Top 25 Books of 2019

I read nearly 200 books this past year and to celebrate, I’d like to highlight 25 of my favorite reads (in no particular order)! From fantasy to historical to literary, these books carry a diversity of engaging plots and complex characters. I chose each piece based not only on their execution, but also their personal effect on me, so this entirely my own opinion as well!

All photos and title links go to Goodreads.

Notable Mentions: Patsy by Nicole Y. Dennis-Benn, Genderqueer by Maia Kobabe, The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa, Dominicana by Angie Cruz, The Night Tiger by Yangsze Choo, Dawn by Octavia Butler, The Birth of Chinese Feminism by Lydia H. Liu, Body Full of Stars by Molly Caro May, Chemistry by Weike Wang, Things We Lost in the Fire by Mariana Enriquez, In My Own Moccasins by Helen Knott, and Sultana’s Dream by Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain

Miracle Creek by Angie Kim

We all have thoughts that shame us.

Short Description: After a terrible accident occurs, killing multiple innocent children, a Korean immigrant family is put on trial, revealing a twisting mystery full of secrets and pain.

Critic Quote: “The plotting is deliberate and detailed and marvelously done. Its intricacy only amplifies the tragedy, showing the many ways death and misery might have been avoided, when other futures were still possible” – Steph, Cha, The LA Times

Why You Should read this: One of the best mysteries I’ve ever read, this story not only provides a riveting court case, but also a stunning examination of race, motherhood, disability, and immigration in the U.S..

The Tenth Muse by Catherine Chung

All my life I’ve been told to let go as gracefully as possible. What’s worse, after all, than a hungry woman, greedy for all that isn’t meant to be hers? Still, I resist. In the end we relinquish everything: I think I’ll hold on, while I can.

Short Description: The story of a brilliant mathematician working to solve the impossible Reimann Hypothesis while confronting racial and gendered barriers and the painful reverberations of her past.

Critic Quote: “Chung persuasively interweaves myths and legends with the real-world stories of lesser-known women mathematicians and of WWII on both the European and Asian fronts. The legacy that Katherine inherits may defy the kinds of elegant proofs to which mathematicians aspire, but Chung’s novel boldly illustrates that truth and beauty can reside even amid the messiest solutions.”

Publisher’s Weekly

Why You Should read this: I’ve never read a book that described math in such a beautiful way. Electrifying characters with bold voices.

Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez

Invisible Women is the story of what happens when we forget to account for half of humanity. It is an exposé of how the gender data gap harms women when life proceeds, more or less as normal. In urban planning, politics, the workplace. It is also about what happens to women living in a world built on male data when things go wrong. When they get sick. When they lose their home in a flood. When they have to flee that home because of war.

Short Description: Perez’s deeply analytical book inspects data gaps in various economic, political, technological, and domestic spheres which persist when men are seen as the norm, and the existence of women is ignored.

Critic Quote: “The neat thing about data is that it avoids thorny questions of intention. Criado Perez doesn’t set out to prove a vast conspiracy; she simply wields data like a laser, slicing cleanly through the fog of unconscious and unthinking preferences.” – Elaine Glaser, The Guardian

Why You Should read this: One of the most direct factual analyses of global sexism: groundbreaking and infuriating in all the best ways.

How We Fight for Our Lives by Saeed Jones

Who are you the morning after the most beautiful man you have ever kissed tries to kill you? And the morning after that? How about the following week?

Short Description: A memoir of Poet Saeed Jones’ life, growing up as a gay black man in the south.

Critic Quote: “Extremely personal, emotionally gritty, and unabashedly honest, How We Fight for Our Lives is an outstanding memoir that somehow manages a perfect balance between love and violence, hope and hostility, transformation and resentment.” – Gabino Iglesias, NPR

Why You Should read this: Saeed Jones’ beautiful control of language, introspection, and emotion is breathtaking.

From Victims to Suspects by Shakira Hussein

Alongside the fear of Islamic terrorism is a growing fear of Islam as a cultural hazard that is gradually undermining Western societies from within – and Muslim women, the transmitters of Muslim practices, are held to play a key role in this infiltration.

Short Description: An analysis of how muslim women have been perceived and discriminated against in light of 9/11, political turmoil, and western imperialism.

Critic Quote: “Whether or not Muslim women wish to be ‘saved’, there is no doubt they could be better understood by the West. Shakira Hussein’s book is a useful and eloquent contribution to that understanding.” – The Newtown Review

Why You Should read this: Artfully and concisely written, if you want to learn more about this subject, this is most comprehensive overview I’ve found.

