2019 Reading Favourites: Fiction, Nonfiction, Poetry, Comics and more

Hi there! I’m Jen. This is Gunther dog, and
this is my local library. And this is going to be a 20-19 favourites and
surprises video. Alright, filming outside was getting me slightly too much
unwanted attention, so I decided I’m gonna film the rest of this indoors. This
year was kind of an interesting reading year for me in that I think I rated more
things 5 stars on Goodreads this year that I have in any of the years that
I’ve been on Goodreads – and I’ve been on Goodreads since 2007. So that would
suggest that it was a really good reading year, but I think that actually I
read a lot of things that I thought were very good but that they weren’t
necessarily outstanding or going to be on a favourites of all time kind of list.
So usually when I do a favourites list I’d break it down by genre, but I’m going
to but I’m going to break them down into slightly different categories this time.
I’m gonna start with books that I thought were absolutely fascinating but
that I would really only recommend to people who are interested in the subject
matter. So the first of the three books that I’m going to mention in that
category is Jean Moorcroft Wilson’s new biography of Robert Graves “from the
Great War poet to goodbye to all that 1895 to 1929.” This is the first volume
and what will be a multi-volume biography. If you’ve been watching my
videos for a while you’ll know I’m a huge First World War buff and Jean
Moorcroft Wilson’s biographies of Siegfried Sassoon are just some of my
absolute favourites when it comes to just biographies in general but especially
specifically First World War biographies. So I was very much looking forward to
this and I did thoroughly enjoy it I think it’s actually slightly more dry in
parts than the Sassoon biography, so in this case I wouldn’t necessarily
recommend this just to anyone who doesn’t have an interest in the First
World War writers. But if you do, I absolutely think this should be on your
list of things to pick up because it was wonderful it did have so much extra
information about Robert Graves in that specific period. Because I think a lot of
biographies of him will push into some of his later work and he doesn’t he
isn’t framed as exclusively a First World War writer as some of his
contemporaries were. And I think by breaking this biography up into pieces
similarly to her Sassoon ah graffiti I think this gives some
extra depth so I thoroughly enjoyed this. One another book that I thought was
absolutely fascinating because I didn’t know anything about the topic to begin
with was the Trial of Hissene Habre by Celeste Hicks. The subtitle of that
one is “how the people of Chad brought a tyrant to justice.” And it is about human
rights violations that happened in Chad and the leader who was brought to an
international level trial and the whole situation around that. I knew
virtually nothing about Chad’s history going into this so I thought this was
absolutely fascinating. It is extremely dry it’s not written in a compelling way
it is not narrative nonfiction it’s not and I don’t think you would read this if
you were not particularly interested in that aspect of either international law
or that post-colonial history in Chad. But if you are interested in either of
those things I think this is well worth picking up. And finally something that is
somewhat more of popular interest I think is Michael W Twitty’s The Cooking
Gene: a journey through African American culinary history in the Old South. This
is in part a family memoir which i think is why I would call this more aimed at a
popular audience than the other two books that I mentioned in this category.
This is the author, who is a chef, going through the history of both his own
genealogy and the general history of what’s thought of as American southern
cooking. Which was created out of the slave chefs in the pre Civil War South
and the merging of West European, West African, and indigenous American cooking
styles. It includes bits of recipes. It includes bits of the cultural history, a
kind of ethnography of the South. And it includes the author’s specific genealogy
where he looks into his ancestors both his West African and European background
and digs into all of that. It is a very entertaining book – as I said I think this
one definitely could appeal to more of a popular audience the other two books
that I mentioned – but if you don’t particularly care about food I don’t
know that it have as much of an appeal. But I definitely think if you’re a fan
of either cooking or genealogy this is absolutely worth
picking up. So the next category is going to be what I would call “excellent and
important” – And the first of the three books in that category that I’m going to
mention is Behrouz Boochani’s No friend but the Mountains. This was translated by
Omid Tarfghian, who also wrote a really extensive contextual translator’s note at
the end – to a point that I would almost say that this book was co-written by the
two of them. It is a look into the refugee prison camps that Australia
built in Papua New Guinea and is a combination of almost journalism, memoir,
and poetry. And it is a really interesting look at the way the human
face of political actions. I know a lot of Australian booktubers have talked
about this, but I think it deserves a lot more attention from non-Australians as
well. Because I think there is a tendency to talk about refugee situations and
refugees en masse and not thinking about them as individuals. And I think
this puts in individual’s face on that really well. This is a book that was
written in text messages and then pieced together and translated by the
translator. It is a really interesting work in the context of that in addition
to being important for the subject matter. So I think it’s well worth
reading. And thinking about a more straightforward memoir that I would also
