The Bookmistress’s Best of 2019

Another year down, and it was a fantastic year of reading! I met my goal of 50 books, and actually exceeded it by four. Part of this is because I’ve begun listening to books in my car on the way to work. This is now primarily how I read my YA! And thanks to finding the wonder of bookstagram, I have done a much better job of keeping track of my books and reviewing them. I slipped on keeping up this blog, but my instagram page was always kept up. I can’t believe how much I love the community I found there, and the friends I have made, and the amazing books I have found and shared. It’s honestly one of the best things in my life, and I am thankful for it every day.

But, #becauseofbookstagram, I found that this year I read WAY more horror than usual! I kind of went overboard with my favorite niche, and next year I would like to find my way back to a more well-rounded reading list. Oh- don’t worry- it will still be chock-full of horror! Because, like my nightworms friends know: “Horror is my happy place!”

I also found myself reading fewer new releases; this is mostly because I have been reading less on my Kindle & more physical books. So my Top 10 list this year has a bunch of older stuff on it. There are a bunch of books on all the standard “best of the year” lists that I need to get to!

So in no particular order, here they are:

BUNNY– Mona Awad

This is the best book I read this year, maybe even this decade! I can’t even tell you how much I loved it. Its slang has become shorthand with my real life friends. Get out there & read this!

I don’t want to tell you too much about it, because it’s best to go in without knowing too much. 

But here are the basics: Samantha is a scholarship student at a schmancy New England school, in the creative writing department. The other students in her writing group are rich, beautiful girls who call each other Bunny, who smell and look like cupcakes, and who don’t like Samantha’s writing at all. Until one day the Bunnies invite Samantha to one of their Smut Salons, where they make her exotic drinks and recite weirdly erotic poetry. And then they ask her to bring them a bunny. A real one. 

This book is everything- it is a little bit horror and a whole lot weird, it’s about friendship and loneliness, it’s about the pain of creation and the agency of womanhood, it’s about madness, and it is also so very funny. 

Sawkill Girls- Claire LeGrand

This was my first read of the year, and it was a great one! This is a YA murder mystery that is at its core a coming of age story about really powerful girls. The girls of Sawkill are full of fire and electricity and they are using it to fight real monsters. One thing I really loved about this story is how beautifully it treats the girls’ various queernesses- there is no big deal if they sleep together or decide that they don’t want to sleep with anyone. I would just love to see more books about kick-ass ladies like these!

All the Birds In the Sky– Charlie Jane Anders

This one is the most amazing blend of sci-fi and fantasy!  The story opens up on two children, Patricia and Laurence, both outcasts who feel alone in the world. Patricia once speaks to birds, and a tree told her she is a witch. Laurence has built a time machine, but it only goes forward 2 seconds. They find each other and become fast friends, learning the other’s deepest secrets and making promises. 

Then they are separated when they both go off to special schools, the schools of their dreams, and their paths diverge. They are connected, though, and they orbit around each other throughout their lives, sometimes converging, sometimes flying apart, but always tethered. In the meantime, the world is coming down around them.

Will their crazy orbit tear the entire world apart? Anders skillfully warps all the standard concepts of science-fiction by integrating it easily with the world of fantasy and magic. Can magic save the world that technology is tearing apart? Or is it some act of magic that has destroyed the world, and only the brightest scientists can save it?

Are the birds the only ones who know the answer?

Is a tree red?

Hell Hound– Ken Greenhall

I didn’t expect to like this novella- I guess I was expecting some sort of story about a ravenous Cujo-dog. I was not expecting this. This book is so smart and so very disturbing. This book is primarily told from the point of view of the dog, Baxter. Baxter struggles to understand human emotions, and if he were a human he would almost certainly be diagnosed as psychopathic. But he’s a dog, so he works through them himself- when he deems something (or someone) a problem, he just rids himself of it.

The best part of this book is the relationship between Baxter and his owner, who is a Nazi-sympathizer and budding psychopath himself. The two slowly begin to understand each other, and then truly awful things begin to happen

I read this stunning little novella in one sitting, but I thought about it for days afterwards.

Experimental Film- Gemma Files

I have no idea how I missed this one when it came out a few years ago. This absolutely goes on my favorites of all time list.

In this novel, we follow film critic Lois Cairns as she digs into the history of Canada’s first female filmmaker- Iris Dunlopp Whitcomb. The subjects of Mrs. Whitcomb’s very experimental films are always the same: the noon witch of slavic mythology, Lady Midday. She appears at the very moment of noon to tired field workers, asking them questions; if they answer wrong, they lose their head to her scythe! She also causes physical distress- she is the personification of heatstroke.

