2019 was a year of division in the US, but not among Cannonballers. See: multiple votes below for Red, White & Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston, Normal People by Sally Rooney, and Bad Blood by John Carreyrou. Look - common ground!
If you’re constantly scouring the Best/Worst book lists for more recommendations to exponentially increase your to-be-read list, then you’ll love Cannonball Read. CBR is an annual, memorial book challenge that asks participants to read and review 52 (or 26 or 13) books in the memory of the late, great Pajiban AlabamaPink. Bonus, CBR does all of this while fundraising for the American Cancer Society. Sign up for 2020’s Cannonball Read 12, and you too can stick it to cancer, one book at a time.
Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell - Why have I not read Rainbow Rowell until now? Why have I not listened to what everyone in CBR has been saying about Rowell for years?
Smoke Gets in Your Eyes and Other Lessons from the Crematory by Caitlin Doughty - I was moved by this book. Doughty is an exceptional writer in that she is able to condense the enormous philosophical and social concept of death into something bite-sized and practical.
Pump Six & Other Stories by Paolo Bagigalupi - Speculative short fiction is hard to get right; so much time can be spent on building the world that it becomes a slag, or it becomes so much about plot that it feels rushed or unfinished. But Bagigalupi strikes the right mix of both character driven plot and world-building in twenty-five pages or less.
Remedia: A Picaresque by Michael Joyce - In the end, this book just comes off as a man-child taking drugs and wandering his way through life waiting for women to take care of him.
Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah - I wouldn’t have called myself a fan of Trevor Noah before this book. I haven’t really watched the Daily Show much in a post-Jon Stewart landscape, but did see the occasional clip of Noah and thought he did solid work. But now, I’ve been converted and will sing the praises of this book, and its audio rendition, to anyone who will give me an opportunity.
Where’d You Go Bernadette by Maria Semple - For some reason, this book languished in my “to read” pile for quite some time. I can’t quite explain it, but I found something about the cover to be off-putting, and didn’t think I was going to like it. As the old adage goes though, judging by a cover is problematic, and I found this book to be utterly engrossing and delightful. Once I finally picked it up, I was hooked. A really unique story, told creatively, with rich and vibrant characters. And so so funny.
My Best Friend’s Exorcism by Grady Hendrix - What a wild and crazy ride this book was! Equal parts, horror, humor, coming of age, and a nostalgic love letter to the 1980s. Looking back at that sentence it is clear that Hendrix was being a bit ambitious in scope, as this is a lot to balance, but he does so with ease. I don’t remember ever vacillating so quickly and constantly from laughter to terror, but the pendulum swings back and forth again and again over the course of this book. What starts out as a sweet story of friendship between Gretchen and Abby takes a quick turn when Gretchen changes, but this isn’t just standard teenage falling out. Something darker and insidious has taken hold and nothing and no one will ever be the same.
Girl Wash Your Face by Rachel Hollis - Hollis, for the unknowing, has created a global empire with a website, number of books, event planning business, etc. Essentially she is a lifestyle…guru? I don’t know what this profession is called. As a self-identified workaholic, mother, wife and Christian, she distills what she has learned into lies she has told herself, and illustrated how she has learned to be better and dispelled her own lies. Essentially by just, like, wanting it more than everyone else. I find her plucky, enthusiastic, preachy, and tiresome. Granted, there is some good stuff in there, about being as accountable to yourself as you would a friend, for example. I found that a helpful framing for self-improvement goals. But by and large, this book just tells you to mind over matter your problems and “use your tribe” and “vision board” your way to all your dreams coming true. Coolcoolcool.
Red, White & Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston - I read a lot of cute and creative kissing books this year, but I think this one is my fav.
Middlegame by Seanan McGuire - All 3 of the excellent McGuire books I read this summer are in that review, but Middlegame squeaks out on top.
The Naturalist (The Naturalist #1) by Andrew Mayne - I read a ton of dark thrillers this year - the Collector series was also very good - but the Naturalist series was definitely my favorite.
Mostly Dead Things by Kristen Arnett - At one point, the main character and her niece run down a flock of peacocks in their pickup truck in order to taxidermy the remains. I said screw it and shut the novel.
