The Best of 2019, at last!
So here is my second, or possibly third, attempt to give you my Best of 2019. Blogger and a concussion have not been my friend this year.
Not long ago, a friend asked me what the difference was between literary fiction and genre fiction. It's a more subtle question than one thinks, especially given the quality of a lot of so-called genre fiction out there these days. Traditionally it's been the difference between plots that involve ideas versus action, or novels of "literary merit" versus those that are "entertainment." I could get into a lot of arguments about the issue, frankly. I think that one can definitely make the argument that some genre fiction prose is so beautiful that it has literary merit. (Have you met Amal El-Mohtar's writing?) And then there is the distinction of which publishing imprint a novel has ‒ the "big" house or a subsidiary. In this post, to get around the arguing, I'm using the assigned labels from the publishers of all these books I loved, with a couple notable exceptions in the YA section.
I have sometimes envisioned the query letter that might have been sent for Alice Hoffman's The World That We Knew. It would be something along the line of "It's a Holocaust story but with a golem at its heart." All I can say is, the woman who coined the phrase "Books may well be the only true magic" is a true magician. This was one of the most moving books I read in 2019, and it was a year filled with beautiful books. I will never forget these characters. On par in my mind with "All the Light We Cannot See" in its beauty and power. Judith Light's beautiful narration captures the elegiac tone of a novel that ultimately conveys the mysticism of what makes us human.
The Dutch House by Ann Patchett is a book about siblings, families, what we hold onto, and what we are forced to let go of. It's also about love and forgiveness. Evoking a sense of place and time, the moving relationship between siblings Maeve and Danny Conroy forms the core of a novel. The audiobook, narrated by Tom Hanks, was a delight.
2019 Book I still need to read but am quite sure is good: The Testaments by Margaret Atwood.
The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek was one of my favorite books this year because it broke my heart in so many ways. Cussy Mary Carter is an unforgettable character, in the way Kya in Crawdads is unforgettable. She is one of the Blue People of Kentucky and a packhorse librarian, bringing light and learning into the lives of those into the hollers of her community. She also suffers due to racism like that visited upon others of color in that era. Author Kim Michele Richardson has faced a tough year because of issues surrounding a competing author's novel with many similarities to Richardson's book, which was published first, I might add. I've loved this book since I first picked it up. A poignant audiobook narrated by Katie Schorr.
Kate Quinn's The Huntress tells the story of a search for answers and justice following World War II. Chasing after a Nazi war criminal known by the name "The Huntress," a British war correspondent and a Russian bomber pilot who was one of the famed "Night Witches" join forces searching for answers about what happened to the journalist's brother during the war. Their search culminates in New York, where criminal Lorelei Vogt has made a new life for herself. Examining the moral ambiguities of those who fight in war and how they fight and how a person could still love a monster, Quinn's novel packs a powerful punch. The audiobook is beautifully narrated by Saskia Maarleveld.
2019 Book I still need to read: Daisy Jones and The Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid. (I have the ARC. My husband read it. Yeah, I'm a loser...sigh.)
Middlegame is unlike anything that Seanan McGuire has written in the past, and yet it's a perfect distillation of everything Seanan McGuire and Mira Grant. Following the story of alchemical prodigy twins Roger and Dodger, separated at birth and raised on opposite coasts, we see the culmination of math and language, and the power of these two things to shape reality. Literally. Who would want to wield this power? Everyone. The audiobook is narrated by Amber Benson.
2019 Books I still need to read: Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James, and Gods of Jade and Shadow by Silvia Moreno-Garcia. (I really shockingly still have ARCs of these on my desk.)
Ancestral Night came at me out of the left-field, a recommendation from a friend on Goodreads who seldom steers me wrong. A space opera with elements of a thriller, it is the first in a new series by Elizabeth Bear. Like the Wayfarer format employed by Becky Chambers, each novel in the series will follow a different character. Haimey Dz, her work partner Connla, mindship Singer, and her two cats, Mephistopheles and Bushyasta, form the crew core of the Singer, a salvage vessel that happens on something mysterious. This novel had me on the edge of my seat at times, and some of the secondary characters are fabulous, as well. The audiobook was narrated by Nneka Okoye, and I would frankly listen to her read the telephone directory because her voice is so sonorous.