The Noontime Witch takes over everything in Lois’s life and she becomes obsessed. Her goal is to make a film about it, of course. An old colleague is also following the story, putting obstacles in her way. Lois becomes increasingly physically ill until she reaches a breaking point.

How many people will she drag into the light with her?

Because this book is about film, Files has to make the reader SEE the story. She does a brilliant job of this; I could feel the brightness, my eyes tearing up at the glare off the screen. All the characters are intricately drawn, and the story moves at a quick pace even with all the detail. And most of all, it was scary! Not like gore & killers scary, but real disturbing deep down in your stomach scary. Like the next time I had a migraine, I thought about Lady Midday kind of scary. And that, my friends, is real scary!!!

In the Valley of the Sun- Andy Davidson

It’s been a very long time since I have read a “vampire” book that touched me like this one did. Davidson’s prose is gorgeous and lush, in stark contrast to the arid desert setting of his story. Listen: “His name. Spoken with the same luscious sound as the first bite into a red, raw apple, a delicious wet sound…”

This is a slow story, no rushing, and so at first I put it in my DNF pile. But then, tired of shorts, I picked it up again and just couldn’t put it down. When I finally did put it down, I found tears in my eyes.

This is the story of the slow ending of Travis Stilwell, who was unfortunate enough to encounter a woman-creature named Rue in a Texas honky-tonk. The story is laid out through inter-woven chapters focusing on Travis and a young mother and son he meets, the creature Rue, and the federal agents tasked with finding the serial killer working through Texas. And his story is heart-breaking, from neglectful parents to his time as a rogue soldier in Vietnam. This is one of those stories where you find yourself sympathetic to the monster.

As Travis is changing, he pulls into the Sundowner Inn, where he meets a young mother, Annabelle, and her son Sandy. Travis sets to helping Annabelle with small tasks around the Inn, and begins to find in their small family things that he believed to be lost. But can those things be found by the thing he is becoming?

Saturday Night Ghost Club- Craig Davidson

This was a quiet ghost story that really moved me. It is a coming-of-age about a bullied young boy and his new friends who have the summer of their lives learning about their town’s ghosts from his odd uncle. It is both spooky and sweet. Davidson gives us hints of first love and plumbs the depths of human emotion.

One of my favorite things about this book is how it tells the stories of the town’s ghosts. All the twisted and oft-told legends that schoolchildren hear from their parents and friends over the years.

The things that scared you “as you get older, the texture of your fear changes. You’re no longer afraid of the things you had absolute faith in as a child…the magic gets kicked out of you, churched out, shamed out- or worse, you steal it from yourself… By degrees, you kill your own magic.”

So this book brings all this magic back, if even just for a moment, and it was lovely.

Shadow & Bone Trilogy- Leigh Bardugo

I listened to this whole trilogy this year- I’ve taken to listening to books whenever I’m driving, and I really loved these. They are really everything I love in a YA fantasy series. It’s got intricate world-building, engaging characters, action, and a splash of romance. Bardugo sketches characters that feel real, which is the most important part of making a fantasy work. The story is familiar; a young girl, an orphan, grows up to discover that she is special and that she alone can save the world. But the world building and the fantastic setting- I love that it is Russian & not another British type series- make up for the familiar story.

I can’t wait to read more by Bardugo

The Book of Dust- Phillip Pullman

I can’t say very much about this book without getting spoiler-y. But what I can do is tell you to do yourself a favor and listen to the audio. Michael Sheen’s reading is just amazing, and it made a kind of slow middle part go much better.

If you thought that these were going to continue to be kid’s books, they are not. Pullman makes sure that we know that by using the f-word loud & proud. Lyra is not a child any more. She is a grown woman, and she has changed. Not necessarily for the good.

This book broke my heart, and left me hanging, and I am just hoping that the next one will be there to pick up the pieces.

Once Upon a River- Diane Setterfield

“Along the borders of this world lie others. There are places you can cross. This is one such place.” At its heart, Once Upon a River is a story about stories. How they begin, how they are told, and how they evolve in the telling. This story begins at an ancient inn in France, right along the Thames, in about 1887. The Swan at Radcot has a history of storytelling; it is a place where 

people gather to get drunk and hear and tell stories as they travel along the river. 

On the longest day of the year, the Swan is packed with drinkers and stories, when the door bursts open and a man comes in carrying a young girl who is declared dead by the local nurse/doctor, Rita. But before the night is out, that girl draws breath again, as if by magic. Multiple people come to make a claim on the girl, who does not speak.