They Called Us Enemy by George Takei - This book was one of my favorites because I have family who is Japanese American and I always knew my family would have been here if they had been alive. And today, I see this piece of history is being repeated. Obviously, we forgot rule one of not learning history.
Bugs in Danger: Our Vanishing Bees, Butterflies, and Beetles by Mark Kurlansky - This was the book that was non-fiction and kept my attention. It was not easy, but had layers and was accessible.
Animus by Antoine Revoy - This author is a mean mean mean person. They tore my heart out with how crazy good this was. How they ended it. And though I think them a cruel person, I thank them for the ride!
Bug Boys by Laura Knetzger - I know there might have been one I disliked more than this one, but it was the first one I thought of.
Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk
Gilgamesh Retold by Jenny Lewis
The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World by Andrea Wulf
The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón
Y: The Last Man by Brian K. Vaughan, Pia Guerra, and Jose Marzan, Jr
Becoming by Michelle Obama - Michelle Obama hits everything that I love in memoirs. She goes into her childhood, her family, how her parents and family shaped her. And then you get to read about how certain incidents throughout her life defined her. I laughed, cried, grieved, and got angry reading about all of the highs and lows in her life. And I ended up smiling when we get to the epilogue and know that she and Barack are going to be okay. That dealing with the GOP who obstructed Obama at every turn, the racist memes, the hatred, all of that didn’t break them. They came out stronger in the end.
Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield - Yes! My soul needed a good magical realism book. It was crying out for it you guys. Once Upon a River delves into many characters but manages to thread the needle with keeping an eye on the main plot from beginning to end of this book. I absolutely loved The Thirteenth Tale so I was looking forward to see what Setterfield did with this. She weaves stories, fairy-tales, and myths together to tie around the Thames River and the people who live alongside it.
The Winter of the Witch by Katherine Arden - Wow. Just wow. I was breathless and in tears within minutes of starting book #3 (have tissues near by) and was full of anger through most of the book. I can honestly say make sure you have this one ready to go after finishing book #2. Vasya comes into her own in this one and we are given a glimpse into a possible future. The book moves back and forth between Sasha and then Vasya in this one. My only complaint is I wanted more after I got to the ending.
The Gilded Wolves by Roshani Chokshi - don’t have much to say except this is my least favorite Roshani Chokshi novel. I have loved her other works and have no interest in reading anymore about The Gilded Wolves. Chokshi shines when she follows one character through a story and has them meeting others along the way. Heck, I loved her book A Crown of Wishes since in that one she followed a young man and woman. In this latest we follow I think 5 people. Every chapter lets us know who we are following now. This whole book was really about a heist and made me think about the Ocean’s franchise (not in a good way) with two characters fighting feelings for each other. And we get information dumps galore to you want to beg for mercy to make it all stop.
I Am Still Alive by Kate Alice Marshall - An intense and emotionally-wrought page-turner that made me cry for a full minute after I closed it.
All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation by Rebecca Traister - This is an authentically empowering book for single women and the author’s focus on a diverse group of single women gives it a leg-up too.
The Important Thing About Margaret Wise Brown by Mac Barnett - Beautifully written and illustrated, quirky like its subject, and quietly profound.
Under the Moon: a Catwoman Tale by Lauren Myracle - A comic that doesn’t really know what audience it is for, plus a cat dies so I’M OUT!
Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders - Innovative writing and a beautiful story.
The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge by MT Anderson and Eugene Yelchin - One of the first books I read this year and it has stayed with me. I passed it along to the grand-nieces. Serious themes with humor, wit and fantastic drawings.
The Girls Who Went Away: The Hidden History of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades Before Roe v. Wade by Ann Fessler - Heartbreaking and recent tragedy that we as a nation have not confronted and seem to be repeating.
Wicked Saints by Emily A. Duncan - Dysfunctional relationships and cutting. How did this person get a book deal for a trilogy? Pass.
Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson - The most beautiful book I read this year, one of those books I wish everyone would read.
Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor - I liked the entire trilogy, but book one is especially good-exciting and twisty.