Miles from Nowhere by Nami Mun

Hope was based on the unknown, and I liked knowing things. Like that I was going to fail. Failure had better odds.  

Short Description: A gritty novel about a teenage Korean immigrant girl living on the streets of New York.

Critic Quote: “This is a powerful book, not for the faint of heart. It is also a rewarding book, one that allows the reader to companion Joon in her life. It keeps our eyes open to another world, one that we may not have lived ourselves but one that is lived every day by so many of the children in the world. By the time I had finished this book, Joon had grabbed my heart and taken a piece of it with her.” – Mostly Fiction Book Reviews

Why You Should read this: Expertly written, this slim novel delivers a hard-hitting story full of emotion without any lingering sentimentality.

What it Means When a Man Falls From the Sky by Lesley Nneka Arimah

When Enebeli Okwara sent his girl out in the world, he did not know what the world did to daughters. He did not know how quickly it would wick the dew off her, how she would be returned to him hollowed out, relieved of her better parts.

Short Description: A collection of short stories dives deep into various family ties within the African Diaspora.

Critic Quote: “Here is a debut writer showing serious range – drawing on realism, magical realism, the fantastic and speculative, myth and fable.” – KJ Orr, The Guardian

Why You Should read this: A sharp and beautiful collection where each story is written with impact and eloquence.

The Bird King by G. Willow Wilson

Some ideas are so beautiful that even evil people believe in them. 

Short Description: When the last sultanate is threatened by the oncoming crusade in 1491, fierce concubine Fatima and her best friend, the magic mapmaker Hassan, flee for refuge — to the Bird King.

Critic Quote:The Bird King is ostensibly the story of a journey, of the limits to escape — but it is also a journey into story, and faith, and refuge, the family we choose and the friends we find. It’s deeply beautiful and wondrously sad, and I can’t tell if it ended too quickly or if I just needed it not to — if I just wanted to dwell in a home built out of story for a little longer yet.” – Amal El-Mohtar, NPR

Why You Should read this: Exquisitely written, this is a unique and magical novel which illuminates the damages of bigotry and the power of those who survive it.

Sabrina & Corina by Kali Fajardo-Anstine

She said people will find the loveliest part of you and try to make it ugly. “And they will do anything,” she always said, “to own that piece of you.”

Short Description: A collection of short stories about indigenous Latinas in Colorado.

Critic Quote: “In this perfectly-wrought debut collection by Kali Fajardo-Anstine, the center of the world is brown and it is female. Set within the contemporary Southwestern landscape, Sabrina & Corina insists from page one on radical complexity, showing us the girls who survive and those who don’t—all of them struggling to feel free and to be seen. Elegant, restrained, and insightful, this book heralds the emergence of a commanding new voice in American letters.” – National Book Foundation

Why You Should read this: Each story is vivid with emotion and the lyrical writing augments the incredible characterization and relationships therein.

A Place for Us by Fatima Farheen Mirza

Amar, I know this will mean nothing to you now. But I do believe that even your father’s God, even He, would forgive you. To know you is to want to let you in.

Short Description: When an Indian-American Muslim family regroups for a daughters wedding, pains from past resurface as they try to reconnect.

Critic Quote: “Mirza’s strongest point as an author is her ability to reveal the heart, the pain, and the suffering in the simple day-to-day experiences of family life.” – Parnaz Foroutan, LA Review of Books

Why You Should read this: A deeply emotionally intelligent observation of strained family dynamics, full of desperation, frustration, and hope.

If You Leave Me by Crystal Hana Kim

I realized we were lurching toward a new world—one where women would disappear with foreigners, where Americans would never leave us alone, where they didn’t simply provide us with money but with their ways of living as well.

Short Description: An impossible love during a time of war and corruption, If You Leave Me follows three characters as they try to survive, and the woman at the center who seeks her own freedom.

Critic Quote: “As it travels between the decades during and after the Korean War to reveal the traumatic decisions that war forces each person to make, the riches of If You Leave Me will leave you contemplating the passage of time and its impact on the ties that we keep.” – Gabriella Clifford, ELLE

Why You Should read this: Incredible prose, engaging characters, and a heartbreaking story that also expertly displays people’s lives throughout this tumultuous time in South Korea.

American Spy by Lauren Wilkinson

While her gift for secret put distance between us, it also taught me the value of intelligence: I learned that a secret is power, that power in application is force, that force is strength, and strength advantage.

Short Description: The year is 1986, and Marie, a young black woman in the FBI, is assigned to undermine Burkina Faso leader Thomas Sankara. However, as she learns more about him, the FBI, and her own sister, her loyalties are put at risk.

