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The Most Underappreciated Books of 2019

You won't find them on the New York Times Best Sellers list, but you should definitely add these books to your must-read stack!

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Don’t miss these must-reads!

This month, Goodreads released the winners of its 2019 Choice Awards. Rather than ranking books based on sales, the Choice Awards are decided by millions of voting readers—and this year, 4.6 million votes poured in for a collection of novels and nonfiction from indie publishing houses and the “big 5” companies. You may not have seen these books on the New York Times Best Sellers list, but take a page from the readers who loved them and add them to your must-read list for 2020. While you’re at it, make sure you’ve also read these 100 books everyone should read before they die.

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Machines Like Me

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Author Ian McEwan is no stranger to best-seller lists or raving fans. But in Machines Like Me, he tried something new: futuristic science fiction. Julian Lucas of the New Yorker called the book “witty and humane…a retrofuturist family drama that doubles as a cautionary fable about artificial intelligence, consent, and justice.” It’s a story set in an alternative world in 1980s London. There, a couple buys one of the first synthetic humans and names it Adam. The machine subsequently settles into their lives—including their love lives. This twisty, whip-smart novel received high praise from book critics, but it never gained quite the appreciation of some of McEwan’s earlier works. This should definitely go on your book-club list, along with these other books guaranteed to get everyone talking.

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Much Ado About Mean Girls

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In Much Ado About Mean Girls, Ian Doescher takes the Bard’s bawdy humor to the next level while presenting Tina Fey’s Mean Girls in Shakespearean verse. The result is a quirky, quotable tale worthy of nearly 14,000 up-votes on Goodreads. For those who missed the movie 15 years ago, Mean Girls thrusts viewers (and now readers) back into the catty classrooms of high school, where rivalry, love triangles, and petty jealousy take center stage. What could possibly go wrong? (Cue drumroll.)

Much Ado About Mean Girls got a bit of press this year, and we’re here to remind you that it will make the perfect present for the teen in your life for years to come. Don’t miss these other gifts for teen girls they’ll actually love.

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Over the Top

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If you’ve ever felt a little out of place in the world, Over the Top: A Raw Journey to Self-Love is the perfect read. The memoir chronicles stylist Jonathan Van Ness’ life before Queer Eye and his reputation as an expert in self-care. Though some critics didn’t appreciate Over the Top‘s lack of literary genius, others say those people missed the point. The book might be better read aloud—in Van Ness’ over-the-top tone—to capture the real, raw tone of the author’s journey from bullied teen to buoyant personality. Here are another 17 memoirs everyone should read.

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The Five

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In 2019, historian Hallie Rubenhold gave us the true-crime book we didn’t know we were waiting for. The Five beautifully (and finally) tells the story of the five women killed by Jack the Ripper. The Guardian highlighted Rubenhold’s commitment to research in its review: “The Five is not simply about the women who were murdered in Whitechapel in the autumn of 1888: It is for them. This is a powerful and a shaming book, but most shameful of all is that it took 130 years to write.” In the age of #MeToo and a push to correct an emphasis on perpetrators over victims, this book rises to the top. It might not have reached best-seller status, but it impacted readers and presented a slice of little-known London life. If you love this genre, check out these other true-crime books that will keep you up at night.

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Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs?

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Oh, to be young again. Kids ask the strangest questions, and funeral director Caitlin Doughty wants to give them the answers. If you’ve ever wondered what happens to bodies in a morgue or what kind of soil is best for mummification, you’ll find information and even some comfort in this book. Science books don’t fly off the shelves like spine-tingling thrillers, so it’s no wonder that Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs? Big Questions from Tiny Mortals About Death wasn’t all the rage this year. But if you’re curious—or have curious little ones in your family—this will be a hit.

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Where the Forest Meets the Stars

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Glendy Vanderah dazzled readers with this debut novel. As one Goodreads reviewer wrote, “There are books you read that you enjoy, there are books that you love, and then there are the books you hold in your heart.” Where the Forest Meets the Stars is about ornithologist Joanna Teale, who has retreated to a cabin in the woods after the loss of her mother and a personal battle with cancer. When an injured child appears at her doorstep, she must pull herself from her work, learn to deal with pain, and love again. It takes a fantastical turn at the end, which enchanted some readers and confused others. Whether you love it or hate it, this book is worth a read. If you have some gaps in your literary knowledge, check out these classic books you can read in one day.