She Said: Breaking the Sexual Harassment Story that Helped Ignite a Movement by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey - Just a really important, powerful book.
I didn’t review a single book that I disliked this year so no worst for me!
I read some fantastic books this year and had to draw three out of a hat for this list. I read more than just romance, but these are the three titles that came out. My worst book was never in question.
Tikka Chance On Me by Suleikha Snyder - I had been thinking about making an effort to read the books of the authors I follow on twitter this year. This is the book that solidified that plan for me. In addition to be great ( I reread it a few times), it led me to a whole bunch of other books and authors.
The Beyond series by Kit Rocha - Post Apocalyptic, Bi-Sexual Bootleggers challenge Mike Pence’s wet dream city of repression and win. Start at Beyond Shame and keep going through nine novels and a bunch of novellas.
House Rules by Ruby Lang - A second chance at love romance between a long divorced couple in their 40’s - beautifully written, anxious heroine with a dark, sarcastic heart, hot couch sex.
Dearly Beloved by Mary Jo Putney - A reissue from the 1990’s, this book is everything people criticize about romance. CW: rape, verbal and emotional abuse, misogyny.
Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe - Copies of this were difficult to come by this year, but with a second printing out you need to read this graphic memoir as soon as humanly possible.
Normal People by Sally Rooney - “This book has a seemingly simple premise and if it only existed on that level it would be a novel that I would have maybe read but likely would have walked away from. Rooney instead imbues real, honest, and accurate depth into her characters and uses their on again, off again relationship to poke at larger truths.”
Jane Steele by Lyndsay Faye - This one is a couple years old at this point, but until I read Jane Eyre I had been putting it off. I love a quality retelling and Faye is absolutely delivering on that front. Jane Steele borrows the form and style of its predecessor and tells another story of a young woman attempting a life of her own, on her own terms.
A Mind of Her Own by Paula McLain - I wish this book knew what it wanted to be. We get several aspects of Marie Curie in this novella, but McLain never commits to any of these versions of Marie, bouncing between them and overlaying the love story of Marie and her husband muddying the waters further. One to avoid, find a better Marie Curie book.
The Rise of Kyoshi by F. C. Yee - F. C. Yee brings his considerable storytelling skill to the world of Avatar, and it’s as perfect as you want it to be.
Red, White, & Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston - This fan fiction set against a fictional election season, in which a First Son and a Spare Heir fall in love was a really fun time. For readers who enjoyed The Royal We.
Middle School Matters by Phyllis L. Fagell - I have a 10-year-old, y’all. I need all the help I can get.
The Bad Twin by Avery Scott - I wish the author well in her future endeavors.
There are 5-6 books on my top 10 that would have been #1 last year. I read a lot of great stuff this year. Looking forward to my end-of-the-year review.
The Expendable Man by Dorothy Hughes - I don’t know who to recommend this to. It’s either challenging or triggering and I can’t say why without giving away it’s well-designed twist. This book knocked me on my butt in the way few have. A social thriller. I read a lot of great stuff this year and thought about putting something else ahead of it but nothing has had the lasting impact on me the way this one did.
Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan - A modern day Gatsby book. One of my candidates for the Great American Novel.
2666 by Robert Bolaño - It was between this and Natsuo Kirino’s fantastic Out. While I probably liked Out more, I’ll be thinking about 2666 for years, perhaps decades to come.
October Heat by Gordon DeMarco - Anything I finish is good enough to not be “bad,” per se. I don’t have a problem quitting books anymore. But if I had to choose one, this is it. It’s too derivative of Hammett’s Maltese Falcon to stand up as its own unique work. I liked it at times but it was a slog and had it not been impossible to find at my local library, I may have quit it. I’m glad I didn’t but it’s not great.
The Chinese Orange Mystery by Ellery Queen
the princess saves herself in this one by Amanda Lovelace - These poems haunt me. I read three of them for a friend battling cancer. Amanda is my current favorite contemporary poet. I’ve put all her works on my to read and wish lists. I cannot say enough good things about it.
Little Women by Louisa May Alcott - Revisiting a classic you loved and finding you still love it is a treat. Can’t wait for the Greta Gerwig film!
