We’re halfway through the year, and you know what that means: it’s time for Book Riot’s Best Books of 2019 So Far! Our team of writers and voracious readers chose their favorite nonfiction and fiction books, across the wide spectrum of genres, from the first half of 2019. Don’t sleep on these excellent reads!
While this is a second book and the first, American Dreamer, is absolutely delightful, American Fairytale is nothing short of magical. A play on the billionaire trope, this book centers a social worker and the very wealthy man who is funding his new project—and who he meets before he discovers this information. The difference between this story and many others is that both of these men are Latinx: Camilo, the son of a Cuban woman; Tom, a white-passing Dominican. The pair have immediate chemistry, and Adriana Herrera will keep you laughing, crying, and somehow dancing in your seat for the several hours spent not putting this book down.
American Spy is a multi-faceted literary thriller that keeps readers on edge from the very beginning. Marie Mitchell is a standout protagonist—because she is young, black, and female to be sure, but also because she calmly and strategically faces whatever is presented before, whether that is a loaded gun or systemic racism that runs rampant in her field. Her choices have profound consequences that slowly become apparent in Wilkinson’s deft plotting, and as she moves between three separate timelines, Wilkinson’s exploration of politics, race, and family forces readers, as well as Marie, to reckon with what it means to be a good American and a good person.
Emily Skaja’s debut poetry collection chronicles the end of an unhealthy relationship, the speaker a “Soldier for a lost cause, brute, mute woman / written out of my own story” (“Brute Strength”). Using striking metaphorical imagery (“I drop my hands in the sink. They come up feathered”) and allusions ranging from Eurydice to Rihanna, Skaja circles around themes of grief mingled with guilt, rage, and regret, all a part of the brutal process of reconstructing a life after such a breakup. Brute also caught the attention of Joy Harjo–the new U.S. Poet Laureate—who selected it to receive the Academy of American Poets’ Walt Whitman Award.
Daisy Jones & The Six: A Novel
This isn’t just a book; it’s a performance that will make you linger in your car to keep listening. To start, you MUST listen to this on audiobook. I dare say it’s the single best audiobook that came out in 2019, with beautifully-wrought, full-cast narration that reads like the juiciest Behind the Music episode about your favorite fictional 70s rock band. Think Fleetwood Mac with a helping of Springsteen. It’s lush and intimate in a chilling way. Not convinced? Here’s my favorite quote from Daisy: “I had absolutely no interest in being somebody else’s muse. I am not a muse. I am the somebody. End of fucking story.” Read it.
On Kamchatka, a remote peninsula at the eastern edge of Russia, two sisters, aged eleven and eight, go missing. Over the next year, as the police investigation turns cold, people across the peninsula react to their disappearance, from a witness to the crime to a local police officer’s wife to the girls’ mother. Like interlinked short stories, the chapters of this beautifully written debut gradually expand our view of Kamchatka, until both the complex characters and rugged landscape come alive. Phillips’s writing is so assured as the novel builds to a heart-stopping climax that you’ll find it hard to believe this is her first book.
Flowers of Mold
Flowers of Mold was originally published in 1999 and is only now making its English-language debut. It is a story collection with pieces that are mostly realistic but also deeply unsettling and strange. Many of them are about life in and around cities; they document people’s experiences in apartment buildings, parks, and workplaces. They are about life on crowded buses and in office complexes. Advertising messages on billboards feature prominently. The characters are trying their best to get by and are deeply sympathetic, but they often face obstacles they do not know how to confront. The stories are inventive, gorgeously-written, and heart-wrenching.
Good Talk: A Memoir in Conversations
If I had to pick one book that most honestly describes the reality of living in Trump’s America, it would be this one. In this gorgeous graphic memoir, Mira Jacob, an Indian American and the child of immigrants, relates the many hard conversations she has with her young biracial son before, during, and after Trump’s election. Woven throughout are stories of growing up, coming of age, and becoming a parent as a woman of color. Layered, funny, heartbreaking, full of urgency, anger, and hope, it’s a story about parenting amidst and grappling with the contradictions that define America. This book is a gift; do yourself a favor and use it.
Here and Now and Then
The best way to describe Here and Now and Then is that it’s angsty time travel with those warm fuzzy sci-fi feels. Think all your favorite Doctor Who scenes, or at least the ones that were a combination of that a-ha! moment and those tears welling up in your eyes. Kin is a time-traveling agent from the year 2142 that gets stuck in 1990s San Francisco after a botched mission, then his rescue team shows up 18 years too late after he’s already built a life for himself. What I love most is that the big bad here is mainly circumstance. Get ready for time angst in the form of paradoxes, 90s tech, and a family of sci-fi nerds just trying to survive.