This story, like the Thames itself, winds and twists; we meet a large cast of characters all connected by their association with the girl found at the Swan. Setterfield has written a masterful story with elements of both historical fiction and magical realism. This period of time is rife with superstition and fortune-telling as well as great advances in science and medicine. All of these elements are used together to weave a story that dances on the very edge of fantasy.

This story is definitely a “slow-burn,” and it took me quite a while to get through it. I even put it down briefly to read something else and returned to it. However, once I got about halfway through, it really picked up. There was even a really fun play- like in Hamlet- to try and out the kidnapper at one point. And I won’t give any spoilers, but the end had me gasping in surprise! It was really fantastic & twisty. I always love it when I don’t guess the ending. 

Once Upon a River is a beautiful story that flows like the river it is set on; slow at points, madly rushing at others, but steady and constant always.

The Starless Sea- Erin Morganstern

“Not all stories speak to all listeners, but all listeners can find a story that does, somewhere, sometime. In one form or another.”  Just a few days ago, Erin Morganstern tweeted that she was becoming a bit irritated by readers telling her that they didn’t like The Starless Sea because it was confusing and not at all like The Night Circus. This is exactly what it comes down to.

This book is not at all like the Night Circus, except that it is full to brimming with magic and beauty.

Morganstern is to me a magician of sorts, a magical wordsmith, and every turn of phrase leaves me breathless. I didn’t quite finish this book by the end of the year, not because I couldn’t, but because I didn’t want to. I wanted it to go slower; I didn’t want it to end. And right now, as I have just finished the last few pages, I have a strange urge to pick it up again…”having a physical response to a lack of book is not unusual…” right???

I’m not sure I can describe the story, except to say that it is a story about stories. I know, that’s a lame description. But if you love books like I do, that might be enough to get you. It’s a story about stories and a secret society created to protect the stories. And bees and keys and swords. Read it!

Books That Almost Made the List

Coyote Songs- Gabino Iglesias

The Rust Maidens- Gwendolyn Kiste

Recursion- Blake Crouch

Middlegame- Seanan McGuire

Books of Special Note

Awesome Non-Fiction

Monster, She Wrote: The Women Who Pioneered Horror & Speculative Fiction- Lisa Kroger & Melanie R Anderson

This is fantastic both as an introduction to the ladies of horror and a very thorough bibliography. Even I found lots of things to read, and I consider myself an expert in the field! This was a really fun read, and it was also a beautiful book- a must-have for any horror afficianado.

Lives of Unforgetting: What We Lose in Translation When We Read the Bible: Stant Litore

I wish I could gift this book to every person who claims to be a Christian and then attempts to use the Bible as an excuse to hate- to hate women or gay people or immigrants… the list goes on. This book gave me chills. And hope.

I am not a Christian, but I am fascinated with religion, and this is one of the best books about translation I have ever read. Litore reminds readers that “in the Koine Greek of the New Testament, truth is an activity, not a blunt object.” And in this work, he asks readers to join him in the activity of truth-uncovering. He reminds us that all translation involves more than just historical context- there’s our own prejudices & cultural context as well. Litore breaks down several controversial bits of the Bible- passages about the place of women, immigrants, LGBTQ people, even corporal punishment. 

Litore’s writing is accessible for anyone, you don’t need a background in Biblical studies to enjoy the adventure he invites us on. 

Favorite New Author

Matthew Brockmeyer- Kind Nepenthe & Under Rotting Sky: Brockmeyer’s work is gritty and dark and just amazing. I loved every bit of it. Besides that, he’s a really nice guy, and he loves talking literature & engages with other readers on instagram, and that’s pretty cool. You can find him at @humboldtlycanthrope .

Favorite Outside of My Usual Comfort Zone

Black Leopard Red Wolf- Marlon James

This is an EPIC African fantasy novel, and by epic, I mean long! I had to push a bit to finish it, but I did because I thought it was both beautiful and important.

I Wish I Could Have My Time Back/ Books I Disliked

Exquisite Corpse- Poppy Z Brite

Like terrible necrophilia porn with no redeemable qualities. I literally didn’t care about anyone in the book, so it didn’t really matter to me if they died. I have really enjoyed many of Brite’s short stories, so I was disappointed in this!

Tribesmen- Adam Cesare

I wanted to like this, but I didn’t. It felt scattered.

Last Days of Jack Sparks- Jason Arnopp

This just truly drove me crazy. And I guessed the ending almost immediately. I hate that. Also, maybe I really didn’t like the audio narrator and that totally colored my opinion. And nobody says the word “mate” that often. Ugh.

THANK YOU!

So thank you all for joining me on this little reading journey! Here’s to a stellar 2020 in both books and life!