Jessica Maria's Best Books of 2019



One of the best books I read this year had a line in it that stopped me, took me right out of the story. It was not a bad jarring feeling; instead it had me thinking about my entire reading life and what I truly enjoy about reading. In Insurrecto, during a passage in which a Filipinx translator is confused by a story she is reading, Gina Apostol writes:


“At times, she feels discomfort over matters she knows nothing about, and Magsalin hears rising up in her that quaver that readers have, as if the artist should be holding her hand as she is walked through the story.
But she rides the wave, she checks herself.
A reader does not need to know everything.”

The book goes on with its the incomparable and invigorating and opaque plot, but that passage crystallized in my mind that which I love in some of my favorite kinds of books: ones that I can get lost in, where I am mired in excitable confusion—as if I know something great is happening and I can’t quite pinpoint it but I am in love with this journey nonetheless. I truly do not know everything, and I cannot know everything, and therefore I do not need to know everything.


Many of my favorite books this year gave me this experience that manifested sometimes in laughs, frowns, or even tears. They made me feel something. Not all had that abstract element, but they all are examples of thrilling prose. I love when books are playful in structure or form or words. Looking over the ones that rose to the top ten at this moment (an opinion is but of a moment and can change in the next), they are all about kinds of journeys—whether that means in the passing of time, the changing of a body (a person, a relationship, a people, a country), a literal trip, or the transition of perspective. It’s what speaks to me now.


my ten favorite books of 2019

(In order of how I chronologically

read them this year)



King of Joy by Richard Chiem (2019)


Perhaps I started reading this in a bit of a cynical mood, unaware of how it would eventually move me; how I would find myself wide-eyed or smiling or welling up with tears learning about a woman name Corvus and her sadness. I often re-read passages because they struck such lovely notes, and the prose truly sang. A hard book to describe (even its official synopsis can’t quite capture its magic), and one that must be experienced to understand. Though you can check out my review if you want to know more before diving in, too.


Buy it here.



America is Not the Heart by Elaine Castillo (2018)


An epic written in the language of today. Castillo manages to begin a book with a prologue entirely in second person and then shifts to another time, other characters, and soon rises Hero: our Filipinx protagonist, the literal hero of the story. She traverses from the Philippines to the United States, and we are all lucky to be in her presence and understand an angle of a culture that is rarely seen in literature. A dazzling debut—I couldn’t stop gushing about it earlier this year. Pairs perfectly with Insurrecto, too.


Buy it here.


In the Distance by Hernan Diaz (2017)


Not to denigrate one book over another, but I’m still mystified by Andrew Greer’s Less winning the Pulitzer over this finalist. I have never felt so rapt by a character as Håkan and witnessing his cross-country journey of the United States in the 1840s. I know that I’ll be re-reading this and studying Diaz’s magnificent prose and ability to create quiet, intimate scenes against giant, propulsive action.


Buy it here.



Trust Exercise by Susan Choi (2019)


I don’t blame people for not finishing books, but I do hold them accountable if they denigrate a book without having finished it first (I, myself, read the Twilight series so that I could speak from a place of knowledge). And Choi’s triptych of a book molds from section to section—molds the reader’s expectations, even—and you’ll soon find yourself the subject of the titular exercise. I loved giving myself over to this book. It’s one that must be finished.


Buy it here.




Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli (2019)


Over the last few years I’ve become familiar with Luiselli’s experimental and insightful writing, but this is most certainly her masterpiece. Another book that shifts perspective throughout and looks to the reader as much as its characters, Luiselli has created a work of art in her thematic echoes, invoking parallels in history, music, writing, and family. Her passion and intelligence articulated in a beautiful and heartbreaking tome. My copy has pages near the end mottled with dried tears.


Buy it here.



