It's been a great year for books, and now that the year is coming to a close, it's time to look back on the best books of 2019. Bustle reached out to 38 of 2019's debut authors, inviting them to talk about their favorite books of the year, and the responses range from a YA novel about a girl whose boyfriends are all cursed to die at sea to a fantasy novel about lesbian necromancers in space — you know the one.
This year has brought us some tremendous books, from Margaret Atwood's long-awaited followup to The Handmaid's Tale, to cult-hit author Sally Rooney's latest offering, Normal People, to Susan Choi's National Book Award-winning Trust Exercise. But we've also seen plenty of great debut novels emerge this year, including Lauren Wilkinson's American Spy, Namwali Serpell's The Old Drift, and Temi Oh's Do You Dream of Terra-Two?
It was also a great year for nonfiction, with Sarah M. Broom's National Book Award-winning The Yellow House, Chanel Miller's Know My Name, Esmé Weijun Wang's Whiting Award-winning The Collected Schizophrenias, and Carmen Maria Machado's In the Dream House generating a lot of buzz.
If you don't think you've read enough this year, don't fret! The curtain may be closing fast on 2019, but you can still pick up the year's best books — either to give as holiday presents or for your own reading pleasure in the new year. Here are the best books of 2019, according to the year's debut authors:
Nafiza Azad recommends The Weight of Our Sky by Hanna Alkaf
One of the best books I read this year is Hanna Alkaf’s The Weight of Our Sky. It begins with an electrifying first sentence: "By the time school ends on Tuesday, my mother has died seventeen times." How can anyone resist a book that begins like that? The book focuses on Melati Ahmed and her life during the 1969 Malaysian riots brought upon by racial tensions between the Malay and the Chinese. The Weight of Our Sky tackles many themes including racism, mental illness, and friendships and sacrifice. I was present with Melati in her better moments and at her weakest ones. I cried, raged, and laughed with her. The Weight of Our Sky left me in tears but filled with hope — just like the best books do.
Rena Barron recommends The Candle and the Flame by Nafiza Azad
It’s no surprise that Nafiza Azad’s The Candle and the Flame is a 2020 Morris finalist. I’m a complete fool for lush, elaborate world-building, and Azad delivers. When the protagonist, Fatima, witnesses the death of her mentor, she inherits the ability to help djinn move between the human world and their own. Caught between djinn clans — each with terrifying powers — Fatima might be the only hope to save her beloved city of Noor. Perhaps my favorite part of The Candle and the Flame is its nuanced characterization of the different djinn clans. This book is a must-read for people who love fantasy brimming with beautiful writing and mythology.
Rena Barron's Kingdom of Souls and The Candle and the Flame by Nafiza Azad are available now.
Candice Carty-Williams recommends The Source of Self-Regard: Selected Essays, Speeches, and Meditations by Toni Morrison
The best book of the year is The Source of Self-Regard/A Mouth Full of Blood by the late, great Toni Morrison, published shortly before she passed. It’s a much needed collection of essays, speeches, and meditations from one of the most brilliant writers the world will ever know. It’s important that Toni Morrison’s legacy has been documented; not just through her stories, but through the way that she looked at the world and all that it holds. Her lens is one that is truly unique. This book is a celebration of her mind, of her works, and of her life.
Charlotte Nicole Davis recommends Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir
My favorite book of 2019 had to be Gideon the Ninth, by fellow Tor author Tamsyn Muir. It's this deliciously twisted sci-fi/horror novel about lesbian necromancers in space. I absolutely loved the humor and the world-building, and it was just so refreshing to read genre fiction with casually queer characters. 10/10 recommend.
Mason Deaver recommends Wilder Girls by Rory Power
No book this year has shaken me to my core the way Rory Power’s Wilder Girls did. Readers are placed right in the middle of the story, introduced to these girls who have been stuck on an island for months now, their bodies slowly mutating due to a mysterious veil that has fallen over the campus of their elite private school. Power streams together so many different story lines and experiences through her ensemble cast of characters that you absolutely love to hate and hate to love. This book is haunting, and left me thinking about so many scenes long after I finished reading it. Only two books have the privilege of actually scaring me, and this is one of them.
Samantha Downing recommends The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides
My choice for best book of the year is The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides. I heard a lot about this book before I read it, and I’m happy to say it lived up to all the hype! This is an incredibly well-written thriller that kept me reading deep into the night and ended up my favorite book of the year.
