51 Favorite Books of 2019

  • November 25, 2019

Who are we to declare certain books "the best"? Instead, we offer here, in no particular order, some of our most-loved titles of the year.

51 Favorite Books of 2019

The Heavens: A Novel by Sandra Newman (Grove Press). Reviewed by Elena Mikalsen. “The Heavens blends elements of speculative, historical, and literary fiction with mastery. I enjoyed Newman’s humor, eccentric descriptions, and period dialogue. The most impressive aspect of the novel, however, is the author’s ability to portray the fluidity of Kate and Ben’s reality. I found myself lost in it as much as the characters were and desperate for reassurance at the end. I strongly recommend The Heavens as an intelligent and superbly entertaining read.”

The Current: A Novel by Tim Johnston (Algonquin Books). Reviewed by Bob Duffy. “The Current is not your conventional, frenetically paced page-turner, although it smolders with a brooding, slow-burn tension that nudges the reader forward, catching you up in the lives of the troubled solitaries at the book’s core. Beneath its mystery-novel trappings — wielded with consummate mastery by the author — The Current is also a novel about the haunting persistence of memory.”

Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James (Riverhead Books). Reviewed by Josh Denslow. “Black Leopard, Red Wolf is as dark and pulsing as blood from a fresh wound, nearly bursting with tragically flawed characters and some of the most truly musical dialogue in any book, fantasy or otherwise. As Tracker moves from village to village, the secrets become more harrowing, and it seems that, everywhere, children are in trouble.”

The Peacock Feast: A Novel by Lisa Gornick (Sarah Crichton Books). Reviewed by Jennifer Klepper. “The Peacock Feast doesn’t have the contemporary, fast-paced sense of so many historical novels today, instead embracing an old-fashioned feel. It’s more ‘tea in the drawing room’ than #wineandbooks on Instagram, with ambling sentences meant to be read and not binged, and a sense of literary leisure at times evocative of the Gilded Age that anchors it.”

Bowlaway: A Novel by Elizabeth McCracken (Ecco). Reviewed by Robert Allen Papinchak. “Elizabeth McCracken’s Bowlaway is a perfect novel. It takes classic narrative techniques and turns them into Greek drama. It is the very best kind of old-fashioned story molded into a modern chronicle. If it were a 19th-century novel, it would come with a frontispiece of a family tree, which would be appropriate for the jigsaw genealogy of Bowlaway.”

Separate: The Story of Plessy v. Ferguson, and America’s Journey from Slavery to Segregation by Steve Luxenberg (W.W. Norton & Company). Reviewed by Y.S. Fing. “This is two decades before the Civil War and 50 misty years before the Supreme Court decided on the Plessy case. For those intervening years, Luxenberg provides the biographies of four of the most important people who would be involved in the case: John Harlan, Henry Brown, Albion Tourgee, and Louis Martinet. The reader’s great honor and delight is to follow Luxenberg as he intertwines their stories…”

The Book of Delights: Essays by Ross Gay (Algonquin Books). Reviewed by Jennifer Bort Yacovissi. “Even better (or, as the author would say, ‘Delight!’), this is a physically small book that fits nicely in the reader’s hands. Each essay stands satisfyingly on its own, at most six or eight pages, more often two or fewer. All of which goes to say that it’s a book that begs to be carried along, offering insight and delight in whatever slice of time a reader may have. This is flash nonfiction.”

Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland by Patrick Radden Keefe (Doubleday). Reviewed by Tom Glenn. “During the early years of the Troubles, I was in Vietnam. Later, I was operating undercover elsewhere. I was so focused on my own survival that I paid little attention to the ghastly happenings in Northern Ireland. So much of Keefe’s story was new to me. Even as one who has experienced gruesome events on the battlefield, I often had to put Say Nothing aside as I recovered from the shock of the events depicted. Keefe is blatant in his narration. He should have been. The story of the Troubles is grim history best told graphically.”

