At the end of last year, I decided to take a look back at all of the books I’d read in 2018 and provide some ranking to them. This was partly because I like lists, but also partly because I wanted to provide some objectivity to how I felt about the various books I’d read for the first time. I’ve decided to repeat this exercise in 2019, albeit with a much larger list, as you can see below. As was the case last year, if there was a book you read that’s on my list below, I’d love to hear your thoughts. I read a ton of good books this year, so there’s some books I loved and would have been top five in last year’s list — such as 10:04 by Ben Lerner — that are relatively low on this list. This is largely driven by the fact that there were several good books recommended to me. For the most part, these recommendations did not disappoint.
This post is part two of two in this series. For part one, click here.
I have a few books I’ve chosen not to rank for various reasons. Those books, along with why I’ve chosen not to rank them, are listed in alphabetical order below.
- Computer Machinery and Intelligence by Alan Turing – I read this solely as research for my work in progress and nothing more. It’s a super interesting read, but it’s way too short to be considered a book.
- Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu (Translated by John Minford) – Considering this translation is 85% analysis by people other than the actual writer, I didn’t feel it fair to judge Lao Tzu’s work based off of this specific copy. Plus it’s a religious text and people get antsy when you do that.
Also, spoilers ahead for many of these books. If you care about that sort of thing.
16. 10:04 by Ben Lerner
aka: What the fuck did I just read?
I covered 10:04 in greater detail in a review I wrote earlier this year, however, I’ll summarize it as a great book for writers to read and a hit-or-miss book for everyone else. The way that this book dives into the psyche of a writer working through writing a novel is exquisite, especially as the book’s narrator shifts between the various writing ideas he has throughout the book. With that said, most of the characters in the story aside from the narrator and the main female character are hard to develop any sort of attachment towards. Combine that with the fact that the narrator is pretentious at various points throughout the book1 and it’s hard to get invested in his personal story. Which wouldn’t be a problem if he wasn’t the one telling you the story. But he is, which keeps 10:04 from climbing higher on this list in spite of its interesting parts. On the plus side, this book taught me I really like metafiction.
15. Three Women by Lisa Taddeo
aka: Let’s talk about sex…kind of.
Initially upon finishing this book, I debated writing a full on review for it like I did for 10:04. Then I came to my senses, realizing that doing so would be a minefield from which only bad things would come. The book itself was an interesting read, giving some insight into female sexuality that is often lacking from mainstream books. That said, the book focused too much on sexuality in the context of affairs (be that from the woman in question or if the woman was with someone having an affair) for my liking. Hell, even the primary conflict in the only healthy sexual relationship portrayed in the book — that of an open-ish relationship/marriage — hinges on conflict that comes out of the married couple causing a married man to have an affair with them. I get that keeping affairs out of this book wasn’t part of these stories, but it was disappointing to run into in every single story.
14. Otherworld by Jason Segel and Kirsten Miller
aka: If you die in Canada, you die in real life
Earlier this year, I wrote a blog post that talked (in part) about whether or not you could like a book despite knowing it was problematic. I wrote that post before reading Otherworld, yet felt it was a great example of what I was talking about in said post. Otherworld is a book that checked a lot of boxes to being a book that typically isn’t good. It has a damsel in distress who should be able to fend for herself, yet is being saved by a weak male character. It has corporate conspiracy themes out the wazoo. It screams being a weird bastardization between Ready Player One and Sword Art Online2. There were impossibly inflated stakes for the two main characters that made it clear nothing serious was going to happen to them, even when they were in danger. Yet, despite all that, it was a really entertaining read. Also, I didn’t realize that this book was co-authored by THAT Jason Segel until I recognized his voice as the audiobook reader.
13. When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing by Daniel H. Pink
aka: I’ll do you one better. Why is the scientific secrets of perfect timing?
I am an unabashed fan of Daniel Pink’s work. His book, Drive, is arguably the single most impactful book I’ve ever read in regards to how I think about my career, both as a writer and as a professional. It’s one of only two books I will actively recommend a business professional read, regardless of their industry, role, or responsibilities. When is not Drive, but it is still a good book. As always, Pink is a writer who can capture you in anecdotal stories to make a point about scientific evidence. That said, it’s one of the few books on this list I felt like didn’t dive deep enough into what was being discussed. I finished the book in less than two days. Though Pink does offer some options for additional reading at the end of the book, I read his work because I enjoy the stories he tells — not because I want to read someone else’s work about the same topic.