How to be Successful Without Hurting Men’s Feelings by Sarah Cooper - In a year of fierce women like AOC, RBG, Warren, Harris, and more, feminist comedy lit about working with men is more essential than ever. Loved this.
The Vine Witch by Lulu Smith - My husband asked me a question about this book earlier this week and I couldn’t remember the answer. This book has not stayed with me, and left me feeling very meh, which is damning from me. There are worse books that I’ve read this year (most of which I didn’t finish), but I didn’t review them, so they don’t count here.
Behind Closed Doors by B.A. Paris - Super messed up book, but I read it in like 2 hours.
The Rainbow Bridge by Adrian Raeside - If you’ve lost a pet, or know someone who has, read this book! Yes, it’s for kids, but it’s also for adults :)
Here To Stay by Mark Edwards - Reminded me of Meet the Parents (to an extreme degree), which I HATED!
House of Silk by Anthony Horowitz - The Sherlock Holmes retelling theme paid off big for me this year, and House of Silk was the stand-out. I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve read by Anthony Horowitz so far, but I was so impressed by his ability to capture Dr. Watson’s voice while surpassing Doyle’s storytelling capabilities. This novel slips seamlessly into the Holmes canon.
Educated by Tara Westover - This memoir is so powerful it gave me PTSD. I’m torn between never wanting to see it again and re-reading it almost immediately. A powerful read.
Mycroft Holmes / Mycroft and Sherlock by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Anna Waterhouse - These books are pure joy. They aren’t going to win any awards and no doubt they are flawed, but I had as much fun as you can possibly have with Sherlock Holmes short of hanging out on set with Benedict Cumberbatch.
Waiting for Godot: A Tragicomedy in Two Acts by Samuel Beckett - Thirty years have done nothing to change my mind about Beckett.
A big thank you to everyone who worked behind the scenes to make this all run like magic. Great community and great fun every year. CBR BINGO 4 EVER!
Normal People by Sally Rooney - Raw. Honest. Vulnerable. Awkward. Rooney writes perfect internal dialogue capturing all of the self doubt and anxiety that comes with figuring your shit out in young adulthood.
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong - The most difficult book that I read all year. Truly unique. Absolutely haunting.
The Affair of the Mysterious Letter by Alexis Hall - Hands down, the most fun I had reading a book all year. Write another, Alexis, pretty please.
The Sign of Four by Arthur Conan Doyle - Truly awful. I have come to understand that I prefer my Sherlock Holmes via ANYONE other than his originator. I have done my due diligence. Give me only the re-tellings, please and thank you.
Becoming by Michelle Obama - Literally nothing I say matters because this is amazing
Red Sister by Mark Lawrence - The greatest opening line since The Martian
Bad Blood by John Carreyrou - READ IT
Gossip Girl by Cecily von Ziegesar - I read this for the “banned book” square and I’m convinced it was banned purely for how awful it is.
Red, White & Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston - This is without a doubt my favourite book of the year, I would rank it quite a bit higher than all the others I read. It was romantic, steamy, laugh out loud funny and had an absolutely amazing cast of characters (I would happily read other books for each of the main supporting cast, including the parents. This is the alternate reality story we all need right now.
The Austen Playbook by Lucy Parker - I was lucky enough to be granted an ARC of this, which meant that by the time the book was officially published, I’d already read it twice. Lucy Parker is possibly the best contemporary romance author out there for me right now, with her books guaranteed to satisfy me and give me both the swoon, emotional connection and banter I adore. Of all her five books so far (the next one is out in January), I think this may be her strongest for me.
Muse of Nightmares by Laini Taylor - This is the only one of my three picks that can’t really be read as a standalone, it’s the second (and final part) in the Strange the Dreamer duology. What I can say is that Laini Taylor writes fantasy like nobody else, and if you’ve liked her earlier work, you will probably be a big fan of these books as well. However, if her writing annoys you or leaves you cold, this is unlikely to be the book that changes your mind about her. I listened to the audiobook, excellently narrated by Steve West, and can highly recommend it.
