Your time at the Pond today begins with gentle rain.
A soft evening patter accompanies you as you sit next to Sprout’s stump, your reads for the day sprawled out in front of you. The blushing sky illuminates the forest in a warm rush of golden light. As you bask in the scenery, Sprout emerges from their stump holding two cups of tea, and the air around you immediately smells of summer berries.
“This is berry hibiscus tea, friend!” Sprout informs you. “I grew the ingredients myself. Gen was a big help, but the Pond magic has made starting my own little garden here so easy.”
You accept the tea, letting the warm sweetness suffuse your insides. It’s a curious picture—the aroma of the tea, this scenery, the glow of Sprout’s little sapling. A comfortable silence settles between the both of you as you take to your books once more.
As you both finish your tea, Sprout looks up from their book and says, “You know, friend, I never imagined I’d find a home here when I first arrived, when Xiaolong first reached out to me for help.” Their eyes are wistful. “At first, I wasn’t even sure if I belonged here, since I read so very little compared to the other Pond residents. Sometimes I just get so caught up with everything else that reading doesn’t come as naturally to me as it used to.”
You reach out a hand to comfort the sparrow, to reassure them that they do indeed have a place at the Pond. Sprout takes your hand gratefully. “But it’s because of everyone’s kindness here that I’ve learned to forgive myself for taking things slow as well! Reading is like a garden too. Even one seed planted is a seed that can grow into flowers and fruit, even if it takes time! And they make great ingredients for tea, too.”
Bringing their book over, Sprout hops closer to you. “I also have you to thank for this lesson, friend, for helping me feel at home here! Now, let me tell you about some of my favorite stories that I did manage to read this year…”
Hello, friends! Welcome to the last of our Top Reads of 2019 posts, wherein I finally get my thoughts coherent enough to gush about my own favorite reads of the year. As you might’ve gleaned from Sprout’s story, I didn’t manage to read as much as I would’ve liked this year—I had an ambitious reading goal of 50, but so far only managed 29—and I’m learning to be okay with that! It’s a big reason of why I tweeted this last month too:
So this is for everyone else who also had goals that went unfulfilled this year too, I see you, I feel you (deeply) and you are valid! That being said, I did indeed make up in quality of books I read this year instead! A lot of books on my list today are books from years past as well, but I think of it as me making up for the time I lost not knowing that there was a whole world of diverse books waiting to be explored. I found so many great books at the recommendation of amazing people in the community, and I’m also forever grateful for the new bookish home I’ve found here at the Pond. Now onwards to the books!
Criers War by Nina Varela
Crier’s War follows two girls: Crier and Ayla, in a land on the verge of a war, the kingdom itself built heavily on decades of oppression and prejudice. To the other, both girls are themselves from beyond enemy lines: Crier, the only daughter of the most powerful sovereign in the land; Ayla, a furious servant-turned-handmaiden whose family was destroyed in the administration’s senseless riots, and whose life purpose is to kill Crier. As political tensions grow and their fates begin to intertwine, they find that the feelings they harbor for each other may be more costly than the war they’re prepared to fight.
In my review of this book on a blog tour, I called this book a “fierce and tender ode to queer love stories”, and I still stand by every bit of this description. Crier’s War was one of my most anticipated novels of the year, and I’m still so euphoric that it lived up to every single one of my expectations and then some. From the fantasy-dystopian world-building that came alive on the page, to the tenuous slow-burn enemies-to-lovers romance between our two protagonists, to Varela’s own masterful writing craft (still unbelievably polished for a debut, to this day!), there was never a moment where I fell out of love for the story. Every step forward felt earned, every positive plot progression suspended in the air like a held breath. Its sequel is releasing next year, and I truly am unspeakably excited for the conclusion to this series.
The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller
A new take of the Iliad and a lyrical retelling focused on the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus from the latter’s point of view. It follows their lives from childhood into the Trojan War. It is very gay.
(This cover is the Bloomsbury Modern Classics edition!)
Last year, around this time, I read Circe by Madeline Miller, and devoured the book whole in one afternoon. It was the day Miller skyrocketed into the position of my favorite author of all time, and also the day I knew for certain that this book too, would cause me both immense, perpetual joy and deep, deep sorrow.
And reader, friend, I was right.
I don’t quite have the words to adequately describe the range of human emotions I went through reading this book (I don’t think I ever will), but I remember being absolutely broken after finishing it. There is so much to love about Miller’s stories—how lyrical they are, how lovingly human they are, how resonant they are. I have so many quotes written down from her books that I could spin an entire journal just full of love letters to her writing. This book was awe personified for me, and as long as Madeline Miller keeps writing books, I will keep reading them in pursuit of this very same awe until I draw my last breath.