12. Yes Please by Amy Poehler
aka: How to write a non-linear comedy book and look good doing it
This book is everything I wanted Scrappy Little Nobody to be when I read that last year. Granted, Scrappy Little Nobody was a good book, but Yes Please was a GREAT book3. It was funny and witty, while still being a great look into Poehler’s life. My only question — who the fuck has a high school that lets you get home at 1:45pm?
11. Permanent Record by Edward Snowden
aka: Still a better love story than Twilight
I went into reading this book expecting to learn a lot more about the NSA abuses of power revealed by Snowden in 2013. And while there was some of that, most of what was covered in the book was, unsurprisingly, much of what was already publicly known (and well-known at that) knowledge. I came away from this book instead thinking about how Snowden’s story only reinforced the need for increased protection for whistleblowers — not that there’s been any high-profile whistleblowing in the past few months or anything — as well as thinking about how Snowden’s personal love story was his now-wife is better than most romantic stories on this list.
10. Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut
aka: Busy, busy, busy.
One of Vonnegut’s other books, Slaughterhouse-Five, was a book I called out when I wrote my Ten Favorite Books of All Time post a few years back4, so I was excited to read Cat’s Cradle. While I don’t think it’s Vonnegut’s best book, it was an interesting philosophical exercise to read. The amount of world building (and later world destroying) Vonnegut does in Cat’s Cradle is nothing short of impressive — and yet he does so all while contrasting the world of San Lorenzo with the world in real life. This is probably one of the deeper books on the list, kept as low as it is by its extremely choppy pacing5.
9. Every Tool’s a Hammer by Adam Savage
aka: A book about being creative wrapped in a machinist’s body
I went into Every Tool’s a Hammer expecting to be disappointed by another autobiography from a famous person I liked. Considering the only one that hadn’t disappointed me to this point belonged to Michelle Freaking Obama, I had somewhat low expectations despite my love for Adam Savage. That said, this book was oddly inspirational for me as a writer, as Savage really went into the philosophy and psychology of what it means to be a maker. Regardless of your medium and your tools, creating is an amazing thing. Savage really managed to drive that home in ways I hadn’t thought about before. I was impressed with this book — enough to give it a second read after finishing the first time.
8. Becoming by Michelle Obama
aka: Needed perspective in a perspective lacking world
This is by far the longest I was in a hold queue for a book at my library, outside of Where the Crawdads Sing. Becoming is exactly what I expected it to be — a well-written autobiographical account of the former First Lady’s life both before and in the White House, told from a perspective of someone that overcame a lot to get everywhere they had been in life. I knew Michelle Obama was a good writer, though the book did manage to exceed my expectations in that regard. It ends the year as the second highest non-fiction book on the list, both because of its importance, as well as how good the book itself was. My lone criticism is that the book had a hell of a downer of an ending. Who writes a book where the bad guy wins in the end6?
7. Turtles All the Way Down by John Green
aka: Don’t read (or listen) to this book if you’re in a bad state of mind
I adore John Green. His work on Vlogbrothers, Dear Hank and John, Crash Course, and other places has been a huge inspiration to me in so many ways. Despite all of this, I’d never read one of his books. Turtles All the Way Down was a good book that I struggled to fully appreciate because of how long it took me to get invested with the main character’s story. For the first half of the book, I felt myself caring more about the quirky side character, Daisy, than I did about the book’s struggling protagonist, Aza. The story itself was good and the focus on mental health in the book was great. But I didn’t connect with the book the way I did with others further down the list. Turtles All the Way Down is objectively a better book than some books I’ve ranked ahead of it — it just wasn’t one that I adored.
6. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick
aka: Blade Runner didn’t do this book justice
I made an effort to read this book early in the year to help give me some perspective on how other writers have handled writing androids in fiction. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? does a great job of debating what it means to be human, as well as to what extent humanity is or is not truly human, all while focusing on the possible humanity of artificial intelligence. This book taught me a lot about how I want the villains in my book to view AI, but also brought up great questions for the protagonists to consider as well. After reading this book, I’m disappointed in my previous viewings of Blade Runner, particularly with where they chose to stay true to the book versus where they didn’t.