heartily recommend – in terms of being both quality writing and important –
Scholastique Mukasonga’s Cockroaches. This was translated by Jordan Stump who
has also translated a lot of Mukasonga’s other work. This is a memoir of
her family’s life in Rwanda primarily in the 60s and 70s.
I think when we talk about post-colonial Rwanda, history there tends to be
such an intense focus on the 1990s that it’s easy to forget the history that
happened in between that there was something in between the colonial period
and the genocide of the 1990s. And this puts again a very human face on that as
well as being a very compelling read. Mukasonga was someone who did lose 27
members of her immediate family in the 90s genocide, so it isn’t to brush over the importance of that – because she does talk
about that in the final chapters. But this really is about the communities and
what was happening with them prior to that and what the history is and avoids
making that jump that I thank so many histories of Rwanda do and the third
book in this category is Valeria Luiselli’s Tell Me How it Ends: an essay and
40 questions. This is basically an account of how Luiselli became a volunteer translator dealing with the processing of refugee children in the
United States, which again is a refugee situation in which people talk about the
group en masse and she comes in here and puts human faces on
these people. She also talks about the activism that her students at university
have done as they found out more about this. And I think that puts a more human
face on the idea of on a kind of resistance movement to some of these
things it’s easy to look at things that are happening in the United States and
kind of wonder why people aren’t doing things. And she draws attention to the
fact that some people are doing things. More people could be doing things. As
well as giving humanity to this group of asylum seekers who you see regularly in
the news but as a group and not necessarily as individuals. And this book
in particular is exceptionally short so it’s a very quick read. All right some on
the topic of less heavy pieces, I’m going to talk about a couple of things that I
thought were just delightful. That weren’t necessarily perfect in every way
but that had bits that were just wonderful. And that includes my favorite
mystery of the year which was Sujata Massey’s The Satapur Moonstone. This is
the sequel to a book that depending on which market you’re in was either called
the Widows of Malabar Hill or a Murder on Malabar Hill. And that introduction
was – by mystery standards – actually quite heavy. This does have serious social
topics this is set in India in the 1920s and the sleuth is a female solicitor who
is separated from her husband and in situation where it’s basically
impossible for her to get divorced, and you
faces a lot of sexism for being one of the only female solicitor. And it deals
with a lot of the class, and colonial, and social, and religious, and all of these
issues in the background – while being a really entertaining and well paced
mystery. I think there are a lot of mysteries that because they’re sitting
on this comfortable framework just add a few bits and pieces for flavour. But I
think this book really took the promise of the first one and is paying it off
and I really look forward to seeing the rest of the series. Because I think this
is done really well and balanced really well. Because I think there are some bits
of genre historical fiction in which you read it and wish that it were
straightforward historical fiction, and with this I don’t feel that. I feel like
there’s a perfection to the mystery bits. Which is not necessarily to insult genre
fiction in which I wish it was straightforward historical fiction. There
were two romances that I read this year that I kind of felt that way about, but I
actually thought they were quite good even though I wish they were a slightly
different genre those were Beverly Jenkins Forbidden, which is set in the
post-civil war United States. And the issue behind the romance in the story is
that it’s between a black woman and a mixed-race man whose passing for white
and he has to decide love or political career. However what I loved about the
setting was that it talks about that of basically this woman is building her
business, this man is trying to do political and economic reforms, and all
of that was fascinating. So I kind of wished that it wasn’t a romance just
because I love those separate elements so much. But I think there’s some power to
loving individual elements. Another book where I loved a lot of the individual
elements was Guillaume Long’s To eat and to Drink. This is a comic series in which he
both recounts his adventures as a food critic also involves food bits the parts
where he’s talking about travelling to do food criticism and restaurant reviews
is fun but a little obnoxious in the way that I think one expects a restaurant
review to be. However the moments where he talks
about food he has for example a one-page panel where he talks about how to make
the perfect cup of coffee with an Italian coffee maker.
He has another panel about when you first move out of your parents house or
if you’ve just divorced and your ex-partner has taken all your kitchen
stuff here’s what you need to buy, that is wonderful. And those bits are just
fantastic. So even though I didn’t love the critique bits, the parts in this work
that were wonderful were just wonderful. And then finally I read a poetry
collection this year called New Index for Predicting Catastrophes by Madhur
Anand. Which is nature poetry but written not with an artist’s eye but with a
botanists eye and it actually includes footnotes under every poem to journals
of ecology and botany and things like that. I think I often talk about poetry
in terms of who knows it’s really fiction or nonfiction but this was a
spectacular example of nonfiction poetry with references.
