Season’s Readings everyone. 2019 has been quite a year in terms of fiction and non-fiction titles. I’ve had the opportunity to read some truly remarkable books over this past year. So many that, for the first time, I had a challenging time narrowing the list down to something manageable or almost! There are a few titles that, while I wasn’t able to include, are still worth tracking down and giving a read. So, if you start searching for any of the titles listed below, don’t forget these books: The Darwin Affair by Tim Mason, Middlegame by Seanan McGuire, Radicalized by Cory Doctorow, The Sentence is Death by Anthony Horowitz and The Sinister Mystery of the Mesmerizing Girl by Theodora Goss.
—OK, it almost killed me not to include the Goss book on my list! If you’ve read my previous Best of Lists for 2017 and 2018, you'll know the earlier books in the series, The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter and European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman, were on those lists. But, there is another book by Theodora Goss that IS on the list, and that's what saved me!
With that in mind, I’m thrilled to share with you what I feel are the best of the Best Books published in 2019. As I’ve done the last few years, the books are listed in alphabetical order, by title, until the last entry, which is, in my opinion, the best book I’ve read in 2019. As in previous years, you will find interviews with the authors of many of these titles on the LAPL Blog. I hope to continue providing these interviews and reviews on LAPL Reads in 2020.
Happy holidays and happy reading!
2019 Favorite Reads
In The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek, Kim Michele Richardson tells two stories that have, until now, been overlooked in most fiction and history: the story of the blue people of Kentucky and the story of the Pack Horse Librarians of the 1930s, both of whom are incredible examples of the resilience to triumph over difficult circumstances.
The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek is a love letter to the women who daily risked their lives delivering books and other reading materials to those far removed from the traditional realms of “book learning.” It is also an ode to a group of people that, as with all racism, were subjected to terrible treatment and crimes because of the color of their skin. Richardson does an admirable job of portraying the inhabitants of the Kentucky Mountains with grace and dignity. It is never easy to write about those on the “outskirts” of society without falling into pity or condescension. Richardson does neither, but realistically conveys the extreme challenges faced by these small communities during the depression. The result is a compelling and enjoyable read about one young woman’s determination to be the best possible person she could be and how that made her the invaluable resource her community desperately needs.
A young woman who is struggling with the demands her people have placed upon her and her own personal wants and desires. A population born, literally, from the pain and suffering of others. And a small group of people who are simply living their lives the best as they can until something, someone, strange and new washes up on their shore.
In The Deep, Rivers Solomon uses the Hugo nominated songs of the same name by Daveed Diggs, William Hutson, and Jonathan Snipes as the foundation to create a world and culture deep under the sea with origins rooted in the sins of our past and a future resting on the shoulders of a young woman.
The Deep is a novella that addresses and represents the devastating and lasting effects of slavery without bowing to or altering to accommodate perspectives beyond those of the artists who have created this project. It is filled with pain, sorrow, and rage. But there is also a strong sense of hope that builds throughout the book and culminates in a joyous conclusion.
The Deep is speculative fiction at its best, allowing for a meaningful and powerful exploration of difficult but necessary topics. This book is a must-read.
P. Djeli Clark, winner of the 2019 Alex Award for his novella The Black God’s Drums, returns to the alternate Egypt he created for his short story “A Dead Djinn in Cairo” in The Haunting of Tram Car 015, and it is marvelous! This is a story that ranges from frightful to hysterical and back again several times over the course of its scant 130 pages. And Fatma el-Sha’arawi, another investigator from the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities, and the protagonist of “A Dead Djinn in Cairo,” makes a brief cameo at the end of the new story.
This is a quick but wonderful read!
In The Lady from the Black Lagoon, first time author Mallory O’Meara chronicles the life of one of the most interesting and influential people whose work you have seen, but have never heard their name: Milicent Patrick.
Patrick grew up at San Simeon as Hearst Castle was being built (her father oversaw the construction). She went on to attend Chouinard Art Institute (now known as the California Institute of the Arts or CalArts) where she was handpicked by Walt Disney to be one of a handful of women animators at the studio. She worked as a model and extra on numerous motion pictures, before being “discovered” and hired by Bud Westmore for Universal Studios’ special effects makeup department where she designed one of the most recognizable monsters in film history: The Creature from the Black Lagoon. Patrick was fired from Universal when Westmore felt she was getting too much recognition for her work on the Creature. After leaving Universal, Patrick seemingly disappeared, becoming a shadowy and somewhat controversial figure in horror film circles, with both supporters and detractors regarding her claim that she designed the Creature. O’Meara brings to the fore the facts and falsehoods behind generations of hearsay and rumors, describing not only the research done for the book but also her own experiences as a woman working in the still male-dominated motion picture industry.
To this day, Patrick is the only woman to design a classic monster and it is far past the time for her story to be told. The Lady from the Black Lagoon is a compelling and enjoyable read about the legacy of a trailblazer for women in film, who not only worked, but excelled repeatedly in aspects of production dominated by men both then and now.