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The Overdue Life of Amy Byler

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A librarian, a makeover, a vacation, and a long-overdue new chapter—what’s not to like about this book by Kelly Harms? You’ll love The Overdue Life of Amy Byler if you enjoy light, romantic reads anchored in self-awareness and a zest for life. Romantic comedy is a crowded field in the book world, which might be why this novel didn’t rise to the top immediately. It’s a laugh-out-loud, delicious read to add to your list if you missed it earlier this year. Here are some other easy, breezy reads from 2019 that you might have missed.

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The Bookish Life of Nina Hill

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Another bookworm, another introvert, and another new lease on life. Abbi Waxman tells the story of Nina Hill, a California woman who has no interest in leaving her hometown, her schedule, or her preference for fiction over reality. What makes this semi-predictable read an underrated delight is Nina’s inner monologue. Self-deprecating and sarcastic, Nina will quickly become a new face to your favorite cast of literary characters. In the mood for more happy endings? Don’t miss this list of the best movie endings of all time.

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When All Is Said

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Anne Griffin’s debut chronicles Maurice Hannigan’s life through his stories during one Saturday night at the pub. Goodreads voters called When All Is Said “subtly beautiful,” “undeniably Irish,” and the “perfect example of a book I didn’t want to end.” Throughout the course of Hannigan’s evening (and the novel), he toasts the five people who most significantly impacted his life. These toasts weave together his own story, from the celebrations to the heartaches. You’ll enjoy this tour de force if you don’t mind a book that makes you cry and call the ones you love. Here are another 10 novels that tug at your heartstrings long after you finish them.

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My Sister, the Serial Killer

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With a title like that, you know you’ll be hooked. When Ayoola, Korede’s gorgeous younger sister, calls with a request for help, Korede can guess what’s coming: bleach on the carpet, a rotting corpse, and police evasion. Ayoola’s habit of killing off her boyfriends is mere annoyance until her next target is also one of Korede’s crushes. What’s a sister to do? No spoilers here—you’ll have to read this Nigerian dark comedy for yourself. It’s more lighthearted than this list of the most famous psychopaths in history. Enjoy the wit, the humor, and the satire of a corrupt modern criminal justice system.

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Miracle Creek

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Another debut novel that didn’t catch on in time to make the New York Times Best Sellers list, Angie Kim’s Miracle Creek unspools slowly, sucking you into its courtroom drama. Some readers have criticized the gradual start to the narrative, but the story of the Yoo family’s secrets revealed after an explosive murder (or accident?) will satisfy you in the end. If you’re a fan of courtroom dramas, murder mysteries, or families chock-full of unreliable narrators, this will hook you and leave you reeling. The addition of immigrant realities and issues of family loyalty cracks open a classic criminal thriller to reveal a human heart. If you love suspense, add some of the best thrillers ever written to your list.

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Once Upon a River

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Though published at the very end of 2018, this book grew a rabid fan base in 2019. Diane Setterfield’s Once Upon a River stirs up folklore, science, magic, and history into a story about a lost mute girl and the people who want to claim her. One frigid night, visitors of The Swan at Redcot Inn are surprised to see a bloody man stumble inside, a little girl’s body in his arms. When the townsfolk realize the girl is still alive but does not know her own identity, the mystery thickens. Some lay claim on her while others are suspicious. For some real-life shockers, read up on the strangest unsolved mysteries of all time.

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The Girl He Used to Know

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This novel by Tracey Garvis Graves is the perfect heartwarming romance to read on a rainy day. It’s the story of Annika Rose, a woman with debilitating anxiety, who runs into her old college flame after several years apart. Her quest to prove to him that she’s changed—and that she wants to be with him now—will make you believe in second chances. While this story didn’t top the charts unlike some of Graves’ other books, it’s a quiet little romance that belongs alongside best sellers by the likes of Jojo Moyes and Gail Honeyman. Here are another 60 of the best romance novels of all time.

 

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This Is How You Lose the Time War

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Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone wrote the impossible: a time-traveling, letter-driven, sci-fi love story packed into a little novella. This tiny tale begins when agent Red discovers a letter in the remnants of a dying world. The letter reads, “Burn before reading. Signed, Blue.” The letter kicks off a correspondence between two skilled fighters who will either destroy each other or fall in love trying. More artistic masterpiece than linear narrative, this book was perhaps too unusual to make most best-seller lists in 2019, but it’s definitely worth a read. And if you’re looking for more great sci-fi stories, check out these time travel movies that will make you question everything.

Leandra Beabout
Leandra Beabout is a freelance journalist and branded content writer with a BA in English education from Indiana University. She writes about travel, health, and literature for Reader's Digest, Lonely Planet, CNN, and Literary Hub, among other publications. She is also a regular contributor to Greatist.com. Leandra is based in Indiana. Follow her on Instagram @LeandraBeabout and LinkedIn Leandrabeabout