Haven’t read all of these, but I’ve thoroughly enjoyed all but one of the ones I’ve read, which is always a good start.
Our Favorite Books of 2019
By Jeff Somers•December 11, 2019•9 min read
It’s hard to believe that 2019 is nearly over — but one glance at the bookshelf confirms that yes, 12 months of great books have just about gone by. This year was an embarrassment of riches in terms of great releases across genres, and we’d venture to guess that many of the books published in 2019 will be perennial recommendations for years to come. That means that choosing the best books of 2019 wasn’t easy, but the books on this list tell the story of 2019 in ways that educate, entertain, and emotionally satisfy.
Taddeo’s journalistic approach to female desire and relationships followed a trio of modern women — a student having an affair with a teacher, a married woman cheating on her husband, and a spouse pushed into uncomfortable places by her partner — and produced one of the most insightful books of the year. This is a subject that is still too often ignored in the modern day, and Taddeo’s judgment-free approach is refreshing and fascinating.
A crackling historical thriller that combines deeply researched details with perfect pacing, The Huntress tells the story of a team of obsessive, rag-tag Nazi hunters trying to bring a monster to justice. This monster is the Huntress, a woman who killed desperate refugees, including children, while the Nazis swarmed Europe — but she’s managed to slip away to Boston under a new name. In Boston, a young photographer is introduced to her new stepmother, an Austrian refugee named Anneliese, who brings with her a young daughter, a war orphan. As the Nazi hunters close in, Jordan struggles to trust her new stepmother and the tension rises, making this the must-read book of the year for fans of historical fiction.
Michaelides’s debut has all the sizzling tension of a modern psychological drama with all the clever clue-dropping of a classic Agatha Christie mystery. When a celebrated painter apparently murders her husband, she stops speaking. Years later, an ambitious doctor thinks he can get her to finally talk, and begins working with her. Flashing between the present-day and her diary entries, this is one of those pulse-pounding stories where no one is exactly what they seem.
2019 was a watershed year for fantasy by diverse authors drawing on myths and legends other than those of Western Europe. James, winner of the 2015 Man Booker Prize, takes African folklore and spins it into one of the best new fantasy novels in recent years, a story of supernaturally-gifted Tracker trying to recover an abducted child with the on-again, off-again help of a shape-shifting mercenary. James brings literary chops to a story of magic and adventure, and the result is a book that everyone can enjoy.
Whitehead followed up his Pulitzer Prize–winning The Underground Railroad with this sharp, devastating story of a brutal Florida reform school, based on a real-life institution. Elwood Curtis is a young black man inspired by Martin Luther King Jr. in the early 1960s. When he accepts a ride in a stolen car, he’s sent to the Nickel Academy, where in theory he can earn his way to freedom with hard work and academic discipline. In reality, the crushing force of racism makes Nickel a torture chamber that many boys don’t ever leave, and Whitehead’s fluid prose makes you feel every injustice and every spark of anger — and despair.
Everyone in the modern age is familiar with psychotherapy, if only through the depictions of therapists in film and television. But Gottlieb, a practicing therapist, demystifies the profession. In a warm and entertaining style, she discusses both her experiences working with patients and her anxiety as she herself begins seeing a new therapist — offering readers insights into both sides of the coin. Along the way, Gottlieb offers a glimpse into her life and personality and how she balances professional and personal lives. And her descriptions of the sessions with her patients as she helps them deal with problems big and small, sad and hilarious — and sometimes tragically insoluble — are fascinating. You’ll never look at therapists in the same way.
Perhaps the buzziest book of the year, Tolentino’s collection of essays wrestles with the overlap of our online existence and real-life one. Tolentino doesn’t just chronicle our new social media-soaked era, she lives in it and emerges with sharp, intelligent things to say about it. Mixing in her own personal experience even when it’s not necessarily complimentary gives her conclusions and opinions weight, and makes these nine essays honest and timely.
Miracle Creek is a standout legal thriller. Written by a retired trial lawyer, it offers a thrillingly intricate story crammed full of left turns and surprises. In the titular town located in Virginia, the Yoo family operates a hyperbaric oxygen therapy business that lets people sit in the “Miracle Submarine” to breathe pure, pressurized oxygen to help with afflictions ranging from autism to infertility. When an arsonist sets off an explosion that kills and injures several patients, the mother of one of the victims — a boy with special needs — is arrested for the crime, but everyone involved seems to be lying about something. Kim writes with assured confidence, speeding along without letting you miss anything, and all we can do is hang on for the ride — and enjoy the heck out of it.
Based loosely on the most dramatic rock band in history, Fleetwood Mac, Reid’s novel tracks the rise of the titular band, which finds huge success once the sexy, willful Daisy Jones joins. Torrid affairs, endless drama, and a mysterious event at their final concert fuel this thoroughly entertaining story. Everyone enjoys a good behind-the-scenes drama, but what sets Reid’s book apart is how she makes the drama relatable and meaningful, tracing its ripple effects throughout the personal histories of the characters.
