Onward to the fiction books of 2019! These were the books that wove intricate, imagined stories and characters and used them to reflect the true lives and realities around me. These are the books that made up the bulk of my reading year, filling it with color and distinct voices. These are the books I highlighted, annotated, dogeared, and potentially cried on. These were my favorite books.
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Jesmyn Ward£8.99 £8.36
Sing, Unburied, Sing is an intimate portrait of a family and all its dysfunction. The novel primarily focuses on Jojo, a boy on the cusp of manhood who is trying to figure out his own identity and his mother Leonie, who is trying to understand her lack of maternal feelings while grappling with her addiction. When Jojo’s white father sends word that he’s being released from Parchman Prison, Leonie packs up her kids and drives them to see him. On the drive, each character is confronted with what haunts them both literally and figuratively. A beautiful, overwhelming book that is made even more stunning by Ward’s lush and atmospheric writing. This is the book that started my love for Jesmyn Ward.
James Baldwin£8.99 £8.36
This is one of those books that is so perfectly set in its own time, while also being completely timeless. The story follows Tish and Fonny, lovers who are at the beginning of their future together when Fonny is accused and imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit. Baldwin takes us along as their respective families try to navigate an uncertain future and help clear Fonny’s name. There’s really nothing I can say that hasn’t already been said about this book. It’s exquisite. Baldwin writes Trish’s stream-of-consciousness and kaleidoscope of emotions so poetically and expertly that you feel it in your very bones as you read. It’s one of those books that I knew so much about going into it, and yet it took me completely by surprise. One of those books so incredible that I read it in a single sitting on a flight from MIA to DFW, and I made such an audible sigh when I finished that my seatmate asked me what I had been reading. That’s how you know it was good.
Jesmyn Ward£9.99 £9.29
If you thought my review of Sing, Unburied, Sing was glowing just wait till you hear what I thought of Salvage the Bones. Ward is one of those writers that with each book I read I think to myself, “no one else could ever write this story.” That is especially true about Salvage the Bones. In a fictional town in Mississippi, we meet a family preparing for Hurricane Katrina. The patriarch is largely absent, a heavy drinker, and still dealing with the ripple effects of losing his wife, and the four children are trying to find footing in a family short on parenting and guidance. As Katrina gains ground, the family grasp on to what they can of each other and try not to be pulled apart. Ward’s writing is always atmospheric but it truly ascends to a new level in this book. Having gone through Katrina herself, she writes about the oncoming storm with such stunning language that you can feel the sizzling heat and oppressive humidity as the storm bares down on you. It’s also an important look into how restrictive rural poverty is and an important response to anyone who criticized those who stayed before/during/after the hurricane. It’s a breathless read and it’s one I will continue to revisit.
Kamila Shamsie£8.99 £8.36
Shamsie flexes her writing chops with this one by creating one of the most interesting sibling dynamics I’ve ever read. After years of taking care of her younger twin siblings in the wake of their mothers death, Isma is finally free. She’s accepted an invitation from a mentor in America. But once there, she still can’t shake her worries about her sister Aneeka back in London, or their brother Parvaiz who has disappeared to follow the legacy of the jihadist father he never knew. A chance encounter at a coffee shop one day brings Eamonn, the son of a powerful political figure, into the sisters lives. Suddenly, the two families become irrevocably intertwined and the consequences are devastating. This book has vivid characters, raises important social and political questions, and has one of those endings that leaves you breathless. Pick this one up if you want a fast-paced read that doesn’t compromise on substance.
Taylor Jenkins Reid£8.99 £8.36
This is just a fun read through and through. Daisy Jones and The Six documents the epic rise and fall of an iconic 70’s rock band. Told in an interview-style format, it takes you right back to those VH1 Behind the Music features that you probably watched as a teen. While this book is insanely hyped up, for me it lived up to it. There are three things that Reid does well in this book and that’s what takes it a step above just a fun read. First, she very cleverly plays with memory. She wrote different members of the band telling the same scene/story but each with discrepancies and differences. Leaving it up to you, the reader, to figure out who you believed or where the truth was. Secondly, the female characters in this book are all fascinated, complicated, and multi-faceted. No annoying or outdated tropes. Third, Reid wrote in an interview-style format for the whole book and yet each voice is distinctive and unique. Of course, if you want the full effect of this 70’s rock drama, you should read it while listening to Fleetwood Mac’s Rumors. It’s the perfect pairing.