Critic Quote: “For the novel’s engaging intelligence and serious reckoning with the world’s postwar order, Wilkinson deserves the comparisons to John le Carré she’s already receiving. But in bringing a virtually unheard-from fictional viewpoint to espionage literature, she has reinvigorated the genre.” – Nicholas Mancusi, TIME

Why You Should read this: Various intricate ideas well-developed and executed. Additionally, a complex and admirable lead and an exciting plot!

The Carrying by Ada Limon

What if, instead of carrying a child, I am supposed to carry grief?

Short Description: In Limon’s newest collection, she presents pain and love in its rawest, strongest manifestations.

Critic Quote: “I was ambushed by her power to move – several poems brought a lump to my throat. Yet her popularity is about more than accessibility. She never hides behind words but reveals herself through them – even when the risk is overexposure.” – Kate Kellaway, The Guardian

Why You Should read this: One of Limon’s best collections of poetry, The Carrying is full of emotionally powerful pieces.

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

It would disappear forever from her memory of Lydia, the way memories of a lost loved one always smooth and simplify themselves, shedding complexities like scales.

Short Description: A slow unravelling of the suicide of a young girl, and various threads within her family that have culminated into her final moments.

Critic Quote: “What emerges is a deep, heartfelt portrait of a family struggling with its place in history, and a young woman hoping to be the fulfillment of that struggle. This is, in the end, a novel about the burden of being the first of your kind — a burden you do not always survive.” – Alexandra Chee, The New York Times

Why You Should read this: It’s a brilliantly woven novel that ties multiple diverse perspectives together to tell a complex American story.

Severance by Ling Ma

What I didn’t say was: I know you too well. You live your life idealistically. You think it’s possible to opt out of the system. You think this is freedom but I still see the bare, painstakingly cheap way you live, the scrimping and saving, and that is not freedom either . . . I used to admire this about you, how fervently you clung to your beliefs—I called it integrity—but five years of watching you live this way has changed me. In this world, money is freedom. Opting out is not a real choice.

Short Description: A satire set in post-apocalyptic New York, officer worker Candance Chen witnesses the spread of Shen Fever, which turns its victims into zombies of their own habits.

Critic Quote:Severance does not suggest a way out of this fate; for Ling Ma, the zombie narrative is not the scaffolding for allegory, about the hive mind or anything else, but the means for setting a pervasive mood—anxious and bleak.” – Jiayang Fan, The NewYorker

Why You Should read this: Sharp, revealing, and tense, Severance succeeds in delivering a nuanced story on what survival means when juxtaposed against a monotonous life.

Thick: And Other Essays by Tressie McMillan Cottom

They say that beauty is in the eye of the beholder and that ugly is as ugly does. Both are lies. Ugly is everything done to you in the name of beauty. Knowing the difference is part of getting free.

Short Description: Cottom discusses beauty, African Diasporic identities, capitalism, and more in this collection of essays.

Critic Quote: “A finalist for the 2019 National Book Award for Nonfiction, Thick confirms McMillan Cottom as one of our most fearless public intellectuals and one of the most vital.” – Emily Firetog, LitHub

Why You Should read this: Cottom is a supremely talented thinker and writer, and her essays are exciting, well-researched, and deeply educational.

The Veins of the Ocean by Patricia Engel

Only this body and that darkness, the whispers of the never-ending noche: You belong to no one. No one belongs to you.

Short Description: Reina Castillo attempts to gain control of her identity, purpose, and desire, after her family falls apart following the death of her imprisoned brother.

Critic Quote: “Reina’s voice is wrapped in cynicism yet threaded through with hope. Listening to her is a lot like listening to a dear friend pour out her heart.”

– Shalene Gupta, The National Book Review

Why You Should read this: Lyrical and profound, magical yet grounded, the characters in Engel’s book carry the story to memorable heights.

I’m Afraid of Men by Vivek Shraya

I’M AFRAID OF MEN not because of any singular encounter with a man. I’m afraid of men because of the cumulative damage caused by the everyday experiences I’ve recounted here, and by those untold, and by those I continue to face. 

Short Description: In this brief memoir, Shraya inspects how American masculinity grows, contorts, and threatens those it interacts with.

Critic Quote: “Shraya crafts each of her memories in prose made poetic with touches of metaphor. She writes with honesty and vulnerability, all the while asking challenging and personal questions that inspire deeper reflection. This crucial addition to shelves offers the vital and often ignored perspective of a trans woman of color.” – Kirkus Reviews

Why You Should read this: Shraya’s writing is deeply introspective, illuminative, and memorable; a feat for such a short book.