Antisemitism: Here and Now by Deborah E. Lipstadt (Schocken). Reviewed by Helene Meyers. “Deborah E. Lipstadt’s Antisemitism: Here and Now was written after Charlottesville and before Pittsburgh. Since its release in late January, a spate of less-publicized but no less terrorizing attacks against identifiable Jews in Brooklyn has occurred, and a member of Congress has trafficked in antisemitism and apologized for it. In other words, the timeliness of Lipstadt’s nuanced and accessible discussion of contemporary antisemitism cannot be overstated.”

The Pioneers: The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal West by David McCullough (Simon & Schuster). Reviewed by Talmage Boston. “True to form, McCullough unfolds the almost-forgotten history in a fast-paced chronological sequence. Why did a small group of Revolutionary War veterans in Massachusetts want to leave their homes in 1787 and head west to the lonely virgin forests of the Ohio Country? So they could receive a measure of compensation for their wartime service, since the government had not paid them. Our fledgling country was insolvent, and its currency had become almost worthless.”

Doing Justice: A Prosecutor’s Thoughts on Crime, Punishment, and the Rule of Law by Preet Bharara (Knopf). Reviewed by Kitty Kelley. “But now we have an un-put-down-able primer from the former U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York (SDNY), written with immense skill and engaging style. He’s tough, smart, and funny. He does not condescend to readers without legal credentials but clearly explains what ‘confirmation bias’ is, what ‘proffers’ are, and why most trial lawyers won’t risk irritating judges with ‘a motion for reconsideration.’”

The Night Tiger: A Novel by Yangsze Choo (Flatiron Books). Reviewed by Patricia Schultheis. “The Night Tiger is a galloping good read that’s blessedly free of political polemics and post-colonial self-righteousness. Instead, what author Yangsze Choo has given readers is a darn good yarn replete with shape-shifting tigers, severed fingers, complex sibling bonds, an evil stepparent, vivid dreamscapes, thwarted love, a psychopathic serial killer, poison, and grave-robbing.”

What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Blacker: A Memoir in Essays by Damon Young (Ecco). Reviewed by Tara Campbell. “I hasten to add here, Young’s an equal-opportunity critic. He doesn’t just point a finger at white-power dynamics, but also at misogyny, toxic masculinity, performative violence, and homophobia — and how all of these elements manifest in black culture. He often does this by calling himself out and examining some identity traps he’s fallen into during his life. He exposes his past mistakes, setting his former, younger self up as straw man of sorts to reflect on less enlightened ways of thinking and behaving.”

Finder by Suzanne Palmer (DAW). Reviewed by Andrea M. Pawley. “In short order, Mother Vahn acquaints Fergus with the scope of tragedy possible in Cernekan: cracked sunshields, punctured human habitats, messy sewage bots, non-healing suit breaches, and the corrosive effects of the light substitute she smears onto Fergus' hands in the moments after their cable car is attacked. All that in chapter one. It's wonderful.”

Look How Happy I'm Making You: Stories by Polly Rosenwaike (Doubleday). Reviewed by Cathy Alter. “Polly Rosenwaike's debut story collection, Look How Happy I’m Making You, should be required reading for all women of childbearing age (and for mothers potential, new, or, like me, seven years in). It's a book I wish I’d had during my days of should I or shouldn't I, one that offers an honest, funny, and devastating look at the complexities of becoming — or not becoming — a mother.”

Miracle Creek: A Novel by Angie Kim (Sarah Crichton Books). Reviewed by Drew Gallagher. “The structure of Miracle Creek derives from the subsequent trial tied to the murder charges leveled against the mother of one of the children killed in the incident. Author Kim, an attorney by trade, does the courtroom drama exceptionally well. She brings more nuance to the proceedings than the 15 minutes allotted in a typical ‘Law and Order’ episode, but manages the police-procedural effect by casting doubt on the assumptions readers made just a few pages earlier. I’m not familiar with how Kim fared as an attorney, but she appears to be a capable weaver of intrigue.”

Courting Mr. Lincoln: A Novel by Louis Bayard (Algonquin Books). Reviewed by David O. Stewart. “So, yeah, it turns out that we needed another book about Lincoln. This one. In Courting Mr. Lincoln, Louis Bayard, an accomplished historical novelist, breathes life into the massive cultural icon whom we know so well, but really don’t have much of a clue about.”