Blood Water Paint by Joy McCullough
A passionate novel in verse about the Italian painter Artemisia Gentileschi, tracing her life from childhood up till her court case in 1611. Her story is interspersed with those of the biblical figures Susanna and Judith, both of whom become important themes and figures she depicts in her art. It has a lens trained tightly on the very relevant themes of feminism, rape, and assault.
“Not all stories have happy endings. I cannot promise this one will either. But I am certain you will be glad you stayed with her to the end. She deserves that much—a witness, one who says I see you, hear you.”
It’s absolutely no secret that I love poetry, and reading Blood Water Paint solidified this adoration into something tangible and concrete. The novel is very much written in a style reminiscent of “Tumblr” poetry with its freeform structure and liberal use of line breaks, but I honestly loved how accessible this made Artemisia’s story—especially since it deals with such heavy subject matter like sexual assault and the inherent misogyny baked into society. Artemisia herself is fiery, strong, and tenacious, and it becomes second nature to root for her in a world that feels like it’s conspiring against her. This is a book about terrible men, unbreakable women, and reclaiming every inch of yourself through the art that you create.
Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire
Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children is an odd haven for children who are just equally as strange—children who claim to go on adventures in worlds filled with magic and nonsense, worlds accessed through holes impossibly small and ventured into through wardrobe doors. The appearance of a new child at the home coincides with a string of murders underfoot, and the mystery must be resolved before it claims them all.
I’ll be the first to admit that I went into this book biased because I already love the author, but this book filled me with such a profound sense of… yearning. I adore the concept of kids finding doors into worlds that belong uniquely to them, and the exploration of the consequences that arise from them leaving said worlds to return to our own mundane existence. It spoke so much to my own growing up feeling as though I wasn’t made for this world. I appreciated the explicit asexual representation (in the main character, no less!), and I’m so excited to delve deeper into this series in 2020.
Radio Silence by Alice Oseman
Radio Silence follows Frances, a high-achieving senior who is both: (1) worried about college and her future, and (2) secretly in love with art and a sci-fi podcast on the side.
It’s about a lot of things: parental academic expectations, the joys and horrors of being an online creator, the murky waters of figuring out who (and how) you love as a teenager… But at its heart is a story about life not going as planned, and the heartache and healing that comes with letting go.
Friends, this book has heart. Character-driven coming-of-age contemporaries are absolutely my favorite ones, and Radio Silence has all of these in spades. This book is endlessly relatable, extremely fun, and such a joy to read. I managed to buddy read this with two very good friends, and the experience also made me realise that buddy reading is my favorite way to enjoy a book!
The candid portrayal of life online in Radio Silence took me completely by surprise—as an artist online myself, some of the chapters felt like they were ghostwritten by me and my feelings, by my own frantic typing at 3 AM. The style that this book was written in—the short chapters, internet-speak—also worked really well for the kind of story it was telling. In the end, Radio Silence is relentlessly hopeful in the face of the terrible things happening in the story, and it is so much stronger for it. This book somehow managed to find all of us exactly when we needed it, and I am eternally grateful.
Before we adjourn, some honorable mentions that didn’t make the list for a variety of reasons, but were also books that greatly impacted me this year!
- We Set The Dark on Fire by Tehlor Kay Mejia
- House of Salt and Sorrows by Erin A. Craig
- Spin the Dawn by Elizabeth Lim
- Mooncakes by Wendy Xu and Suzanne Walker
We’ve made it to the end, friends! Here ends my round-up of my top books of the year—all the best stories that I lived through. And what a year it’s been! Between college, joining the Pond, and all the shenanigans that occurred both online and off, 2019 certainly hasn’t been the easiest year for me, but making this list has definitely reminded me that it was also full of joy and blessings.
Of course, as the Official Book News Curator™ of the Pond now, I’m also so incredibly optimistic and looking forward to the 2020 lineup of diverse books! I have a gigantic spreadsheet just filled with all the amazing books that are releasing next year, and let me tell you now friends, it’s going to be a great year. I can already feel it in my bones.
As we all wind down for the new year, I hope that your own reflections are fruitful and that you too are filled with hope and determination for 2020. Us here at the Pond have so many great things in store already (hint hint Pondathon), and Sprout and I can’t wait for the journey we’ll all go on together!