To Be Taught If Fortunate is a thought-provoking novella by Hugo Award-winning author Becky Chambers. While so much of science fiction encourages us to think of how we can change other worlds to suit human needs (terraforming, etc.) Chambers envisions a future in which humans modify themselves to travel to other worlds and thrive. Contemplating the deep loneliness and melancholy of leaving everyone you ever knew behind you forever, and the thrilling possibility of what you will find, this is novella is everything I love about Chambers' work- full of hope and promise and wonder. The audiobook is narrated by Brittany Pressley.
Max Gladstone is the author of one of my favorite fantasy series (The Craft Sequence) but here ventures into sci-fi with Empress of Forever, a space opera with a madcap crew that includes a character I can't get enough of, Zanj, a somewhat crazy pirate queen, though that doesn't even begin to describe her. The publisher has compared it to Guardians of the Galaxy with more women, but I don't think it needs the comparison. If you are looking for a fun romp that twists the best of Becky Chambers and mid-William Gibson together, this is it. The audiobook is well-narrated by Natalie Naudus.
2019 Book I still need to read: A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine. (I have this ARC, too.)
YOUNG ADULT FICTION
The Last True Poets of the Sea is a novel about figuring yourself and your family out. Violet is spending the summer with her uncle in her mother's hometown of Lyric, Maine after her brother tries to commit suicide. Violet hasn't been doing all that well herself and has been engaging in some counterproductive behavior (i.e., acting like a teenager), so her family wants to provide her a safe environment and well, maybe just get some recovery time for themselves. Violet, trying to understand herself, shows up in Lyric with her hair shorn, and in her dad's clothes. She finds friends, family history, and forgiveness. A lovely audiobook narrated by Tavia Gilbert.
Elizabeth Acevedo's (The Poet X) sophomore outing, With the Fire on High, gives the reader a zesty story with a pinch of magical realism. Emony is a high school student being raised by her grandmother. In spite of having Baby Girl at only fourteen years of age, she's managed through luck and faculty support to stay on track to graduate high school. Her greatest passion in life is cooking, so culinary arts classes seem like a natural fit, but only if Emony can put aside her pride, get some help raising her daughter, learn how to cook someone else's recipes and deal with the annoying new boy who keeps talking to her. This novel was really a delight. The audiobook is narrated by Elizabeth Acevedo, con sabor.
Make Your Home Among Strangers was a novel that caught my eye earlier this year when students angry after a discussion of white privilege burned the book on a university campus in Georgia. I wanted to read the book, first to see why it was chosen by the university in the first place, and to support Jennine Capó Crucet, the author. It sounds crazy to say that the best thing to happen to this book was the negative coverage, but I'm betting even more people have read it and are broadened by its message. Looking at the cultural and socioeconomic adjustments that young people from minorities face in a university setting, Make Your Home Among Strangers offers the reader a look at the challenges of minority students who gain entry into hallowed institutions. (Pretty sure the college featured here is meant to be Vassar.)
A Constellation of Roses is a book that was near and dear to my heart. After more than a decade of work in the child welfare system, the story of Trix McCabe is so real in some respects that I wonder about Miranda Asebedo's experiences or those of someone she loves. With classic touches of magical realism, we see Trix navigate the perilous path to a better, happier life with the help of a truly magical family.
Pan's Labyrinth: The Labyrinth of the Faun is a retelling of the Guillermo del Toro film of the same title. The publisher will tell you that it's a children's book, and I'm formally disagreeing. The child's mother dies. The child dies. It's an emotionally searing and incredibly beautiful parable about surviving tyranny with your soul intact. Set during the Spanish Civil War, the illustrations alone are worth the price of the hardcover. The audiobook by Thom Rivera aids with any pronunciation questions and is lyrical, like the dark fairy tale this book is.
2019 Books I still need to read: Fountains of Silence by Ruta Sepys and The Book of Dust: The Secret Commonwealth by Philip Pullman. (And even worse than having the paper copies of these books on my TBR pile on the desk, I have the audiobooks on my phone.)