Emily A. Duncan recommends Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir
Absolutely Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir. It is by measures incredibly clever and completely hilarious, and what I truly love about it is how confidently it hurtles headfirst into its crumbling, ruinous Gothic setting, throwing it in space for good measure. Disaster lesbians and a cast of characters overblown in such a carefully constructed way that brings all of the wild characters of Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast to mind, it's just so much fun and I love books that are wildly fun.
Hafsah Faizal recommends The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern
There are stories within books, and then there are stories within stories within books. That is the simplest way to describe The Starless Sea, Erin Morgenstern's decadent sophomore novel that begins by dragging the reader ever so slowly into a fascinating new world. There are pirates and keys, bees and swords and endless stars. Weird little things that feel utterly perfect. Fragments of tales you're trusted to hold near before realizing their place with a satisfying aha! I adored this standalone fantasy, and cannot wait to devour it anew.
Camryn Garrett recommends The Revolution of Birdie Randolph by Brandy Colbert
I think it's really hard to pick just one book of the year, but one of my favorites is The Revolution of Birdie Randolph by Brandy Colbert. I saw both myself and my family in the book; it was so confronting to sink into, even with the conflict. Brandy writes "quiet" interior books for black girls about black girls having problems in their lives and hanging out and falling in love that aren’t necessarily high concept. I really love that. I’m glad Brandy Colbert books exist.
Anissa Gray recommends The Testaments by Margaret Atwood
I’m going to add my voice to the chorus of praise for Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments. The Handmaid’s Tale is a hard act to follow, but Atwood makes it look easy. Testaments is an incredible page-turner that takes us back to Gilead with fresh perspective on the familiar, along with new, compelling voices. But even as Atwood delves into the horrors of this dystopian world, there is also humor. There are glimmers of hope. It’s an exceptional read.
Joan He recommends The Farm by Joanne Ramos
Debut author Joanne Ramos wields narrative distance expertly to speak on topics such as the commodification of childbirth and the complexities of privilege, between socioeconomic groups and within, without moralizing or emotionally manipulating the reader. The characters, as a result, are allowed to be achingly human. They don't ask for much; they simply wish to be seen. It's a harder task than you think and reminded me, as a child of immigrants, of the gulf that arises due to different lived-in experiences. Timely yet evergreen, The Farm is a must read for anyone who wishes to be moved — not because they feel for their fellow humans, but because it's all too easy not to.
Christine Lynn Herman recommends Wilder Girls by Rory Power
One of my favorite things about reading is stumbling upon the rare, magnificent books that make me feel as if I'm a different person once I've finished them. For me, hands down, the book of 2019 that accomplished this the most is Wilder Girls by Rory Power. Reading it felt like being taken apart and put back together; like parts of myself I had never really understood were finally being seen. Wilder Girls is a book that twines together adolescence and body horror, that talks masterfully about climate change and queer identity through the lens of a group of young women who are caught up in something far beyond their control — a story that is both deeply specific and universally understandable. Honest, fearless, and flawlessly written, this book will stay with you for a long time.
Uzma Jalaluddin recommends A Deadly Divide by Ausma Zehanat Khan
I love mysteries and police procedurals for their atmosphere and whodunnit feel. Ausma Zehanat Khan is the prolific writer of the Esa Khattak/Rachel Getty crime series. Her latest, A Deadly Divide, is set in small-town Quebec, in the aftermath of a mosque shooting. The story deals frankly with simmering cultural tension, the impact of alt-right toxicity online, and the struggle to find balance and accommodation for differences, which all converge after an Islamophobic attack. Zehanat Khan’s writing is nuanced, the story intricately plotted, and the resolution satisfying yet leaves plenty of space for reflection. One of my favourite books of 2019!
Michelle Ruiz Keil recommends Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls by T Kira Madden
My favorite book of the year is T Kira Madden’s memoir in essays, Long Live The Tribe of Fatherless Girls. In prose that is lush, precise, and tender Madden details the weirdness of girlhood — the lickable shine of a teen magazine cover, an odd identification with a lonely pencil sharpener that must bite every 'yellow stick' put in its mouth. Madden writes fiercely and from the body — specifically the body of a queer mixed-race girl. With equal care given to beauty and ugliness, Madden’s is an alchemy of attention. By the book’s end, both she and her family are transmuted in wholly unexpected ways and so was I.
Sonya Lalli recommends My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite
My Sister, the Serial Killer was the best book of 2019 because it literally has it all: a complex protagonist; a vibrant setting; a thrill-filled, intriguing pace; and, if that weren’t enough, a problematic love triangle… But what really makes My Sister, the Serial Killer the best book of 2019 is the relationship between Korede, the heroine, [and] her younger sister Ayoola, the serial killer. The bond of sisterhood demonstrated by author Oyinkan Braithwaite transcends the circumstances of these characters, and it will resonate with anyone who’s ever had a complicated relationship full of love and resentment, loyalty and betrayal.