This book inspires me to be more active in my engagement with the struggle for equality. Change can happen. In that respect, despite its horrifying moments, Internment is a hopeful dystopia. Layla, in defiance of being imprisoned in the first internment camp for Muslim Americans and living under dehumanizing conditions, maintains enough hope and resolution to protest. To create change. Both stakes and emotions run high, and while the book has been critiqued by a few for being over the top, I love its message of resilience and resistance. I need more #OwnVoices SFF from Muslim Americans.
Jokes for the Gunmen
In the original, Mazen Maarouf’s Jokes for the Gunmen won the inaugural Almultaqa Prize for the Arabic Short Story. In translation by Jonathan Wright, it was one of two brilliant short-story collections to make the longlist for this year’s Man Booker International. These surreal shorts are set during war-time Beirut and are told through the eyes of childlike characters who will unsettle even the most hardened reader, making you re-think the relationships between violence, family, and community. And cows.
Kid Gloves is Lucy Knisley’s latest memoir, in which she recounts her journey of becoming a mother. This was really not an easy thing to do: it took two miscarriages, a difficult pregnancy, and a life-threatening birth to get there. I love Knisley’s work, and always appreciate her honesty, sense of humor, and thorough research. Aside from sharing her experiences, Knisley provides an ample amount of facts both about pregnancy and about the history of the science of reproductive health. I cannot recommend this graphic memoir highly enough.
Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls
In this stunning debut, Madden, of Hawaiian, Chinese, and Jewish descent, navigates an adolescence filled with addiction, desire, friendships, loneliness, and love in affluent Boca Raton, Florida. With radiant grace, humor, and vulnerability, the essays, organized into three parts, explore familial secrets, grief, Hawaiian culture, sexuality, and so much more than I can express here. Often, the author spends “hours or days on a single sentence,” and—like the cover—the prose sparkles. Within and outside these pages, Madden adores Drew Barrymore’s memoir Little Girl Lost with fervor; I adore Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls like that.
Love From A To Z
This book is a love story between Adam and Zayneb, two Muslim teens who find themselves travelling to Doha under unexpected circumstances. Zayneb has just been suspended from school after dealing with her Islamophobic teacher, and Adam has just dropped out of college after being diagnosed with MS. Love From A To Z is a brilliant love story which also deals with many important things that plague the lives of Muslims every day. It’s brilliant because of its portrayals of experiences that are deeply relatable, and characters who leap off the page because of how layered and complex they are.
Magic for Liars
When I saw Sarah Gailey discuss their debut in Chicago, they said: “I was trying to undermine the idea that magic changes everything. Or, frankly, anything.” The teenagers at the magic school are still cruel, hyperbolic, exhausted. Nonmagical detective Ivy Gamble’s magical sister is still kind of a jerk. This is a fantastic, funny murder mystery that’s primarily about the characters and their wishes and scars: every mystery is, at its root, about people. Magic for Liars is a satisfying, emotional story of sisterhood, hurt, the ways we can’t let people go, and Ivy’s quest to solve the mystery and learn what she’s capable of in the process.
Maiden & Princess
Haack and Galupo begin Maiden & Princess with a familiar fairy tale trope. An invitation to a royal ball. But the maiden in this story is no Cinderella. She’s a warrior woman with a shiny suit of armor, wild curly hair, and a pet dragon. Also, she has no dreams of marrying the prince. Instead, she’s interested in his sister: the princess. When a romance blossoms between the two girls, their community accepts their bond without question. With rich illustrations of a diverse world and a sweet happily ever after rarely seen in queer books for kids, this picture book will delight even the most princess-fatigued parents and young readers.
When a fire breaks out during a controversial medical treatment, killing two people involved and seriously injuring several more, who is to blame? The immigrant family in charge of the device? Angry protesters? Or the mother of an autistic boy who died in the accident? This is a fantastic legal drama written by a Harvard Law graduate. And it’s also so much more than a legal drama; it’s a complicated narrative on family, parenting, immigration, and responsibility in a complicated chain of events. The way this story unfolds is perfect, and the various perspectives are so richly written. I can’t get over how much I loved this book.
Growing up going to a Jewish day school, we read the Bible every day, but women’s voices and stories were often glossed over or not told at all. Naamah is Noah’s wife – yes, THAT Noah – and this is a gloriously feminist retelling of the flood story in which Naamah grapples with faith, sexuality, resentment, and the demands and expectations of motherhood and patriarchy. Forget the childhood ark story that you know. This is a fierce, visceral story of losing everything and nearly everyone you knew and loved, the responsibility of starting over, a reckoning with the body and death, magic, and the things we do to survive.