Working: Researching, Interviewing, Writing by Robert A. Caro (Knopf). Reviewed by Joseph A. Esposito. “Two characteristics emerge from Caro’s commentary: persistence and meticulousness. Whether in researching documents or, more especially, in tracking down interviewees and grilling them, he is like a dog with a bone — he pushes until he gets what he believes is the last possible detail and the definitive explanation.”

A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II by Sonia Purnell (Viking). Reviewed by Bob Duffy. “But here’s the real stunner in this bold and fearless woman’s saga, a factor that might have deterred (or disqualified) a less-determined individual: Hall’s right leg is missing below the knee. Ten years before going undercover in France, she loses her leg in a hunting accident while serving as a State Department clerk in Turkey.”

The Murmur of Bees: A Novel by Sofía Segovia; translated by Simon Bruni (Amazon Crossing). Reviewed by Sally Shivnan. “A magical-realism romp from Mexico, Sofía Segovia’s The Murmur of Bees — her first novel translated into English — offers a dizzying swirl of history, family lore, tragedy, redemption, and, of course, magic. It’s the kind of magic that Latin-American authors have developed to a high and subtle art, and it infuses every page of this saga.”

Everything Is Just Fine: A Novel by Brett Paesel (Grand Central Publishing). Reviewed by Heidi Mastrogiovanni. “I have to tell you about this delightful book I just read. I’m recommending it to literally EVERYONE. It’s called Everything Is Just Fine, and it’s by Brett Paesel. She’s a writer and consulting producer and actor, and I bet she’s hilarious in person, because her book is a hoot. I swear, she hooks you right from the first moment, when she starts the story with hints of past tragedy and with the promise of a decisive act. Yeah, good luck trying not to immediately turn the page after reading that.”

Recursion by Blake Crouch (Crown). Reviewed by Jamie Mason. “It’s almost impossible to overstate in a non-spoilery review how impressive this feat is. What ‘Inception’ did for dreams, Recursion does for memories, but arguably a bit more cleanly. And it kind of had to be that way because Crouch wasn’t content to come off merely undaunted by the task of mapping out a heady techno-thriller. No, he had to go for the throat. Or the tender heart, as it were. Threaded through the plot’s whiplash and satisfying turns is a love story so poignant and wrenching, it should rattle any armor against the mushy stuff.”

The Bookshop of the Broken Hearted: A Novel by Robert Hillman (G.P. Putnam’s Sons). Reviewed by Robert Allen Papinchak. “The nail-biting conclusion of The Bookshop of the Broken Hearted subsumes catastrophe. Its exultant resolution underscores the optimistic belief that ‘the past exerts itself to influence the future.’ Hillman’s vivid observations of regional details, keen perceptions of local customs, absorbing storyline, and sympathetic characters make the novel impossible to put down.”

Underland: A Deep Time Journey by Robert Macfarlane (W.W. Norton & Company). Reviewed by Gretchen Lida. “To write Underland: A Deep Time Journey, Robert Macfarlane becomes a modern-day Indiana Jones. He squeezes himself into tunnels beneath Paris, speeds through potash mines with a dark-matter scientist in England, and narrowly avoids falling down a crevasse on a mountainside in Norway. Unlike Dr. Jones searching for the Ark, however, Macfarlane is in search of wonder and an understanding of time.”

Mr. Know-It-All: The Tarnished Wisdom of a Filth Elder by John Waters (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). Reviewed by Barry Wightman. “Then he’s dead. And Mr. Know-It-All injects us into a loud, Sensurround, Grade-D horror movie, a scene worthy of ‘a Hieronymus Bosch painting come to life…but all its citizens are happy…all filth elders themselves no matter what their field…all equally damaged; infallible and victorious.’ That would be us. And so, this humane and incongruously inviting book ends. Maybe I didn’t miss that disreputable boat after all.”