I just loved what this was doing. I don’t think the poetry was always a hundred
percent successful but I just adored the whole idea behind it. Maybe
not the best poetry I read that this year but definitely the most creative
and unique poetry that I read this year. My next category is going to be
compelling novels there were a few novels that I read this year that I just
absolutely adored to a point that I cancelled everything else I was doing
because I just wanted to finish them. And I don’t know if they were are going to
hold up as absolute favourites – they may not – but as I was reading them I just
thought they were incredibly successful. The first book in that category was
Colson Whitehead’s the Nickel Boys. This got a lot of attention this year and I’m
surprised it didn’t end up winning any big awards because I thought it was a
really masterful piece of writing as well as being stylistically interesting.
It jumps back and forth in time, it primarily follows a teenager who’s been
sent to a reform school. And this is the American South during segregation, and
there are horrible abuses happening there. And then in addition to that we
get portraits of working-class New York city
life and decades later. The book did have a twist that I thought was predictable
but despite that I was incredibly compelling. This was a book where I planned
to read about 20 minutes over my lunch hour. And a couple of hours later I was
still sitting there reading this book because I just wanted to get through it. I
can’t say it was delightful because it is such a serious and dark subject
matter but it was a wonderful read and it was really compelling. With that one I
wasn’t particularly surprised that I found it that compelling, I do quite like
Colson Whitehead’s writing. Zone One I think was just a masterpiece of literary
zombie fiction. I don’t think that’s a sub-genre but if it were that would be
the best of them. So I wasn’t surprised that I loved that. But one that I was
surprised to have enjoy it as much as I did was Meg Medina’s Burn Baby Burn. This
is a young adult novel which normally is the kind of thing that I approach is
kind of a palate cleanser between the depressing nonfiction that I read but
this I enjoyed so thoroughly that I stayed up until 2 a.m. reading this. And
I’m generally a morning person. I do not stay up late at night. But I
just want it to finish this! It is set in New York City during the ’70s, during
the summer where the Son of Sam killer was active, where there were riots and
power outages. And so it reminded me in a lot of parts of the Spike Lee movie the
Summer of Sam except with teenage girls instead of 20-something men. For me the
final couple of chapters of this book didn’t really satisfy me but I think
that is purely because it is written for a teenage audience and it does try to
have a moral lesson in the end. Which I didn’t love, but I still think it was
successful for the intended audience. And I did still find this way more
compelling than I ever expected and I thought it gives the reader more credit
than a lot of books for a teenage audience would. So I respect that about
this. It was highly entertaining. And finally I think the most compelling book
that I read this year was Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous. This has
gotten really mixed reviews. I have seen people who were ok with it, who also
loved it, and who hated it. For me it was just incredibly compelling. The writing
style is very poetic, and very fractured, and bits and often
the writing talks around things. This is one where, when I first talked about it, I
said I can’t really describe what it’s about because it’s not really about
anything. We’re following this main character – who is clearly a
semi-autobiographical type character – through his mostly teenage life,
interacting with primarily his mother, his grandmother, and his first boyfriend.
Terrible things happen. This is not a happy or uplifting story. But it’s just
the moments worked for me. I have seen people who thought the writing in this
was ridiculous and that the lack of plot was the opposite of compelling but for
me it just worked a hundred percent and I felt very absorbed in the thought
processes of this character.Which is kind of what you’re being given. It’s
structured as a letter that’s being written to the main character’s
illiterate mother. So the idea is she will never read this letter. But it
really just feels like following this guy at random moments in his life. And I
just loved it. I thought it was incredibly compelling. And it’s another
one where I started reading it over my lunch hour I went to a coffee shop and
meant to read it for about 20 minutes and and then I realized a couple hours
later that I was still there because I just couldn’t put this one down. I also
wanted to mention for serial pieces that I really loved this year. Two of which I
read the final volume of but one of which I’m still continuing with.The
first of which was Gengorah Tagame’s My Brother’s Husband. This a lot of people
on booktube have talked about. It is a manga series. It is two volumes in the English translation, it’s four volumes in the French translation,
in which there’s a single father living in Japan and one day his dead brother’s
widower shows up. And he has to kind of figure out what his own feelings are
about family. His daughter immediately accepts his brother’s husband as uncle
and he has to work out why he has issues with this. Because he doesn’t see himself
as being some homophobic person but he’s kind of working out the social picture
and what else is happening. And they go buy doughnuts. So anything where people
go buy doughnuts gets extra points. And the art style is lovely
although there are a few points where you go” yeah I know this author
usually draws porn.” Which he does his work you’ll find some interesting stuff.
Anyway it is wonderful. Another series that I finished reading this year was