No Happy Endings
In 2014, Nora McInerny lost a pregnancy, her father, and her husband all over a matter of weeks. Today, she is happily remarried and the mother of four incredible children. In No Happy Endings, her second memoir, McInerny explores grief, life that continues after tragedy, and navigating the tension between the two. I recommend listening to the audiobook because it’s read by McInerny herself, and her charm, honesty, and humor really come through.
No Visible Bruises
Each day, 137 women are killed by familial violence across the globe. And 54 percent of mass shootings in America today involve domestic violence. These statistics led Rachel Louise Snyder to her central argument: “domestic violence, rather than being a private problem, is a most urgent matter of public health.” Snyder explores three major questions about domestic violence – why victims stay, what violence looks like for abusers, and what can be done to address this crisis. Snyder is precise in her language, specific in her descriptions, and confident in the stories she uses to anchor each section. It’s an incredible piece of reporting.
Connell is popular and Marianne is ostracized by her classmates. Connell’s mother is a housekeeper in Marianne’s cold and lonely home, and one day the two teens meet outside school and realize they have an inexplicable connection. But they don’t want anyone to know. A year later, they’re both at university, and there’s been a role reversal. Over time, their lives circle one another. They push each other, understand each other, and devastate each other, too. Sally Rooney’s prose is honest and sparse. She works in small, relatable moments, and things that go unsaid. If you connect with her style, this is one that will definitely make your heart boom.
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous
Occasionally a book makes you feel like you’re reading it without your skin. Like, in order to experience something this special, it has to sting. That’s what it’s like reading Vuong’s debut novel. The main character, Little Dog, is writing a letter about his family’s history, going back to Vietnam. Interspersed with stories of his mother and grandmother are Little Dog’s experiences growing up queer and Asian in a Connecticut town where hardly anyone looked like him, and finding love was especially difficult. It’s a powerful testament to love, addiction, and family that buries the definition of fiction under its heartbreaking brilliance.
Once & Future
Once & Future is a retelling of the Arthur myth, with a female Arthur. It’s somehow simultaneously dystopian, sci fi, and fantasy. Oh, and it’s incredibly, wonderfully queer. Merlin is gay, Ari is queer, there’s an asexual character, and a nonbinary side character who uses they/them pronouns, and I’m only scratching the surface. Merlin and Ari have to fight against corporate tyranny in the hopes that this Arthur reincarnation will finally unite humanity. This is epic and feminist and queer, and it’s all about resistance and survival. It’s also funny and action-packed–this is so ambitious, but it pulls it off. I cannot wait to read the sequel.
Once More We Saw Stars
This memoir—from a man who lost his two-year-old daughter to a random accident—gutted me. It took a lot for me to read through the tragedy at the beginning of this book. In fact, I would burst into tears just telling people about the premise, or about certain scenes. But once I was able to muscle my way deeper into Greene’s account, past the initial blow of loss and grief, there was a deeper story of hope and healing to take in, rendered in gorgeous prose. Don’t get me wrong. The journey was difficult. Every step of it was difficult. But I nevertheless turned the final page feeling an incredible sense of catharsis.
“If you could change something in the past, would you?” We all know this hypothetical scenario very well and this book tackles it in the best way. Neuroscientist Helena is the go-to expert on memories. So when she’s approached by a tech giant, she’s excited by the prospect of using her knowledge for good. Fast forward to present day where NYC police officer, Barry, is dealing with a sudden increase in suicide, where people have been driven to madness by being inundated with memories of a life that they didn’t live. Like Dark Matter, this book kept me riveted the entire time and the ending had me on the floor.
Red, White & Royal Blue
In the alternate reality of my dreams, the son of the first female president of the United States falls for the prince of England in what is definitely the funniest, most adorable rom-com I’ve ever read. Alex Claremont-Diaz is kind of a disaster—the kind of First Son to cause an international incident at a royal wedding because of his long-standing feud with Prince Henry of Wales. Forced to fake a friendship to smooth things over, Alex is shocked to realize Henry isn’t nearly as awful as he always thought. And Alex is also a lot less straight than he ever realized. This book warmed my heart and brought so many much needed smiles to my face.
From the beginning of the Twisted Wishes series, I’ve loved the authenticity Anna Zabo has infused in this found family, and in Reverb, Zabo takes a closer look at a new dimension – the way a person interacts with their family of choice even as it changes around them. The core of the story is the way Mish’s relationship develops with David, the security guard hired to protect her from a stalker. The way Zabo builds that story – the vulnerability, the connection between the two, the danger – is immensely compelling. But the way Mish and David navigate their roles in this tour bus family is an aspect of Reverb that is just as satisfying.