Bryan Washington£8.99 £8.36
Lot is a short story collection set in Houston, with each story focusing on a different family or set of characters in each part of the city. I thought this short story collection was very clever in the way it’s structured, and the common thread of Houston running through each one made the collection very cohesive. Washington presents important subjects such as race and sexuality all against a coming-of-age backdrop. Houston is so distinct in each story that it becomes a character all its own. It’s a short story collection best read as a traditional novel, no dipping in and out. Just fully immersing yourself in the interconnected and interwoven stories.
Khaled Hosseini£8.99 £8.36
If you normally avoid male authors because of the way they tend to write women, I have a book for you. Though written by a male, it’s written so attuned to the female voices that I forgot it was a male writer numerous times. Hosseini focuses on the lives of two women, Mariam and Laila, in the turbulent and war torn history of Afghanistan. We follow their lives through 30 years of war, invasions, betrayals, friendship, hope, and love. Wrapped up in the story of the women's enduring friendship, is essentially a history lesson of Afghanistan. But even with all of the information Hosseini provides, the story never feels bogged down or overwrought with too many details, it flows seamlessly. This book is especially important in a post-9/11 world where vilification of Islamic countries happens constantly in the media. Reading a story, even a fictional one, is a great step in erasing that narrative.
Sarah Winman£8.99 £8.36
There’s something special about this book. It’s one of those that you pick up, note it’s small size, and probably think “ah well, how much can you really say in there?” And yet, it completely bowls you over. The writing is dreamy as it floats seamlessly between past and present, telling the story of two men, Ellis and Michael, as they grow from young boys to adults. We’re shown early on just how strong their friendship was when they were boys, but when we meet Ellis as an older man, he’s lost contact with his once best friend. Through melancholy fragments, we piece together what happened. It’s delicate, tender, and left me with an aching sadness worse than any tearjerker I’ve read.
Laura Elizabeth Woollett£12.99 £12.08
Books about cults are one of my favorite niches. So when I found out there was a fictionalized account of Jonestown that focused on his right-hand woman, I knew I had to read it. Lucky for me, it turned out to be incredible. Though it is a fictionalized account, the amount of research the author put into this book is very apparent as every character and their own motivation is perfectly fleshed out. She provides a clear-eyed portrait of the infamous man without romanticizing him or his actions, yet she doesn’t sensationalize him either. Everything in this book is just perversely human. With this account, she tries to answer previously unanswered questions and I think she accomplishes that. As the reader, you’re able to understand why, in a time of draft cards and civil rights violations, someone would try to find a semblance of “God” and “Paradise” in a man like Jim Jones. She was also able to create an intense feeling of dread that crescendoed to a fever pitch by it’s fateful end. The whole thing left me stunned.
Holly Ringland£8.99 £8.36
Equal parts captivating story and love letter to diverse Australian landscapes, The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart is a whirlwind. The story opens up with nine-year-old Alice Hart, who lives by the sea with her mother and abusive father. From a young age, Alice has learned to navigate the changing tides of her father's moods, but one day a terrible tragedy occurs. Reeling from the aftermath and the grief that threatens to overwhelm her, Alice is taken in by her grandmother June. June owns Thornfield, a flower farm, where many women have come to escape trauma and learn the ancient language of the flowers. Through this language, Alice learns to voice the things that she can’t find the words for. However, Thornfield holds secrets that cannot remain buried forever and eventually they bloom with startling consequences. If you read this book, I recommend buying the physical copy. The cover is obviously gorgeous but what you don’t see upon first look are all the beautiful illustrations of native flowers hidden inside. It’s a reading experience unlike any other and while there’s no magical realism in this story, it feels like one of the most magical books I’ve ever read.