5. Dear Martin by Nic Stone
aka: This is America.
Right out of the gate, I’d like to say that I couldn’t relate to at least 90 percent of Dear Martin. That’s exactly why I read it. Yes, Dear Martin tells a good story. It’s a well-written book with characters you develop emotional connection toward, be that positive or negative. But it’s also important to read books outside of our experience. I don’t know it’s like being an African-American teen in a country where that group is systemically profiled by a group that should protect them. Yet it’s important to understand that experience. The fact that Dear Martin was written in such an engaging way is just a bonus.
4. The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton
aka: What a psychological thriller should read like
Holy. Fuck. For a book that starts out as slow as this one7, once it gets going it’s damn near impossible to put down. Unweaving the tangled web that Turton creates in this book is challenging enough, but trying to figure out who kills Evelyn Hardcastle throughout the story is a shockingly difficult exercise for a reader to partake in. The ending of the book was a let down to me, though I get why it ended the way it did for character growth purposes. On the plus side, this book did give one of the best narrator characters I’ve seen in a book this year, in the form of Constable Jim Rashton. The only down side is that he’s only a narrator for a short time in the book — but it’s an engrossing few chapters.
3. Educated by Tara Westover
aka: This is America, too.
Of all of the books on this list, Educated was the hardest for me to read. This isn’t because it was a bad book — far from it actually. While I can’t claim to have experienced anything like the horrors Tara Westover experienced in her childhood and young adult years, reading this book only served to remind me how many similarities certain people in my family share with those that could be better described as religious fundamentalists, conspiracy theorists, or just backwards in terms of what we consider to be modern society. There were a few lines in particular Westover mentioned in her book that I recall hearing nearly word for word as a child — how women who weren’t modest were whores, how doctors existed to poison you instead of help you, and how public school was a government conspiracy to brainwash you. It makes me feel a little bit better that I wasn’t the only one who experienced those things, as well as a ton better that I only experienced such a minimal amount in comparison to what Westover had to go through. Make no mistake, what Westover describes in her book is still going on now. It’s not just happening in rural areas or the Mormon community. It’s a terrifying realization.
2. Crazy is My Superpower by A.J. Mendez Brooks
aka: Bipolar disorder is the villain in this story
Every once in a while, there’s a book that just catches you emotionally when you aren’t expecting it. That’s this book for me. A.J. Mendez Brooks — under her wrestling name of AJ Lee — was at the height of her career when I was at the peak of my watching wrestling. I watched her story of clawing her way up the WWE roster play out in real-time. Knowing the back story behind her life, as well as all the horrors she went through at various points, really resonated with me. It’s a beautifully written, quirky, and funny book that pulls no punches. After reading several bad or underwhelming books by celebrities this year, Crazy is My Superpower was perhaps the most pleasant surprise read of the year for me. If you want to hear my thoughts on this book more in detail, it was one of my three in-depth reviews this year.
1. Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng
aka: Thought provoking and beautifully-written literature can infuriate you
Alright. Let’s hit the only two negatives of this book immediately.
- The ending focusing on Mrs. Richardson and Izzy seemed out of place, particularly when Mia and Pearl were clearly the focus characters for much of the book.
- This first half of this book was an orgy of evidence that it took place in Cleveland in the 1990s. To the point where it was actively distracting.
That out of the way — I’ve never read a book that shifts between perspectives as fluidly and beautifully at this one does. Little Fires Everywhere does a great job of telling little stories everywhere — blending these asides and peripheral tales into the larger narrative of the book. The book did a great job of creating believable teenage characters without making them cringey. Even the adult characters where well-written, despite being less focused on (aside from Mia and Mrs. Richardson). The story very much downplays the theme of child abduction — which I hit on hating in one of the other reviews in this list — but manages to do so in a way that makes sense. That said, Little Fires Everywhere did frustrate me as the book was wrapping up, but only because I wanted to know what happened with the story faster than the book was telling it. I’ve only felt that way with two other books since becoming an adult. One was the book that topped last year’s list, An Absolutely Remarkable Thing. The other was The Shadows. This book makes three books on that list. It’s the highest compliment I can give to a book that really did tell an entrancing story.