Save Me the Plums: My Gourmet Memoir
Award-winning food writer Ruth Reichl’s delicious third memoir delves into her 10-year stint as editor-in-chief of the now defunct Gourmet magazine. Save Me the Plums is filled with humorous stories recounting Reichl’s mission to update the magazine’s stuffy persona, and her inside-baseball look at getting Gourmet to press each month gives fascinating insight into the complexities of publishing a magazine. But what makes this book a true delight is Reichl’s uncanny talent for describing food in the most visceral, drool-inducing way. An all-around scrumptious read!
Silver in the Wood
Welcome to Greenhallow Wood. Silver in the Wood by Emily Tesh is a stunningly-written story about Tobias Finch, who protects a magical wood. Finch meets a young, curious folklorist, Henry Silver, which sets in motion old memories and new threats. There are feisty dryads (oh Bramble, my Bramble!), queer romance, and a mother whom I would follow onto any creature-hunting expedition (just tell me when and where, Mrs. Silver!). I happy-sobbed reading the final pages. Find a quiet place in a nearby wood, listen to the trees whisper, and thank the old gods and new for this beautiful little book, of which I intend to get lost in again and again.
Somewhere Only We Know
This is the book I did not know I had been waiting for. In Somewhere Only We Know, Maurene Goo serves up a delicious story about two strangers spending a day dining their way through Hong Kong. Lucky, a K-pop star, is quick witted, hilarious, and utterly dazzling. When she runs into cautious, kind tabloid photographer Jack, he is captivated. I loved how the two were able to talk about family, fear, responsibility, and topics that required a kind of vulnerability not always found between characters. Maurene Goo’s newest is for anyone who is hungry, thirsting for travel, or currently questioning if the path they’re on is the right one.
At under 200 pages of prose, Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s Stony the Road sticks out in the history genre, which is synonymous with “doorstop.” Don’t mistake the book’s brevity for lack of depth. This is a swift, assured, satisfying primer on the Reconstruction era that leaves you eager to sink into lengthier works by W.E.B. Du Bois and Eric Foner. Gates’ scholarship, evident by the sources he frequently cites but never allows to slow the book’s momentum, is impressive as usual, but most eye-opening are the many included full-color Jim Crow advertisements, reminders of a time when companies weren’t afraid to play on consumers’ racism for a buck.
Stronger Than a Bronze Dragon
Anlei just wants to protect her village from the Ligui and get a chance to avenge her father. This changes when she is chosen to be the bride of the viceroy. In exchange for her hand in marriage and the enchanted Dragon Pearl, the viceroy will protect her village. But when the dragon pearl is stolen, Anlei sets out to retrieve it, crossing paths with the witty thief, Tai. Together they embark on a journey to the Courts of Hell but the enemy may be closer than they think. STABD is a Chinese-inspired, steampunk fantasy with a fierce heroine, mechanical dragons, well-written action scenes, spirits, and a complex plot that will keep you guessing.
What happens after the end of an epic fantasy adventure is usually left to the reader’s imagination, but this is where The Afterward chooses to begin its tale. Filled with a cast of diverse characters with a queer love story at the center, The Afterward doesn’t so much sweep you off your feet, but rather plops you in the mud and makes you think about your feelings. E.K. Johnston weaves bits of the quest into the story through flashbacks, but it’s her exploration of relationships forged during the journey and the realities of life for Olsa the thief and Apprentice Knight Kalanthe a year after “The End” which makes this YA a remarkable book.
The Bride Test
The Bride Test is Helen Hoang’s sophomore contemporary romance, and it solidifies Hoang as a tour de force when it comes to modern romances brimming with humor and emotion. Esme works and lives in Vietnam. She’s approached by a woman with an offer of U.S. citizenship. The catch: Esme must make the woman’s son, Khai, agree to marriage. Esme agrees, knowing that the outcome could mean a positive change for her family. The slow burn romance is tender and beautiful. Esme is a heroine you desperately want to see succeed, while Khai’s difficulties with his autism are real and raw. Hoang truly has a gift for writing keeper shelf romances.
In her debut novel described as The Mothers meets An American Marriage, Anissa Gray follows the female members of the Butler family as they deal with a family crisis. Althea has been the strong-willed, no-nonsense leader of the clan since her mother’s death when she was 15. She raised her younger sisters, Lillian and Viola. But now Althea and her husband are in jail for fraud, and Althea must rely on her family to take care of her own twin daughters. Meanwhile, Lillian and Viola are forced to confront their own demons and family secrets as they step in to care for their nieces who are struggling with their parents’ arrest in their own ways.