Kathleen Alcott£8.99 £8.36
Focusing on the consequences of a brief affair between Fay Fern and Vincent Kahn, this wildly ambitious novel shows how even the briefest of interactions can have consequences that linger for decades after. After their affair, Vincent goes on to be the first man on the moon, starting a legacy that will glorify and overshadow him his whole life. While Fay becomes the face of a violent leftist anti-war group that frames the last Apollo mission as a ploy to distract the American people from the atrocities of their own country. It’s a winding and sprawling story that uses fantastically vivid characters to showcase the history of the 60’s and 70’s.
Ruchika Tomar£14.99 £13.94
Told in fevered nonlinear chapters, A Prayer for Travelers is a story that gripped me from the first page. Cale and Penny are two girls living in a Nevada desert town and desperately dreaming of escaping it. When Penny goes missing, Cale’s life is set adrift as she frantically searches for her. What follows is an intense and vivid exploration of female friendships and female trauma. Reading this was like tumbling down a rabbit hole where hours seem to melt away as I was too transfixed to focus on anything else. In the beginning, I was worried about what sort of pacing could be created in a nonlinear format but the pacing turned out to be one of the best parts of this book. It’s chaotic, it’s fevered, and it’s all consuming as you jump back and forth in time while piecing together anything and everything you can to figure out what happened. The writing is stunning, atmospheric, and (like so many of my favorite books) the desert itself became its own oppressive character bearing down on the lives of these two women. It’s a book that will reward its reader just as much as it will challenge them.
Mr John Steinbeck£8.99 £8.36
Classics have always terrified me. So when a few of my bookstagram friends recommended this to me, I was understandably apprehensive. Not only is it a classic that it seems everyone has read but me, but it’s a behemoth. A clunker. A book that could easily be used as a doorstop. In other words, it’s huge. However, after succumbing to peer pressure, I decided to give it a shot and my mind was completely changed. Now I am a believer and I will happily parrot every piece of praise for this book that I can. East of Eden is a modern retelling of Cain and Abel, which if you’ve blocked out old bible school lessons like I have, it’s basically the first brother vs. brother story. Even more so though, it’s the history of two families in California’s Salinas Valley. Steinbeck is a master of language, and his descriptive writing kept me interested through the entire 600 pages. And the characters! THE CHARACTERS! I was so invested in each of their lives, and loved and hated them all equally. It was one of those books that gives you a book hangover partly because it feels like such a bittersweet accomplishment to finish, but mostly because you don’t want to say goodbye to the characters you’ve met.
Bianca Marais£12.99 £12.08
If You Want to Make God Laugh tells the incredible story of three women brought together because of a baby left on a doorstep in post-apartheid South Africa. Set against the backdrop of the AIDS epidemic and the election of Nelson Mandela, the story is told in the alternating perspectives of Delilah: an ex nun, Ruth: her sister and an ex socialite/soon to be divorcee, and Zodwa: a pregnant teenage girl living in a squatter camp. As the mystery around the baby deepens, the lives of the three women become irrevocably changed and intertwined. From the first page this story swept me away. The distinct voice of each of these women broke my heart and then gently, painstakingly put it back together again. What Marais manages to pack into this novel is nothing short of impressive. This novel covers white supremacy, rape, racism, and homophobia, but at it’s core it’s about what it means to be a mother and to love with a mothers love. It never felt overwrought with too many details, or too many themes. It just felt like a perfect mosaic with each piece adding to and enriching the final story. If I had to pick only one book from this list to pass on to you, dear reader, it would be this one. Not only a favorite of 2019, but of forever.
Sigrid Nunez£8.99 £8.36
When a woman loses her best friend and mentor, she finds herself the new caretaker of the Great Dane he left behind. Under the threat of eviction, due to her apartments rules on dogs, she must learn to take care of her new grief-stricken dog and also keep herself from unraveling. Shame on me for thinking this is “just a dog book” and almost allowing myself to miss out on this stunning meditation on loss, grief, writing, and reading. This is one of those slim books that packs a big emotional punch. The writing is smart, at times funny, and constantly thought-provoking. I think it’s one of those books that may not be appreciated sometimes because it’s not plot driven. I’m not even sure I would say it’s character driven either (although the Great Dane, Apollo, is an incredible character), but more a story driven by musings. There’s just so much explored in this book that I found myself highlighting whole paragraphs and then just giving up and coming to the understanding that the whole damn book should be highlighted. It’s a book that lingers long after you’ve turned the final page.