Devi S. Laskar recommends Good Talk by Mira Jacob
My favorite book, if I’m forced to choose, is Mira Jacob’s memoir, Good Talk. It deftly tackles weighty subjects — racism, identity, being other in America — with humor and grace. Its comic book form is brilliant. I’ve read a lot of books in 2019, but I’ve only re-read hers.
Victoria Lee recommends The Luminous Dead by Caitlin Starling
The Luminous Dead is a book that I would have read in one sitting, except I started reading it at 11 p.m. and very quickly realized that although the book is impossible to put down, it’s also not exactly the kind of book you should be reading in the dark. I love cave movies like Sanctum and The Descent — there’s something so bone-chilling about the claustrophobic atmosphere, made worse when you start to worry there are real ghosts lurking in the dark places. As the book goes on, the lines between delusion and reality blur — you’re never quite sure how much you can trust the narrator, or the sole other character in the book, or even your own interpretation of the text. It’s great. And it’s queer, too.
Roselle Lim recommends The Bride Test by Helen Hoang
Helen Hoang’s The Bride Test is a perfect followup to her smashing debut The Kiss Quotient. As an immigrant, I felt Esme’s struggle navigating a new language, culture, and identity. Her romance with Khai was as gratifying as Michael and Stella’s. Getting lost in Hoang’s words, and the palette of emotions she commands, was the best literary experience this year.
Sarah Lyu recommends Red, White & Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston
Red, White & Royal Blue is my favorite book of the year. It's funny, smart, and moving. What makes this book really special is the connection between Alex and Henry — these characters jump off the page, and I just wanted to dive into their world and never leave!
Sophie Mackintosh recommends The Heavens by Sandra Newman
The best book of the year for me is The Heavens by Sandra Newman. Dizzying, polyphonic, and beautifully executed, it's really unlike anything I'd ever read before — I found myself totally floored and, on finishing, immediately read it again. Then again.
Mesha Maren recommends The Water Cure by Sophie Mackintosh
"Best book of the year" is always a troubling phrase for me. Everything is so relative and one of the most incredible things about art is the fact that my "best" can simultaneously be your "worst." With that in mind, I have to say that after reading Sophie Mackintosh's The Water Cure I could not stop thinking about it. This is my favorite kind of writing. The kind that doesn't shy away from violence and pain but also doesn't shy away from lyric, transcendent, heart-stopping beauty. The Water Cure is about the terror and exhilaration of leaving childhood behind, that moment when you have to decide what is worse, the dangers of the nuclear family that you know or the riptides of the outside world you don't yet know.
Tehlor Kay Mejia recommends Don't Date Rosa Santos by Nina Moreno
My favorite book of 2019 was Don’t Date Rosa Santos by Nina Moreno. Honestly, as a U.S.-born Latina with complicated identity issues I feel like I’ve been waiting my whole life for this book. It’s emotionally deep and nuanced, it deals with diaspora identity flawlessly, but it’s also swoony and fun like the TV shows I always wished were made about kids like me. Hands down the best book of the year for me.
Nina Moreno recommends I Wanna Be Where You Are by Kristina Forest
This has been such a great year for romantic comedies — especially ones about teens of color — and one of my very favorites was I Wanna Be Where You Are by Kristina Forest. Wallflower Chloe has big ballet dreams, a strict mom, and an old injury. When a huge opportunity presents itself, Chloe makes the risky decision to go on a road trip to the big audition, but gets stuck driving with boy-next-door and former best friend, Eli. What follows is a wild, hilarious romp of an adventure centering two black teens falling in love, and it already feels like a rom-com classic. I can’t wait to read everything Kristina writes.
Brittney Morris recommends The Merciful Crow by Margaret Owen
I read so many impactful books this year, including I Wish You All The Best by Mason Deaver, On The Come Up by Angie Thomas, a few that aren’t out ’til 2020! But there’s one book that took me on a full-blown roller coaster. A book with tooth magic, a bird caste hierarchy, widespread gender representation, sex positivity, and a twist for the ages. That book is The Merciful Crow by Margaret Owen. I couldn’t put it down!