Invisible: How Young Women with Serious Health Issues Navigate Work, Relationships, and the Pressure to Seem Just Fine by Michele Lent Hirsch

Research shows that the way other people view and respond to women with chronic illness has an important effect on their construction of self-identity.

Short Description: Hirsch takes an intersectional lens to how women cope with chronic illnesses, a hidden disability that conflicts with patriarchal demands of femininity.

Critic Quote: “Lent Hirsch weaves her own harrowing experiences together with stories from other women, perspectives from sociologists on structural inequality, and insights from neuroscientists on misogyny in health research. She shows how health issues and disabilities amplify what women in general already confront: warped beauty standards, workplace sexism, worries about romantic partners, and mistrust of their own bodies. By shining a light on this hidden demographic, Lent Hirsch explores the challenges that all women face.” – Beacon Press

Why You Should read this: A rare text that is as accessible as it is educational. A wonderful blend of personal stories and facts on women’s disability and healthcare treatment in the U.S..

Hunger by Roxane Gay

I buried the girl I had been because she ran into all kinds of trouble. I tried to erase every memory of her, but she is still there, somewhere. She is still small and scared and ashamed, and perhaps I am writing my way back to her, trying to tell her everything she needs to hear.

Short Description: Esteemed writer Roxane Gay explores her relationship with food, weight, and the trauma belying them both, in this moving memoir.

Critic Quote: “Gay wrestles her story from the world’s judgment and misrecognition and sets off on a recursive, spiraling journey to rewrite herself.” – Carina Chocano, The New York Times

Why You Should read this: This book destroyed me in its emotional rawness, its deft control over each chapter, and how it navigates trauma in the personal and political lens.

The Good Women of China by Xinran

Everybody says women are like water. I think it’s because water is the source of life, and it adapts itself to its environment. Like women, water also gives of itself wherever it goes to nurture life…

Short Description: Radio Host Xinran recounts the various women she’s interviewed while running her advice show in China.

Critic Quote: “This intimate record reads like an act of defiance, and the unvarnished prose allows each story to stand as testimony.” – The NewYorker

Why You Should read this: Heartbreaking, devastating, but sharply written, Xinran gives voice to a diversity of women, shedding light on stories otherwise untold.

Beyond Respectability by Brittney Cooper

Many Black women thinkers labor under the exigencies of historical triage. Their names exist almost like family photos relegated to a wall we rarely touch.

Short Description: Cooper lays out the research and history of various black women theorists, activists, and scholars.

Critic Quote: “It takes its material seriously and expects you will, too, and though you don’t have to be particularly well-read on this history going in, expect to be rereading certain sentences, flipping to the end notes for further reading, and double-checking the definition of terms like cathect.” – Genevieve Valentine, NPR

Why You Should read this: Full of rich information on the critical work of black women throughout American history, teachings that are often overlooked.

Yona of the Dawn Series by Mizuho Kusanagi

Once the rain stops, I’m taking up a sword again.

Short Description: When Princess Yona’s father is killed by the man she loves, she must escape with her trusted bodyguard and reforge herself into the leader her country needs.

Critic Quote: “This is an adventure with purpose.” – WayTooFantasy

Why You Should read this: A familiar concept executed excellently; read for the character development, world building, and grounded romance.

A Peoples History of Heaven by Mathangi Subramanian

Bravery, she thinks, belongs to girls. But freedom belongs to boys.

Short Description: A collection of connected short stories following five young girls growing up in Heaven, Bangalore.

Critic Quote: “Subramanian’s evocative novel weaves together a diverse, dynamic group of girls to create a vibrant tapestry of a community on the brink.” – Publisher’s Weekly

Why You Should read this: A strong collection of stories starring inspiring, wonderfully characterized girls. Noticeably written with great love.

Leftover Women by Leta Hong Fincher

Feminism allows for more possibilities as a person; it lets women see that we can make a different kind of choice.

Short Description: An analysis of the “Leftover Women” in China, and how the term belies a massive downturn in political, economic, and domestic gender equality.

Critic Quote: “[Fincher] successfully paints a broad and persuasive picture of how women’s rights in post-socialist China are gradually being eroded and how women’s position in society is moving backwards towards vestiges of patriarchy.” – Sadaf Iqbal, Sage Journals

Why You Should read this: Though many know the term “Leftover Women,” this book adds necessary depth to the label and why it’s significant to global feminism.

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