearly inspired by it.
13: A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martene
Elevator Pitch: An ambassador from a small planet has to solve her predecessors murder and save her planet.
Now we’re getting into the higher gear. This is a staggeringly good book about culture, empire, linguistics, poetry and on and on. It’s dense and there’s a lot going on. Our main character is both fascinated by and repelled by the culture of the larger empire and she has to navigate a very complex political and social landscape while investigating her predecessors death. It’s really something.
12: How To by Randall Munroe
Elevator Pitch: It’s Randall Munroe doing Randall Munroe Things
I mean, you are basically in or out already. If you like XKCD or What If, this is more of Randall explaining how things work by going to extremes.
11: The Ten Thousand Doors of January, by Alex E. Harrow
Elevator Pitch: If what you like about portal fantasy is the portals, this is the book for you.
January is a person, not a month. Her father searches the world to find curiosities for a wealthy man, who in turn takes care of January and kind of treats her as a curiosity. Then January finds a book she didn’t know she had. The contents of the book (which we get to read) and the way she came to possess it will send January on an adventure to save, well, ten thousand doors. Like the McGuire books, this is both a portal fantasy and a comment on portal fantasies. In this case, there’s a strong argument over whether the portals and the way they enable new things to enter the world, are good or bad. An interesting discussion, and very well structured book.
10: Catch and Kill by Ronan Farrow
Elevator Pitch: I mean, you’ve probably heard of this one.
This is Farrow’s telling the story of how he came to break the Harvey Weinstein sexual abuse story, and along the way become perhaps America’s most trusted investigative journalist. If you saw it in a movie, you’d say it was over the top, there’s spies and threats and network bosses who just want to protect the powerful. Farrow’s story is interesting on his own, but he clearly wants to foreground the people who came forward to tell their own story, and the result is a really compelling mix of memoir and journalism thriller. This is here on the list not just because of the subject matter, but because it’s an extremely well told story about an important subject.
9: The Future of Another Timeline, by Annalee Newitz
Elevator Pitch: Time Travel has always been with us, history is like a Wikipedia page, and the alt-right gets to edit it.
This is actually two stories, a time travel story about attempting to discredit Anthony Comstock and restore women’s rights to the timeline, and a story about one of the time travelers as a teenager, when she gets caught up a murder spree killing sexual predators. On an SF technical level, Newitz has a genuinely new take on Time Travel (the time travel machines have always been here, people have always used them to change history and there are some interesting restrictions), and on an story level this is a powerful story about women being heard and literally making their mark on history.
8: Catfishing on CatNet by Naomi Kritzer
Elevator Pitch: What if your teenager’s chat room was actually run by an all-powerful AI?
I read this because a lot of people I follow commented on how charming and fun it is, and you know what, it’s charming and fun. It’s a tightly plotted YA thriller, the main character is a teenager whose mother is continually moving from town to town, ostensibly to avoid her father. But that’s not the whole story, and eventually the chat room friends save the day with the help of CatNet, an AI that works for cat pictures. (I don’t want to disparage other books here, but I’m currently reading a book with an omnipresent AI written by A Huge Name In SF, and this book’s omnipresent AI is, like, way more interesting).
7: The City in the Middle of the Night, by Charlie Jane Anders
Elevator Pitch: What if living on a tidally locked world where the sun never moves drove everybody a little bit mad?
This is a very, very SF novel. You’ve got a hostile alien planet, very odd human cultures that have tried to adapt to it (one tries to enforce a strong central common time system, and one lets everybody do their own thing, neither is very successful), and a main character who is exiled from one culture who winds up exploring the entire world and uncovering some secrets (is it a spoiler if one of those secrets is the title of the book?).
6: Becoming Superman, by J. Michael Straczynski
Elevator Pitch: JMS does a harrowing childhood memoir.
If you followed JMS back in the Babylon 5 days, you got occasional hints that his childhood had been unhappy. In this cathartic memoir, JMS talks about growing up with a father who is an abusive Nazi-sympathizing monster, and how he managed to escape, and how comic book heroes like Superman gave him a way out. It’s scary and creepy and sometimes hopeful and very powerful.
5: Evvie Drake Starts Over by Linda Holmes
Elevator Pitch: A widower with a small secret meets an ex-baseball player who can’t play baseball anymore.
One of the weird things about being on the internet is following people. I’ve been reading pop culture writing by Linda Holmes for about fifteen years (she used to write for Television Without Pity, now she blogs and hosts the Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast for NPR). I’ve followed her on social media through the writing of this book, and look, I was rooting for it. And I very much like it, it’s a romantic comedy about Evvie Drake, who we meet as she is about to leave her husband, only to learn that he has been killed in a car crash before she can get out the door. Later, she meets Dean, a pitcher who came down with the yips, and for no reason anybody can tell, just can’t pitch anymore. The result is warm, sweet, funny, and basically a very good romantic comedy.
4: Exhalation by Ted Chiang
Elevator Pitch: Ted Chiang has a collection out. Run, don’t walk.
Speaking of following people, Ted Chiang has had this weird career where he writes about one exquisite SF short story every year or two, and every decade or so they are collected into an amazing book. The last book eventually wound up inspiring the movie Arrival, I sure hope somebody does something cool with one of the stories here.
3: Middlegame, by Seanan McGuire
Elevator Pitch: Alchemy and taking over the world and linked twins and time loops and did I mention the book inside the book… it’s a lot.
A lot going on in this one. McGuire has said that she waited almost a decade until she felt she was good enough to write it. It features Roger and Dodger, twins created for alchemical purpose. Roger is all about words, Dodger all about numbers. They have adventures, and slowly come to realize what their purpose is and how to destroy it. To say a lot about what McGuire does here would be spoilery, but there’s a bit at the end that reveals the scope of exactly what’s happened in the book and it’s a brilliant reveal of scale and the level of power that we’ve been dealing with.
2: Gideon the Ninth, by Tamsyn Muir
Elevator Pitch: I mean, everybody was calling it lesbian necromancers in space…
It took me a while to warm to this one, the first few chapters are really kind of grim, and the book’s delight in language and weirdness hasn’t fully come out yet, but once it does, it’s fantastic. Gideon is the servant and right-hand sword to Harrowhawk, who is summoned to earth as the leader of the ninth house in what is a gigantic contest with immortality as the prize. Then we get into a locked room mystery that is kind of like The Westing Game with skeletons and cranky necromancers. And none of that gets across how weird and delightful this book is, or how Harrow just calling Gideon “Griddle” implies the entire history between them or the deeply odd mixes in tone and language.
1: This Is How You Lose The Time War, by Amal El-Mohtar & Max Gladstone
Elevator Pitch: Spy vs. Spy if the spies controlled space and time and fell in love.
This really was a year of time-travel stories, and this one about two women agents we only refer to as Red and Blue was easily my favorite. The book alternates viewpoints as Red and Blue leave messages to each other encoded in various bizarre and complex ways, so as to avoid being found out as they being to conspire against their various leaderships. What starts out seeming as a character piece becomes a tightly-plotted time travel story as Red and Blue try to save each other and carve out their escape. (I can neither confirm or deny that I spent much of July mentally singing “Let’s Lose The Time War Again” to the tune of Time Warp). Anyway, this book is just great and I loved it and it was my favorite thing I read in 2019.