Maya Motayne recommends With the Fire on High by Elizabeth Acevedo
The best book of the year is With the Fire on High by Elizabeth Acevedo. Acevedo took the typically tragic narrative of an Afro-Latinx teen mom and gave it nuance, hope, and truth. I could not stop rooting for Emoni and her dreams of becoming a chef while also providing for her baby. Acevedo has this amazing way of making you feel so much with so few words. The chapters are short works of art, perfectly paced morsels of an amazing meal. I inhaled this book just like I would the food sumptuously described within it. I would recommend it to anyone looking for a story with a balance of tenderness and truth. Also, the gorgeous cover speaks for itself. This book is a winner.
Maika Moulite recommends The Wedding Party by Jasmine Guillory
Selecting a book as the best of the year is an insanely difficult ask. But, if I had to narrow it down to just one, it would be The Wedding Party by Jasmine Guillory. Maddie and Theo were so infuriating in their quest to remain nothing more than not-exactly-friends with benefits, even when it was clear that they were falling head over heels for each other. I couldn’t help myself from shouting at them to get their acts together! But my favorite part had to be how believable their relationship felt. This book was such a fun read and I’ll definitely be reading it again.
Maritza Moulite recommends The Field Guide to the North American Teenager by Ben Philippe
When I think back to the book that made me laugh the loudest this year, that distinction lies firmly with The Field Guide to the North American Teenager by Ben Philippe. Norris Kaplan is the snarky, hilarious, thoughtful, sardonic protagonist of my dreams — and of his classmates’ nightmares. The painful evolution that Norris undergoes to discover that people can’t be neatly stuffed into boxes labeled 'Cheerleader' or 'Manic Pixie Dream Girl' is such a fun ride to behold. This is a story about a Haitian-Canadian black boy who makes dumb, dumb decisions and lives to tell the tale. I’m so happy it exists.
Tamsyn Muir recommends A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine
For novel, it's Arkady Martine's A Memory Called Empire. Not just for its highly nuanced and smart exploration of galactic superpower, but for how fun the book is. It has some of the best party and tête-à-tête scenes in the business. Martine's ability to draw you into cut-throat politics is rivalled only by her ability to do sumptuous while she drives in the knife of what it really is to be a stranger in a semi-strange land. This is all done with a sly and generous leaven of humour. Fish-out-of-water Mahit Dzmare's relationships with her liaison Three Seagrass and the intimidating, gorgeous Nineteen Adze are gay af, which sealed 2019 as a blessed year for queer SFF. A Memory Called Empire is like The West Wing and Kushiel's Dart went into space and accidentally sat on Skyrim: watch out for it at awards season.
Rosaria Munda recommends Dark of the West by Joanna Hathaway
My best pitch for this one is: "What if Stalin's son fell in love with a Romanov?" I'm the sort of person who loves history in theory but in practice always craves fiction. That's why I absolutely LOVED Joanna Hathaway's Dark of the West, which combines all the best bits of 20th century European history — the glamour of its crumbling monarchies, the heartbreak and disillusion of the Lost Generation, the breathtaking air battles of WWII — and distills them into a character-driven love story about a princess and a fighter pilot on opposite sides of an imminent war.
Julia Phillips recommends Good Talk by Mira Jacob
The best book I read this year was without a doubt Mira Jacob's illustrated memoir Good Talk, a hilarious and heartbreaking exploration of family, race, color, and country. It ought to be required reading for every person in America. It's a work that changes whomever it encounters; it recognizes and challenges and loves its readers, and it argues for us to make a better world.
Regina Porter recommends Trust Exercise by Susan Choi
In all honesty, there are simply too many books in one year to say one rises above the rest. For me, that question of best book has more to do with reading a story where the writer is at the top of his/her/their craft, twisting the reader’s expectations of character, plot and form. Susan Choi’s recently won the National Book Award for Trust Exercise, so citing her novel might seem like a safe choice, but I loved this novel. Susan and David’s story — and the blurred public and private performance aspect of their relationship hit home. Susan Choi plays with memories, divvying up fact and fiction. Only a supremely confident, mature writer could have pulled of this book with such skill and finesse.
Rory Power recommends Middlegame by Seanan McGuire
I read so many incredible books in 2019, but of them all, there’s one I keep thinking about, long after I turned the last page: Middlegame, by Seanan McGuire. It’s a miracle of a book, to me — impeccably constructed, structured down to the paragraph level, but you feel none of that when you’re reading. Instead, McGuire makes it look effortless, and gives a masterclass on how to spin together big ideas and small moments, on how to manipulate a reader’s familiarity with Story as a concept. In short, Middlegame is — if you’ve read the book, please brace for the inevitable pun — pure alchemy.