McQuiston brings fresh energy to an established premise in this queer, royal romance. Alex is the son of the American President, and he doesn’t much care for Prince Henry. When a fight at a royal wedding lands the two in a swamp of bad publicity, they must pretend to be best friends to quiet the PR storm — which leads Alex to realize his animosity towards Henry was really just desire in disguise. But how can a bisexual American and a gay British prince have a love affair in the public eye? This is a delightful book propelled by crackling dialogue that makes a familiar idea seem fresh and exciting all over again.
Hoang’s romance is rich with cultural lessons, heartfelt emotions, and well-drawn characters. Esme Tran works as a maid in Ho Chi Minh City to support her family and her young daughter, but dreams of a better life. When she meets a wealthy American woman and is invited to visit California to meet the woman’s autistic son, Khai, in the hopes that romance will bloom, Esme jumps at the chance. But Khai has convinced himself that he is incapable of love, and he only agrees to the experiment on the condition that it is the last time his mother interferes in his life. Esme and Khai seem like an impossible couple, but Hoang makes their slow dance of increasing intimacy utterly believable, heartbreaking, and hilarious by turns. In short, this is one of the romance books of the year — deeply felt and beautifully written.
Ever since The Hate U Give hit the shelves, it’s been Angie Thomas’s world and we’ve just been living in it. Returning to the Garden Heights neighborhood of her debut, Thomas introduces Bria, an aspiring rapper following in her late father’s footsteps. Dealing with a complex, unhappy home, the brutality of public high school, and an uncaring and viciously competitive music industry, Bri finds refuge in her brilliant rap lyrics, which Thomas renders on the page with skill and poetic talent. Bri represents a slice of American life rarely given hero status in novels, and her struggles with poverty, racism, and unfair systems are compelling and required reading — not to mention establishing Thomas as a literary superstar.
Farrow has established himself as one of the most important journalists working today, and this fantastic book demonstrates why. When working on a story, Farrow stumbles into one of the biggest scandals in Hollywood history. As he digs deeper he finds himself pressured by a powerful movie mogul — he’s followed, surveilled, and threatened — but he refuses to give up. Farrow’s work had real-world impact, and his account of the investigation reads like a nail-biting thriller.
2019 saw the release of literary phenomenon Sally Rooney’s second novel — the first being the critically-acclaimed Conversations with Friends. Normal People is set in a small town in Ireland in the midst of the country’s 2011 financial crisis. Connell’s mother works as a cleaner for the Sheridans, whose daughter Marianne attends school with him. Connell is smart, popular, and outgoing. Marianne is smart, unpopular, and shy. When they begin a relationship, Connell wants it kept secret, and Marianne allows it. When the two move to Dublin for college, however, Marianne comes into her own and Connell finds himself struggling. Rooney makes you believe in these people, care about them, and breathlessly await relationship developments — all while sketching modern Irish life with a painter’s skill.
McCracken’s first novel in nearly 20 years was an event. Telling a sprawling, bizarre family history in which every character is almost too strange, every death is somehow both hilarious and horrifying, and every detail is infused with brilliant humor, pathos, or simple interest. Using love and bowling as dual symbols, subjects, and themes, McCracken avoids using the strange, whimsical stuff just to be strange and whimsical, instead using these darkly funny details to expand characters and make her fictional world seem more real. This is a challenging book, but never a dull one, and no wonder everyone got excited about McCracken’s return.
Foodies found a new bible this year in this memoir from the former editor-in-chief of Gourmet magazine. Reichl relates how she used to read the magazine as a kid, which inspired her to become a chef and then a renowned food writer — and eventually, at the age of 51, the magazine’s editor despite having no magazine experience. Charged with updating and transforming the staid magazine, Reichl’s stories are interesting glimpses behind the scenes of the modern publishing world, a running commentary from someone who truly loves and understands food, and a warm look back on a life well lived. Anyone who likes to cook, eat, or talk about food — or magazines — loved this one.
As the general reading public has become more aware of MFA programs and the role they play — or don’t play — in literary success, the time was ideal this year for what might be the first example of MFA-horror. At Warren University’s MFA program, Samantha both hates and is obsessed by the Bunnies — twee, ultra-feminine girls who have formed their own clique. When Samantha receives an invitation to join the Bunnies, she takes them up on it despite her misgivings, and descends into a nightmarish world of affected childishness, girlishness, and creative writing insanity. If the best books introduce you to a heretofore unknown world and then exploit that world for maximum effect, this is easily one of the best books of the year — and ideal for those who like their stories unsettling, funny, and a little bit gory.
The second book in Adeyemi’s Legacy of Orisha series continues the story of Zélie in a world inspired by West African cultures. She’s now a maji Reaper and brought magic back to the world of Orïsha in Children of Blood and Bone, but at great personal cost. Now she joins with others to protect the vulnerable as they discover not all their old enemies are truly gone. The worldbuilding is remarkable, and the all-black cast of characters is refreshing — which is one reason Disney is on board to develop this series for the screen.