In their debut novel, Sarah Gailey, author of 2017’s pair of “man eating hippo mayhem” novellas River of Teeth and Taste of Marrow, mashes up elements of several disparate genres. Magic for Liars is part noir-mystery, part urban fantasy, part Harry Potter and part Mean Girls and the result is, to pardon the phrase, magical!
Magic For Liars is both a wonderful whodunit and an incredible urban fantasy. It is also a reminder that High School, even one where magic is at the center of the curriculum, is usually a traumatic experience for all involved, and it is one from which we may never fully recover.
Ji Lin is a young woman who is working as an apprentice dressmaker by day and secretly working as a “dance instructor” at a dance-hall in the evenings to repay a family debt.
Ren is a young boy who has lost his entire family, including his twin brother, and is working as a houseboy for an aging English doctor. As the doctor nears death, he makes a final request of Ren that he cannot refuse, even though he has no idea how he will fulfill his promise.
And then there is the severed finger, mummified and preserved in a glass vial. Ren needs to locate it and bury it in the doctor’s grave within 49 days of his death to allow him to pass into the afterlife in peace. Ji Lin receives the finger in error while dancing with a client at the dance-hall. She can’t tell anyone she has it without betraying her well-guarded secret, and she has no idea what to do with it or how she will dispose of it.
In The Night Tiger, Yangsze Choo weaves a wonderful tale of life set in Malaysia nearly a century ago. Choo deftly references and draws connections between Chinese cultural beliefs and folklore and the mores and morals of 1930s Malaya (as it was called then). This is a fascinating and compelling story, deftly told. A story that is interesting both culturally and historically, while also being an intensely personal exploration of two very different people struggling to find their way in a difficult world that has very stringent expectations of them with little/no room for failure. The characters are both recognizable and memorable, and the resolution will keep readers guessing and turning the pages until the very last one.
Leigh Bardugo steps away from the fantasy world of the Grisha that she created for Young Adult audiences and plunges headlong into her first adult fantasy with gripping and terrifying results. She introduces readers to Galaxy “Alex” Stern, a young woman of color, who is a high school dropout and a small-time drug dealer who can see ghosts. Because she can see ghosts, Yale University offers her a full scholarship to attend. Yale, it seems, is a hub for arcane magic and paranormal activities, focused in the eight famous, and somewhat infamous, “secret societies” on campus. Alex will become a member of the titular ninth house that acts as overseers and watchers of the other eight. But nothing in her young life has prepared her to be an Ivy League student. When a young “townie” girl is killed, and Alex realizes, due to her skill, that the police have the wrong person in custody, she will risk her present and future to uncover the identity of the killer and bring them to justice.
Bardugo’s first novel for adults is page-turning, terrifying, thought-provoking and, at times, laugh out loud funny. A must for fans of her earlier work and a wonderful introduction if you haven’t yet read any of her earlier novels.
In her debut novel, Casey McQuiston takes an outrageous idea, what if a romance developed between the First Son of the United States and one of Great Britain’s Royal Princes, and runs with it full tilt! There is a lot to admire here: the nicely drawn and relatable characters; the inclusive and diverse cast; the exploration of how invasive and influential the press, specifically tabloid “journalism”, can be on the US political process (especially when what is being reported is more spectacle than news). But the true bottom line for Red, White & Royal Blue is that it is FUN! It is a page-turning read because McQuiston has hit everything at the perfect pitch.
Red, White & Royal Blue is a fairy tale, with TWO princes, and a very happy ending. While it was the PERFECT summer/beach read this year, it is also an enjoyable read for any time of the year!
In The Reign of the Kingfisher, debut author T.J. Martinson takes the basic elements of Batman’s mythos and spins from them a markedly more realistic and darker crime thriller. While it is nearly impossible not to see the parallels between the characters in Martinson’s tale and those of the Batman, it is those parallels that make this story so compelling. There are no clear cut answers to any of the questions posed and nothing is so simply defined as being black or white, right or wrong. Everything and everyone in this story falls somewhere on a spectrum of grey and, by the end of the story, readers may feel the need to adjust where they initially placed the characters on that spectrum. While there are no comic book heroes, these heroes are far more believable, with real foibles and a tremendous amount to lose, which makes them all the more admirable as the story progresses.
Sam Holloway is a nice guy. He has a stable, but a not terribly exciting, job with an electronic parts distributor. He meets up with a couple of friends several nights a week at a local pub, where they talk about comics, movies, videogames and what it might be like to meet a nice woman. Yes, Sam is a bit of a geek, but he is also a good guy, and everyone seems to know that. What no one knows though, is that on nights when Sam isn’t at the pub with his friends, he dons a homemade superhero costume and patrols the streets of his hometown as The Phantasm, attempting to thwart crime and right wrongs. He doesn’t have a great track record. Fighting crime simply isn’t as easy in real life as it appears in the comics, but he continues his patrols because it helps give him a sense of purpose and usefulness that the rest of his life lacks.