Mark Twain’s Literary Resources: A Reconstruction of His Library and Reading by Alan Gribben (NewSouth Books). Reviewed by Philip K. Jason. “It is great fun to join Gribben as he puts us into this significant part of Twain’s life. While much of Gribben’s work is the bedrock business of fact-collecting, the delights come from his many ways of exploring for his readers what Twain’s collected reading means in understanding the classic American author as a man, a creative force, and as both an appreciator and detractor of the writings of others.”

The First Wave: The D-Day Warriors Who Led the Way to Victory in World War II by Alex Kershaw (Dutton Caliber). Reviewed by James A. Percoco. “This is not a sweeping, panoramic history of senior commanders in 1944 plotting battle strategies. Rather, it’s an honest, boots-on-the-ground tale of men from the United States, Canada, Great Britain, and France who endured combat in what General Dwight D. Eisenhower called ‘the Great Crusade,’ the liberation of Nazi-occupied Europe.”

Skeleton Keys: The Secret Life of Bone by Brian Switek (Riverhead Books). Reviewed by Mariko Hewer. “It’s impossible to read a book about bones without thinking of one’s own mortality. Bones may not be the flashiest, sexiest parts of our existence, but they do what no other organ or system can — they hold our very beings together. This is the message Brian Switek seeks to convey in Skeleton Keys: The Secret Life of Bone. He succeeds, with very few exceptions.”

In West Mills: A Novel by De’Shawn Charles Winslow (Bloomsbury Publishing). Reviewed by Bob Duffy. “De’Shawn Charles Winslow’s debut novel reminds us that a story doesn’t have to be big and brassy to be uplifting. Set mostly in mid-20th-century North Carolina, In West Mills is lovingly atmospheric, carrying us off to a tiny fleck on the map, and one that’s exotically unfamiliar to many readers.”

China Dream: A Novel by Ma Jian; translated by Flora Drew (Counterpoint). Reviewed by Alice Stephens. “As with the best satire, the most shocking details in the novel are the ones that are true. The tragic, horrible, bloody history of the Communist Party’s rule is thoroughly cataloged, from the land-reform campaign during Mao’s rise to power…to the famine caused by the Great Leap Forward…to the depravities of the Cultural Revolution, described in horrific detail…”

George Marshall: Defender of the Republic by David L. Roll (Dutton Caliber). Reviewed by Paul Dickson. “Roll’s work — which profits from new sources, including personal letters not made public until recently — does not supersede Forrest Pogue’s monumental four-volume Marshall biography as much as it supplements it with new material and a vigorous new vision of Marshall’s character and significance. Roll’s work is a highly focused depiction of Marshall that vividly recounts moments in the man’s life and then puts those moments into historical context.”

Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss by Margaret Renkl (Milkweed Editions). Reviewed by Gretchen Lida. “Late Migrations is a book about grief, yet within that grief lies beauty, wonder, and love. It is also a book about nature and family, and it is self-conscious enough to understand that the wild world and the domestic one exist in a braided ecosystem that hums with meaning. It’s Renkl’s ability to lean in and name the heartbreak that makes Late Migrations worth the read.”

The Weil Conjectures: On Math and the Pursuit of the Unknown by Karen Olsson (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). Reviewed by Ronald K.L. Collins. “Much of that same literary touch, a similar psychological mindset, and a similar sense of serious playfulness is be found on the pages of The Weil Conjectures. As I pondered page after page, I wondered what it would be like to chat with Olsson over coffee, if only to experience the delight of her cerebral company and the spectacle of her in rounded glasses and a black beret.”

Endeavour: The Ship that Changed the World by Peter Moore (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). Reviewed by Mark Gamin. “The book’s ultimate point, though, is well made: The span of the ship’s life, 1764-78, ‘forms a crucial mini epoch in the development of Western society.’ One might add that Endeavour: The Ship that Changed the World is, as its namesake vessel was, all over the place — in a good way.”