The Wild Storm which is written by Warren Ellis and drawn by Jon Davis
Hunt. This is of course the reinvention of the wild storm universe which I was a
huge fan of in the 90s. And I love that they brought it back and reinvented it
and really modernized it in ways that I think really worked. I think a lot of
authors will do this kind of reboot and it’s just sad and it’s a sales pitch. And
this felt like it was a genuine attempt to create a new story and new characters
with these old characters. And I just loved every bit of it. I think it’s a
little slow going if you were reading it in the floppies but now that they’ve all
been collected I think it is well worth picking up even if you were someone who
thought it was too slow at the beginning. It’s a wonderful series and I definitely
think it’s the best superhero series I’ve read in 15 years easily. And then in
terms of nonfiction Comics Riad Sattouf’s ongoing series of graphic memoirs the
Arab of the Future are also wonderful. I am currently in the middle of volume 4.
This is a series that details his life growing up in France, Syria, and Libya and
eventually his father moves to Saudi Arabia and his parents divorce. And it’s
a great look at both a particular family a particular series of places and kind
of the cultural attitudes that create the situations and the relationships
that people have. It’s it’s a wonderful portrait of the years
in which he is growing up. And then finally I’m going to talk about my
actual favourites. Number four is Adam Pottle’s The Bus. This
is a very short novel that’s written in eleven voices, primarily of the inmates
of a mental asylum who are being sent to a gas chamber in nazi-era Germany. It is
horrifically depressing but it is written from an angle that I think you very
rarely see in Holocaust fiction, and I think it’s really well done. It is the
kind of book where someone could easily write about that
topic and because it’s so rarely written about, it would be impressive just by
virtue of what it is. But it is really compelling. The voices are differentiated
and I think are fair to the mental abilities or mental states of the
characters without being patronizing which i think is really well done. Adam
Pottle was also sort of my author discovery of the year.
I ended up reading his poetry collection Beautiful Mutants, his memoir Voice and
then I saw the play that he wrote the Black Drum. It’s a musical that was written
in ASL. So it’s not – there are a lot of plays that are translated from a spoken
language into a sign language, but this was conceived as a sign language musical.
So all of the music is bass-based. It was really impressive stuff. But anyway,
that particular book was one of my favourites. But I think he’s also my
favourite author that I hadn’t read before, that now I have consumed a lot of
material from. My number two favourite was Haruki Murakami’s memoir What I Talk
About When I Talk About Running. This is a memoir of his training for the New
York City Marathon. It also discusses his writing process and compares that to
triathlon training. But it’s primarily about the New York City Marathon. I
thought it was just a charming an accurate portrait of the attitudes that
a lot of endurance athletes have. So even if you’re not a marathoner, if you are
someone who does other endurance sports you will look at this and recognize
either yourself or people that you know. This was a book that just had me
grinning with recognition constantly. And I’m not even a fan of Murakami’s novels!
But I just loved this. It was wonderful. Favourite number three is another piece
of depressing nonfiction because we have to get back to that eventually
and that was Ece Temelkuran’s How to Lose a Country: the seven steps from
democracy to dictatorship. This is about the rise of populism – primarily in Turkey
but also in the US and the UK. And it looks at in part the way that people of
a certain educational background tend to laugh at
ulis politicians at a certain stage in their increasing popularity, and just
don’t take it seriously enough. Because it seems like such a joke to begin with.
and how that happens in country after country and no one learns that you need
to take it seriously earlier. And she does remind people who are not from
countries with populist governments in power that there are still these people
in our countries, and that we shouldn’t be complacent and just point in other
countries and laugh. Because pointing at at the populist parties in their own
countries is where countries with current populist governments have
perhaps gone wrong. In any case, I thought this was really compelling stuff and
well worth reading if you were interested in that kind of political
material. And finally my favourite book of the year was Tommy Pico’s Feed which is a
poetry collection. It is 78 pages and does almost exactly what Ducks, Newburyport
did in its 1020 pages. It’s kind of a stream of consciousness account of the
main character’s – or the author’s – life. Connecting one thing to another and just
going on. It was incredibly compelling. It was structured really nicely. I loved the
way the language worked and I felt drawn into it at the same time. I think it
worked on multiple levels and this was so successful in its 78 pages that it
really really lowered my opinion of Ducks, Newburyport, t that it could do the
same thing in 78 pages that that book took a thousand pages to do. I thought
this was just brilliant. I will link below to the wrap-up in which I talked
about that because I read about a page and a half of it so that you can get a
sense of the language. But I just adored that it was wonderful. So that is my list
of favourites. If you’ve read some of these I’d love to hear what you thought
of them. I know some people hate the same kind of things that I love and I think
that’s brilliant. I hope you had as good a 2019 reading year as I did. And yeah,
that’s it for now. Ciao!