Joanne Ramos recommends Women Talking by Miriam Toews
Some books proffer the gift of fleeting pleasure. Others manage to burrow under your skin: you find yourself, months later, thinking about the book — a certain character, a question posed — and engaging with it as if you’d just turned the last page. Women Talking, by the Canadian writer Miriam Toews, is of this latter type, a novel that draws you effortlessly into its world and never fully spits you out.
Kiley Reid recommends The New Me by Halle Butler
Halle Butler's The New Me was bleak and funny and wonderful. Millie the millennial temp is a frighteningly familiar character and co-worker, and more importantly, a perfectly depicted product of late capitalism. Butler deftly takes us through Millie’s bouts of depression and hopefulness (they almost work together), and the miserable ways in which her work life and home life become indistinguishable — all for a $12-an-hour paycheck. But Butler's tone isn't polemic. The dialogue is realistic and sad. This was a character and apartment that I could practically smell.
Melissa Rivero recommends A Prayer for Travelers by Ruchika Tomar
There were so many excellent books this year — it's hard to name just one! A favorite of mine was Ruchika Tomar's A Prayer for Travelers. The novel is about a young woman named Cale and her friend, Penny, who goes missing after a violent encounter. The story explores female friendship, the families we create for ourselves, imminent loss, and the search for one's own identity. Her writing is lyrical, and her description of the town her characters inhabit and the desert in particular are beautifully rendered. The chapters are not in sequential order, so it feels like you're putting together a puzzle. A truly bold book that I absolutely loved.
Emma Rous recommends The Familiars by Stacey Halls
Stacey Halls’ The Familiars was one of my favourite books of 2019. At its heart lies an unlikely friendship between two very different women in the North of England at the time of the notorious Pendle witch trials. It’s historical fiction at its best — a fascinating, absorbing, and evocative read.
Etaf Rum recommends The Affairs of the Falcóns by Melissa Rivero
My favorite book this year was The Affairs Of the Falcóns by Melissa Rivero because it is a dauntless exploration of love, family, sacrifice, and duty as well as a moving portrait of the American immigrant experience.
Caitlin Starling recommends In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado
In the Dream House, by Carmen Maria Machado, absolutely floored me. After Her Body and Other Parties and her annotated edition of Carmilla, I knew it was going to be good, but I had no clue just how good. Her writing is impeccable and her mastery of various genres dazzling, of course, but what makes Dream House absolutely incredible is how heart-wrenchingly, devastatingly honest it is. It's messy and painful and beautiful. ("Dream House as Word Problem" in particular broke my heart.)
Isabel Sterling recommends Sick Kids in Love by Hannah Moskowitz
When the world feels like it's on fire, sometimes the greatest gift we can give ourselves is the literary equivalent of being wrapped in a warm blanket. Sick Kids in Love by Hannah Moskowitz was that book for me. There's something so special about books written by, for, and about a specific community. Though I'm not Jewish or chronically ill, it's impossible to miss the care and respect for those communities on every page. (And, of course, I loved that Sasha is bisexual and comes from a very queer extended family!) Though the topics in the book are often serious, they're handled with a lightness and humor that kept me so fully immersed in the story that I never wanted to leave. In fact, I see a reread in my future.
Lindsay Stern recommends while they sleep (under the bed is another country) by Raquel Salas Rivera
What "point[s] toward the mirror’s frame" to distract us from its image? Rivera offers a provocative answer in this masterful indictment of the United States’ response to Hurricane María, "that time we existed / because we were dying": "the weeks after the hurricane, the months, what I dreaded / most was this newfound awareness that we existed. i knew that / no matter how loud i screamed, the knowledge i had acquired / through love and death meant nothing to these ex-colonized / colonizers. they would only hear echoes of their own good / deeds, like so many missionaries kneeling before a familial / god."
Lindsay Stern's The Study of Animal Languages and while they sleep (under the bed is another country) by Raquel Salas Rivera are available now.
Swati Teerdhala recommends Red, White & Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston
The best book of the year is Red, White & Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston. Not only is it heart-warming and laugh out loud funny, but McQuiston deftly navigates heavier topics with optimism and care. It's the perfect romance, and book, for 2019.
Emily Tesh recommends Gingerbread by Helen Oyeyemi
My pick of the year is Gingerbread, by Helen Oyeyemi. This gorgeously written modern fairy tale interweaves the lives of mothers and daughters, immigrants from a complicated fairyland to the equally complicated world of modern London. I was struck by the elegant prose, Oyeyemi’s mastery of magic and mundanity, and the wicked observational humour — a scene describing a meeting of a snobbish parents’ association had me in stitches.
Responses have been edited and condensed for clarity.