YOUNG ADULT SERIES
The Wayward Children series by Seanan McGuire will have its fifth installment released the first week of January. For everyone who didn't fit their family, their school, the world they grew up in, this series is good as gold. If you're ace, gay, straight, cis, trans, goth, rainbow, fat, thin, if you are human, you will find yourself in these pages. One of the best series out there assuring marginalized teens that they are represented, seen, safe, in fiction. This series is the perfect gift for any teen feeling let down by JK Rowling's anti-trans rhetoric.
The series currently being adapted as His Dark Materials on HBO is part of a decades-long rambling and fabulous set of trilogies and novellas. The central trilogy, His Dark Materials, is bracketed by The Book of Dust, a trilogy in which the third book has yet to be written. I've placed the books in order of the timeline in the image above, which you can click on it and enlarge. This is one of the most imaginative and philosophical series I've ever read. HDM started out as a children's series, but I cannot classify The Book of Dust that way because there is a rape in the first book, La Belle Sauvage. (Saying that children don't understand it's a rape scene just minimizes rape in my opinion, so no...) For those of a religious bent, I feel it's important to point out that God is a captive, eventually turns to dust and blows away in HDM 3, The Amber Spyglass.
Snyder does an excellent job of giving us a poignant look at the ways children grieve their losses and struggle to express their fears. She also gives the middle-grade reader a look at subjects like teen homelessness, sibling death, and the fact that your peers may struggle silently with significant burdens. It's a novel that tackles these things while still managing to be upbeat in its conclusion.
Cog is a light-hearted story of a twelve-year-old boy who is actually a robot named Cog, short for cognitive development. When an accident leaves him in the hands of strange scientists in a lab, and he finds out they want to harvest his X-module, that's his brain people, Cog is off to start looking for his creator, Gina, who conveniently was transferred by the same evil scientists. With a crew including his sister ADA, Car, Trashbot, and Proto, Cog is off to find (and possibly rescue) Gina. This is a charming and playful story for young middle graders. Funny enough so that if you read with your child, or listen to audiobooks with your child, you'll enjoy it, too.
2019 Book I still need to read: Other Words for Home by Jasmine Warga.
There are so many great series out there for middle graders right now. Pretty much anything in the Rick Riordan Presents imprint is going to be great fun for your child, and let your child learn about other cultures. My current favorite is the Aru Shah Series with Arundhati Shah, her friend Yasmini (Mini), and as of book 2, their friend Aiden. Here again, is a series with such humor and great characters (Aru's mum is just smashing) that parents who read or listen along with their children will have a lot of enjoyment shared.
Although a friend recently pointed out that Mister Rogers is a very American phenomenon, his thoughts on what we tell children are valuable for any child of any culture. This is a lovely book of his poems that help children with a variety of things, including how they feel about themselves.
This incredibly sweet book about father-daughter love and a father helping his little girl with her curls is just a charmer. Former NFL player Matthew A. Cherry produced a short animated film after starting a Kickstarter campaign, and that film has been adapted into this picture book. As a curly girl myself, I can say I just love this one.
The third book in the Jack series, If I Built a School, lets kids contemplate all the amazing things they could do to make their world better for their peers. Full of hope and positivity, this is an excellent book for a child who dreams big.
2019 Book I still need to read: Sulwe by Lupita Nyong'o.
I have a few nonfiction books that I think are essential reads, especially for where we are right now in the world and in America. I keep recommending them to people. If even a tenth of you read one of these, it's a good thing.
Flickr. Arnade, who used to be a Wall Street guy, started photographing people in the Bronx more than a decade ago and telling their stories. Eventually, he started broadening his scope and looking at poverty in America, and those who have felt left behind by both political parties and by a system that ignores the impoverished and leaves them farther and farther behind. These are their stories. It's a beautiful and moving book. It's on my coffee table. I like to watch people's faces when they start flipping through it and reading. These are your fellow humans.
2019 Book I still want to read: Girl, Stop Apologizing by Rachel Hollis.
Now, why don't you tell me what you enjoyed most in 2019...
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