Comments 17

  • I really liked Tell Me How It Ends .
    I agree with everything you said about The Nickel Boys .

  • I love your categorization! So smart.

    I have only read The Satapur Moonstone and My Brother’s Husband series and agreed completely with your thoughts on them. I am one who the Ocean Vuong didn’t work for as a holistic book, but I am still thinking of many vignettes and scenes. And I was sad about that because I really like him and went to an event where he was with Rebecca Solnit whom I revere and it was simply delightful.

    I applaud your boldness in your reading. I’m having a hard time with the political and ecological events that are taking place and so reading is quite literally what I do to release stress. I have heard remarkable things about the book about the Australian refugee camp. So thank you for taking that material on and letting us know what is exceptional in that list.

  • What a fantastic selection you have here! Love how you talked about all of them!

  • LoL loved the special intro.

  • I have The Cooking Gene on my TBR. But, No Friend but the Mountain sounds amazing too.
    I am going to pick up Sujata Masseys series and My Brothers Husband 🙂 Happy you had a great year of 5* reads 🙂

  • Whenever I click on your channel i know I will come across a bunch of books I never seen before . So many great books, I am psyching myself up for No Friend, you are so right that we see refugees as a mass and not individuals.

  • It sounds like you had a great reading year, Jen! I love how varied your reading always is. I wouldn’t mind reading My Brother’s Husband and the Murakami book.

  • Jen, I was watching this video on my television as I enjoyed my cherished "morning cup of coffee". My husband strolled in and sat down to watch it with me. (He is not a huge reader, and he really doesn't understand BookTube.) At the end of the video, he turned to me and asked, " Are all BookTubers that brilliant and widely read?". I just said yes. Fun start to the day!

  • Fascinating collection of titles. Really intrigued by that botany poetry book.

  • I know of so few Australian booktubers (ones who don't read primarily YA). Can you recommend a few?

  • Your videos are never dull. I'm glad you had such a successful reading year.

  • IRL by Tommy Pico is chillin on my nightstand! (idk why but I wanted to go in publication order 💁) and that nature poetry sounds really interesting… might give it a try ☺

  • Your “compelling novels” is making me think of what to vote for regarding the booktube prize long list!

  • I loved your category approach to your best reads of the year! Very fun. I want to read No Friend But the Mountains sooner rather than later.

  • I really appreciate the thoughtfulness of your reviews. You helped me get a deep appreciation for each book. Thank you!

  • I found your categories very refreshing and on point based on the synopses of the books. I did not read the book about Turkey because I try to stay away from depressing politics right now but I might read it in the very near future.

  • This is such an interesting collection of books. I discovered Beverly Jenkins this year and I love the history and politics that she weaves into her books.

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