Tell Me Who We Were: Stories by Kate McQuade (William Morrow). Reviewed by Janet A. Martin. “This book prompts me to define it by what it is not. It is not a story to rush. It’s not chick lit. It’s not a beach read. Not a whodunit. Not necessarily a book that’s easy to understand the first time through. This is a slim volume to ponder, full of writing to savor, to glean meaning from. It is the evocation of universal memory, imagination, and emotion — prose that is at once lyrical and deep, telling stories in a language and style that is uniquely McQuade’s.”

Hollow Kingdom: A Novel by Kira Jane Buxton (Grand Central Publishing). Reviewed by Josh Denslow. “I was skeptical going in, because I wasn't sure if I'd ever be able to relate to a domesticated crow. There was also this nagging feeling that Hollow Kingdom just couldn't possibly work. I mean, how could it? A trash-talking crow? Zombies? All wrapped in social commentary and an environmentalist slant? No way. But, against all odds, Buxton pulls it off.”

Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language by Gretchen McCulloch (Riverhead Books). Reviewed by Jennifer Golbeck. “If you love a statistical take on which syllables have to be emphasized for something to be funny, or when your typography crosses the line from enthusiasm to sarcasm, Because Internet is for you. Ever wonder why it feels okay to send three eggplant emojis but not to combine one with, say, a corncob and cucumber emoji? McCulloch has you covered.”

A Kitchen in the Corner of the House by Ambai; translated by Lakshmi Holmström (Archipelago Books). Reviewed by Adele Annesi. “The Tamil people…find their identity in their language. This linguistic heritage gives Ambai…her unique voice and vision. Because of the varied and sometimes irregular use of writing styles and occasionally disembodied dialogue, each Kitchen story is best experienced as a journey to an exotic locale savored for its sensuality, mystery, and daily life at times more easily imbibed than understood.”

Imaginary Friend: A Novel by Stephen Chbosky (Grand Central Publishing). Reviewed by Robert Allen Papinchak. “With Imaginary Friend, Stephen Chbosky has written another classic, setting a new high watermark for fantasy horror. It is the greatest story ever told of love and salvation in which a little child shall save them. It is as spine-tinglingly sinister as any Stephen King tome, as ghastly as any ghost story by Peter Straub, as gothic as any Neil Gaiman title. It should become a horror perennial, taken out at Halloween and Christmas or any other time a reader wants a proper fright.”

She Said: Breaking the Sexual Harassment Story that Helped Ignite a Movement by Jodi Kantor & Megan Twohey (Penguin Press). Reviewed by Kitty Kelley. “The book provides a platinum primer on investigative reporting as Kantor and Twohey take readers inside their responsible march to publication: It’s a tale of lawyers who vet, editors who edit, and researchers who check and re-check facts while the reporters write and rewrite and rewrite again.”

Suicide Woods: Stories by Benjamin Percy (Graywolf Press). Reviewed by Anjili Babbar. “A bear mauling humans and squeezing into their clothes to do the shopping. People willingly buried alive to alleviate suicidal tendencies. Time-traveling, murderous telephone calls. A corpse on a train. Embodied memories that haunt, taunt, and refuse to be ignored. Benjamin Percy’s new collection, Suicide Woods, is a total nightmare — in the best way possible.”

Make It Scream, Make It Burn: Essays by Leslie Jamison (Little, Brown and Company). Reviewed by Jennifer Bort Yacovissi. “I am pleased to report that the title does not reflect the content, though I’m left to wonder who argued for it and won (my money’s on Marketing). If it were up to me, the title would have been Longing, Looking, Dwelling — the headings of the book’s three sections, and far more reflective of Jamison’s use of language and more evocative of the themes she explores.”

Silver, Sword & Stone: Three Crucibles of the Latin American Story by Marie Arana (Simon & Schuster). Reviewed by Bárbara Mujica. “What do the widow of an impoverished Peruvian miner, a drug-dealing thug operating in Washington, DC, and an earnest Catalonian Jesuit have in common? As Marie Arana shows in the beautifully written, meticulously researched Silver, Sword & Stone, they are all products of the three crucibles of Latin American history: silver, sword, and stone.”