Sam meets Sarah when she observes him buying food for a homeless person at a local bakery. When she sees him a few days later at the pub, she approaches him and they begin to talk. This is unprecedented in Sam’s experiences. He’s never been terribly social and is even worse when it comes to women and dating. Sarah represents what Sam both fears and desires the most. The question is, is he brave enough to risk his comfortable life, his comfortable existence, for the unknown future that Sarah may represent?
In The Secret Life of Sam Holloway, Rhys Thomas explores how crippling and isolating grief can be and how we all hide behind masks, both literal and figurative, for differing reasons.
The Secret Life of Sam Holloway is a gentle, lovely book in the same vein as Gail Honeyman’s Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine. It is about both hiding and allowing oneself to be found. It is also about what it really means to be truly brave, which doesn’t often require donning a mask, but taking it off.
A professor of literature and writing at both Boston University and the Stonecoast MFA program, Theodora Goss is also the award-winning author of The Extraordinary Adventures of the Athena Club trilogy. Snow White Learns Witchcraft, is a collection of her fairytale-themed poems and short stories, and it is glorious.
“Fairy tales fractured, reinvented, re-imagined, retold,” is how Jane Yolen perfectly describes this collection in her introduction. Some entries are well-known stories, recast and imagined in ways that are unexpected. Others are stories that are completely new and yet feel well-worn and comfortable, like something known since childhood and rediscovered recently.
This is a fascinating, heart-warming and bone-chilling collection of stories—whether in prose or poetry—of how women survive, and thrive, even in the most difficult of circumstances. Snow White Learns Witchcraft will leave you breathless, whether from anticipation, shock, wonder, or laughing out loud. It is the result of a master applying her skill to material that she loves. And it is a MUST read for those that are drawn to our ancient stories.
In The Survival of Margaret Thomas, Del Howison tells a story that is instantly familiar, with all of the recognizable trappings of a classic Western tale, but simultaneously seeming like a welcome discovery of something new and exciting. Howison’s portrayal of the 19th century west seems spot on. It is a brutal and savage place, in the process of being tamed, but still a force to be approached with caution. With this backdrop, Howison tells the story of Margaret “Peggy” Thomas, the widowed wife of Bleak Knob, Missouri’s Sheriff and her difficult journey to seek justice in San Pueblo, Arizona where a member of the gang that killed her husband has been captured and is going to be put on trial.
The Survival of Margaret Thomas is proof that there are still compelling Western stories to be told. It is also proof that Del Howison, an established writer and editor in horror fiction, can cross genres more easily and effortlessly than his characters are able to cross state lines and it appears he has staked a new claim on the Western.
In The Ten Thousand Doors of January, debut author Alix E. Harrow tells a story that is both as grand and large as the multiple worlds it encompasses and also as intimate as a young woman’s desperate need for the love and attention her absent father rarely provides. It is also a wild adventure, a sharp critique of our cultural norms, both past, and present, and a wickedly funny and powerful exploration of the power of words and stories. The Ten Thousand Doors of January is a triumphant debut!
Violet, the new novel from Scott Thomas, author of 2017’s excellent Kill Creek, tells a story that is a bit difficult to pin down. Part of it is about tragedy and grief. Part of it looks at parenthood and how the stakes can be raised on one parent when the other leaves, whether or not by their own choice. And part of it is a horror story, with a small town, filled with memorable residents and a sense of foreboding that settles over everything like a shroud.
Violet is a slow burn of a novel. It’s starts off innocently enough, but Thomas increases the horror incrementally by small, almost imperceptible degrees until you reach the terrifying, white hot and inescapable conclusion.
This is a remarkable sophomore novel from a writer to watch!
In her first novel since 2011’s The Night Circus, Erin Morgenstern illustrates again that she is a masterful fantasy storyteller with The Starless Sea.
Zachary Ezra Rawlins is a graduate student in Vermont pursuing his Master’s Degree in Emerging Media Studies. While taking a break from the videogames that regularly dominate his personal and research time, he finds a book misshelved in the University library. It is an old book, and when Zachary reads it he finds within its pages an event from his childhood. Something that happened that he has never forgotten, and yet, has never told anyone else about. Determined to discover how his story was included in a book that is clearly older than he is, Zachary begins a journey that will lead him to an exclusive literary themed masquerade ball in New York City, secret societies tucked away in quiet neighborhoods and a labyrinthine library buried deep within the earth where guardians protect the stories that we all know and love.
The Starless Sea is a love letter to stories and storytelling, to the ways that stories affect us upon hearing and/or reading them, and the ways we incorporate ourselves in the stories that we tell and share. It is also my favorite book of the year. Find a copy and start reading it as quickly as you can!