The Collected Schizophrenias
The Collected Schizophrenias follows Esmé Wang’s journey of being diagnosed and living with schizoaffective disorder. Essays range from diagnosis to her time being involuntarily committed to a psychiatric hospital to living as an ambitious woman with limitations. In exploring her own experience, she challenges society’s understanding of schizophrenia and autonomy, the ways in which higher education fails to support students with mental illness, and misconstrued media depiction. In this collection, Esmé Wang has found a way to mix memoir, science, psychology, and cultural commentary in a really elegant and enthralling way.
The Everlasting Rose (The Belles #2)
The magical and lovingly detailed world of The Belles series makes it easy to enjoy, and the second book of the series goes even deeper into the conflict underlying its obsession with beauty. But what really makes this series stand out is its heroine, Camellia Beaureguard, who compulsively breaks rules in favor of her own inclinations, from the practice of her craft to the her deeply ingrained sense of justice. She, her Belle sisters, and many others create a cast of diverse and compelling strong female characters that surpasses any other novel I’ve read in terms of female representation.
In The Five, social historian Hallie Rubenhold researches the lives of the five women thought to be killed by Jack the Ripper. Instead of sensationalizing the killings or focusing on the killer himself, Rubenhold focuses on the fascinating stories of these five victims. The women all came from different places and led complex and difficult lives. Rubenhold works to dispel the myth that they were all prostitutes and, instead, shows the reader that Polly, Annie, Catherine, Mary-Jane, and Elizabeth were all daughters, mothers, and real women trying to live in a society fraught with poverty, workhouses, alcoholism, and abuse.
It’s a crowded market for dystopian thrillers that will make you distrust humanity, but The Last stands out. For one thing, it’s more international than most, with a globetrotting cast of characters stranded at a Swiss hotel when shit starts getting real. The Last explores how divisions of nationality are bound to fracture people in a hostile world, especially when a divisive U.S. president looms over everything. There’s even a suggestion in the novel that Trump’s nuclear trigger-happiness is somehow to blame for the mysterious catastrophe. Full of moral ambiguity and page-turning suspense, The Last is quick but deep.
The Outside takes place in a future where computers have made themselves into gods and reality, it turns out, is a total lie. After a strange disaster reveals a reality-warping nightmare-realm lurking beneath our own, a queer autistic physicist is kidnapped by cyborg-angels and forced to hunt down her heretical dissertation advisor and maybe save existence as we know it. If that seems like a whole lot of world and a whole lot of plot, you’re right. But I swear it works. Like really, really well. Deeply embedded in sci-fi history, The Outside reimagines old stories in new, exciting, #ownvoices ways.
The Things She’s Seen
Beth Teller recently died and has decided to help her father, a detective who can see and speak to her, with an arson case hoping that she’ll be able to guide him through his grief. Alternating between Beth and her father solving the crime along with Isobel Catching, the witness, telling her story in lyrical chapters this is a beautiful and unique mystery novel that examines grief, trauma, family, and friendship, with a 15-year-old Aboriginal ghost at the center. It should not be missed!
The Weight of Our Sky
This is an emotionally devastating read that transports you back in time to 1969 Kuala Lumpur to witness the historic race riots that began on May 13 in a way that feels as if you are experiencing it first-hand. Narrated by sixteen-year-old Melati Ahmed, not only do you witness the devastating consequences of the riots but you are also exposed to the graphic thoughts of death and destruction that Melati experiences as she navigates the aftermath in search of her mother whilst in a constant battle with her mental illness. The Weight Of Our Sky is a remarkable story that is truly testament to Hanna Alkaf’s talent as a writer, with characters who display utmost strength, resilience, and unity during a time when racial tensions are tearing their communities and country apart.
To Night Owl from Dogfish
This story surprised me. An epistolary about two girls who worry their dads will get married and make them sisters, it becomes a tale of unlikely friendship at summer camp as they scheme to keep their dads together. Night Owl and Dogfish, as they call each other, want their dads to be happy. And they want to stay in contact. But things don’t go according to plan. Prepare for pain, and for this book to grab you by the chest. It’s nice to see a book with LGBTQ couples who get to be people.
We Hunt the Flame
I’m grateful to have read so many amazing Muslim authored books in 2019, including Ayesha at Last and The Chai Factor. For me, the best book of 2019, We Hunt the Flame, has it all: romance, action, and humour. Plus, its author Hafsah Faizal is cool. If the title New York Times Bestseller is not enough to convince you, take my word for it that you must read this book ASAP. It will make you happier and more confident as a person, although you will hunt for something to do with yourself once you finish it, and there is no sequel yet to dive into.