Look How Happy I’m Making You by Polly Rosenwaike (2019)


I didn’t see this book coming. I wish it had been present much earlier in my life, maybe before I had a kid. Rosenwaike’s debut short story collection spans all manner of women and their choices about having or not having children. I suspect that if I’d read this five years ago, I would have felt less alone in my thoughts and the constant inner debate going on in my head. Rosenwaike’s stories are clever and perceptive, and moved me at my core. Perhaps because I read it on a weekend away from my family, by a shore, and was able to stare out at the water, contemplating these women and my own life. Pairs well with Sheila Heti’s Motherhood.


Buy it here.



Cantoras by Carolina de Robertis (2019)


An astounding novel set in 1970s Uruguay among a group of five queer women who fear for their lives as political tumult makes life in Montevideo difficult. The story of creating their own space in a rural, beachside hamlet while their own relationships wax and wane over decades is a beautiful and memorable work.


Buy it here.




Sabrina & Corina by Kali Fajardo-Anstine (2019)


I myself am astounded that there are two short story collections on this list. But this list would be empty without Fajardo-Anstine’s emotional gut-punch of a book that shares the lives of Indigenous Latinx women in Colorado. Her stories moved me to the point of gasping and tears, and they still resonate months later.


Buy it here.




In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado (2019)


There is no working writer more innovative today than Machado, who has pivoted from a remarkable debut short story collection, to a memoir that is just as chilling as her fiction. Machado recounts a former abusive relationship in devastating structures of literary genre, usually horror (noir, omen, a stranger coming to town, etc.). What forms is a portrait of a queer relationship that does not adhere to stereotypes, that is rarely written about, and makes sure the reader understands not just physical abuse but the insidious wielding of mental and emotional abuse.


Buy it here.




The Old Drift by Namwali Serpell (2019)


An epic tome about Zambia’s past, present, and future. The passing of time gives way to historical fiction, magical realism, and even sci-fi. I haven’t read anything quite like it, but it’s the only book that’s come close to giving me the same feeling as Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude without seeming like a complete rip-off. I finished it on the morning of the last day of the year (this morning!), and I knew even before the end, it was destined to be on this list.


Buy it here.



The books that very well could have been in the top ten if I made the list yesterday, or tomorrow, or at any other moment than the one right now




The Friend by Sigrid Nunez (2018)


The Affairs of the Falcons by Melissa Rivero (2019)


The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead (2019)


The Dictionary of Animal Languages by Heidi Sopinka (2018)


Insurrecto by Gina Apostol (2018)


Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison (1952)


How to Write an Autobiographical Novel by Alexander Chee (2018)


Outline by Rachel Cusk (2014)


Sleepless Nights by Elizabeth Hardwick (1979)


Red, White & Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston (2019)


Sula by Tony Morrison (1973)


Good Talk by Mira Jacob (2019)


Trick Mirror by Jia Tolentino (2019)


The Air You Breathe by Frances de Pontes Peebles (2018)


Mean by Myriam Gurba (2017)


Fleishman is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner (2019)


And honorable mentions

of the rest of my

five-star reads in 2019



So Lucky by Nicola Griffith (2018)


Duende (2007) / Life on Mars (2011) by Tracy K. Smith


Daisy Jones and the Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid (2019)


A Woman is No Man by Etaf Rum (2019) - Read my full review here.


Eye Level: Poems by Jenny Xie (2018)


Magical Negro by Morgan Parker (2019)


Edinburgh by Alexander Chee (2001)


Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata (2018) - translated from the Japanese by Ginny


Tapley Takemori


The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid (2017)


Troubling Love by Elena Ferrante (1994)


Any Man by Amber Tamblyn (2018)


Motherhood by Sheila Heti (2018)


Transit by Rachel Cusk (2016)


With the Fire on High by Elizabeth Acevedo (2019)


The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison (1970)


The Professor and the Housekeeper by Yoko Ogawa (2003) - translated from the Japanese by


Stephen Snyder


She Said by Jodi Kantor and Meghan Twohey (2019)


Hot Comb by Ebony Flowers (2019)


Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson (2019)


Humiliation by Paulina Flores (2019) - translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell


All You Can Ever Know by Nicole Chung (2018)


Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko (1977)


Crazy Brave by Jo Harjo (2012)