Dad’s Maybe Book by Tim O’Brien (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). Reviewed by Michael McCarthy. “With his profoundly wonderful Dad’s Maybe Book, Tim O’Brien takes a decidedly different approach to journaling and memoir. In 2004, shortly after becoming a father for the first time at age 58, O’Brien set out to record the lives of his two sons to help them — and him — remember. He admits there was no bookish impulse. ‘My audience,’ he says, ‘if there were to ever be an audience, was two little boys and no one else.’”

The Last Train to London: A Novel by Meg Waite Clayton (Harper). Reviewed by D.A. Spruzen. “In The Last Train to London, there are three such remarkable characters (Tante Truus, Stephan, and Zofie-Helene), and the astonishing events surrounding the rescue mission are not widely known. Despite one quibble — I would’ve liked a glimpse into the future of lovebirds Stephan and Zofie-Helene — my own journey through this story was a rollercoaster of sorrow, anger, joy, and hope.”

The Undying: Pain, Vulnerability, Mortality, Medicine, Art, Time, Dreams, Data, Exhaustion, Cancer and Care by Anne Boyer (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). Reviewed by Rose Rankin. “Boyer’s account is not a typical survivor story; in many ways, it even eschews the label of ‘survivor.’ Instead, it’s a sprawling examination of the personal suffering, public mythology, and persistent societal failings surrounding the treatment of breast cancer and those who endure it.”

When the Plums Are Ripe: A Novel by Patrice Nganang; translated by Amy B. Reid (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). Reviewed by Yelizaveta P. Renfro. “While Nganang is adept at posing these larger questions, When the Plums Are Ripe is not a history book but rather a novel peopled with a host of vividly drawn characters that bring history alive. And though the novel covers the doings of significant figures like Charles de Gaulle and François Leclerc, the real heart of the story lies in village life, with ordinary people for whom the world conflict feels distant — at least, in the beginning.”

Girl, Woman, Other: A Novel by Bernardine Evaristo (Black Cat). Reviewed by Robert Allen Papinchak. “Superlatives pale in the shadow of the monumental achievement of Girl, Woman, Other. Few adjectives suffice. It’s hard not to overpraise this brilliant novel. Evaristo’s verbal acrobatics do things language shouldn’t be able to do. It’s a Cirque du Soleil of fiction. Readers should put down whatever book they’re reading and immerse themselves in this one. Bernardine Evaristo is the writer of the year. Girl, Woman, Other is the book of the decade.

The American Story: Conversations with Master Historians by David M. Rubenstein (Simon & Schuster). Reviewed by Kitty Kelley. “The American Story shows almost every president to have had a flaw that scarred his legacy: FDR turned away Jewish refugees, sending them back to sure death under Hitler; JFK misfired on the Bay of Pigs; Richard Nixon resigned over Watergate; Vietnam doomed Lyndon Johnson; and, with the exception of John Adams, all the Founding Fathers owned slaves. Yet, as Walter Isaacson put it so well, ‘The Founders were the best team ever fielded.’”

The Anarchy: The East India Company, Corporate Violence, and the Pillage of an Empire by William Dalrymple (Bloomsbury Publishing). Reviewed by Ellen L. Frost. “The author is a marvelous storyteller. By quoting extensively from the company’s own voluminous records, private letters, and diaries, Persian-language sources, eyewitness accounts penned by an insightful local historian, and other reports, Dalrymple creates a ‘You Are There’ environment for the reader that makes the book hard to put down.”

Betrayal in Berlin: The True Story of the Cold War’s Most Audacious Espionage Operation by Steve Vogel (Custom House). Reviewed by Bob Duffy. “In marvelous widescreen style, cross-cutting from Berlin to Washington to London, author Vogel gives us a virtually month-by-month account of the tunnel’s excavation and operation. His scrupulously detailed account never fails to keep the reader engaged, most notably in the inter-governmental runup to the mission and, later, in the oil-and-water interplay among the officials responsible for its construction and operation.”  

Love pretentious lists with no real value? Click here to support the nonprofit Independent!
comments powered by Disqus