Pipe Dreams by Sarina Bowen - I’ve probably been really lucky with my reading choices this year that the worst book of the year was one I read in January, and compared to some of my worst books of previous years, this wasn’t actively bad, just not very memorable or exciting (and had a very strange graphic birth scene towards the end, which NOPE).
Daisy Jones and the Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid - This book was so well written, I had to keep reminding myself that the songs don’t actually exist.
A Man Called Ove by Fredrick Backman - Reading this book was like being able to spend time again with my very curmudgeonly grandfather.
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain
Seasons of the Sun by Catherine Coulter - as in my review: “wet, hot garbage in the noonday sun”- this is just one rape after another and it is awful.
It by Stephen King - I’ve been putting this book off for years, and I’m kind of glad I did, because I read it at the exact right time. It’s far from a perfect book, but it was a riveting reading experience that I’ve been thinking about it since I read it in January.
Red, White & Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston - The First Son of the first woman US President falls in love with a prince of England. This is going to be on a lot of 2019 favorite lists (and a lot of people hate it) because it has a distinct voice and style. I found it delightful and hilarious, and hopeful.
Evvie Drake Starts Over by Linda Holmes - I was hoping Linda Holmes’ (NPR, I know her from the Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast) debut novel was going to be good, but I don’t think I expected to fall in love with it. It’s a love story, but it’s also a story about learning to let things go, and it hit almost all of my buttons.
Royal Holiday by Jasmine Guillory - This was such a disappointment, and to me was almost a staggering dip in quality from her previous three books.
Think of England was a very nice historically sexy surprise by one of my favorite authors, K.J. Charles; I devoured The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern, but it’s a book you have to read twice, and I haven’t done that yet so that’s why it’s not in my top three; and, The Toll by Neal Shusterman, which is one of the best series enders I’ve read in years.
The Institute by Stephen King - Nothing can beat the feeling of reading a book that makes you feel like a kid again. The Institute brought me back to 8th grade, reading The Shining at summer camp with a flashlight.
Bad Blood by John Carreyrou - What can I add to everything that’s been said? The craziest true story I have ever read.
You by Caroline Kepnes - While this wasn’t my favorite story of the year, this is hands-down the greatest audiobook I have ever listened to. Santino Fontana’s performance as the sociopathic Joe is amazing.
Love and Other Words by Christina Lauren - No. Just no.
The Bride Test by Helen Hoang - My favorite contemporary romance of the year. I laughed, cried, and swooned.
Grave Witch by Kalayna Price - So glad I discovered this new paranormal romance series with a killer supernatural love triangle
Trail of Lightening by Rebecca Roanhorse - Native American urban fantasy with a dash of romance in a post-apocalyptic future. All very much up my alley.
Murder with Chicken and Waffles by A. L. Herbert - Not badly written, but the stereotypes of some characters rubbed the wrong way
Mrs. and Mr. Bridge by Evan S. Connell - A complete dissection of middle-class American conservatism and blisteringly funny.
The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco - Over the top erudite and clever and beautifully written and heartbreaking as well. If you like Medieval literary criticism murder mysteries, that is.
Doomsday Book by Connie Willis - This book has some of the darkest and aching writing about death and despair I’ve ever read.
Vox by Christine Dalcher - This reads like a 30 Rock spoof of dystopian fiction.
Catch and Kill by Ronan Farrow - A great read on a necessary subject. He makes investigative journalism exciting as much as he underlines at the sad state of workplace abuse and harassment. A state he is hopefully helping to change.
Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote - So much more fun than the movie.
The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith - A fascinating, yet icky, anti-hero - a parasite who likes to live large.
Fire and Blood by George R. R. Martin - What. A. Bore. If this is what he has been working on instead of wrapping up A Song of Fire and Ice / Game of Thrones saga all I have to say is, "Shame! Shame! Shame!"
Post below if you read something this year that you want to spread the word about, good or bad, and consider signing up for Cannonball Read 12 to find even more suggestions for your 2020 reading. You can also can support CBR by donation or Amazon affiliate links in every review above. Join a fabulous, thoughtful, book-loving team, and start sticking it to cancer, one book at a time.
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