12 Best Fiction Books of 2019
2019 was an amazing year for books. I agonized over whittling down this list but ultimately settled on my twelve favorite 2019 releases. There’s some overlap here with my Best Book Club Books of 2019, but I tried to use my multiple list format to press as many great books as possible into your hands. And while you’ll definitely recognize some of these books from other best of the year lists, I hope you’ll also find some underappreciated gems. Without further ado, I am so excited to share my favorite books of 2019 with you!
The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead. The Nickel Boys is my number one book of the year and, in my opinion, it's pretty much a perfect book. It’s compact, yet surprising; the language is simple, yet rich. The story centers on Elwood Curtis, a Black teenager in Jim Crow Florida who has big dreams for his future and does everything “right,” but is sent to the Nickel Academy reform school after being in the wrong place at the wrong time. The book is absolutely gutting, especially when you know that Nickel is based on a real “reform school” for boys. This is a compelling and fast-paced read that will linger and change you. If there is a single must-read book of 2019, this is it.
The Bird King by G. Willow Wilson. I picked this up early in the year because the cover is gorgeous and it sounded like a different type of historical fiction than what I typically read. Set in Granada, the last holdout of Muslim Spain during the Inquisition, the novel tells the story of Fatima, the sultan’s favorite concubine, and Hassan, a mapmaker who can draw maps of places he’s never seen. When the Inquisition arrives at their court, Fatima and Hassan plan to flee and set their destination as the mythical realm of the Bird King. This is a powerful story of love, friendship, and faith, filled with myths, legends, and magic.
Naamah by Sarah Blake. In the Bible, Noah’s wife isn’t named. In this novel, Blake gives her a name, a story, and an intense passion. This queer retelling of the Noah’s ark story is imaginative and powerful in its depiction of the characters’s desires, but also in its portrait of grief. The novel imagines Naamah as an intensely compassionate figure who struggles to comprehend the devastation and destruction around her. As she literally and figuratively wrestles with her faith, readers grow to love this woman who’s been silenced for so long.
Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips. Although this book begins with the kidnapping of two young girls in Kamchatka, Russia, it is not a thriller or even a mystery. In each chapter, Phillips presents a different woman impacted (even tangentially) by the girls’ disappearance. Through each story, she explores the many ways women can disappear from their own lives. Whether through motherhood, abuse, or the pressure to hide their sexuality, each woman must banish a part of their true selves. It’s a beautiful story and a loving ode to womanhood as well as Kamchatka itself.
Miracle Creek by Angie Kim. I love it when “genre fiction” extends into social commentary and Angie Kim offers the perfect example of this in her debut novel Miracle Creek. The book begins in a courtroom where readers learn that Elizabeth, the mother of a young boy on the autism spectrum is being charged with his murder. A hyperbaric chamber used for various medical treatments and owned by the Yoos, a family who immigrated to Virginia from Korea, has exploded with several patients inside. Kim keeps readers’ attention with a nuanced cast of characters who all have something to hide as well as a tender portrayal of what it’s like to parent a special needs child.
The Most Fun We Ever Had by Claire Lombardo. Lombardo’s debut family saga is original in its depiction of the source of the Sorenson family’s strife. Rather than being wounded by trauma, the four Sorenson daughters find navigating the world in the shadow of their parents’ perfect marriage to be nearly impossible. Constructed through an alternating timeline, the novel devotes a lot of care to each member of this lovable, but deeply flawed family. Lombardo is a former social worker and I felt that this gave her a unique insight into the ways people can unintentionally (and intentionally) hurt the people they love.
Fleishman is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner. Fleishman is in Trouble is a snarky and unconventional depiction of marriage, divorce, dating, and parenthood. Following his separation from his wife Rachel, Toby Fleishman is enjoying a sexual awakening thanks to the ease and convenience of online dating apps until Rachel drops the kids off at his apartment and completely disappears. Told entirely in the voice of Toby’s friend Libby, the novel allows readers room to question the realities of Toby and Rachel’s marriage.
The Dutch House by Ann Patchett. This slowly unfolding, yet propulsive family drama may be Patchett’s best. This is the story of Maeve and Danny Conroy--two siblings exiled from their life of privilege and forced to rely on and encourage each other. It’s also a story about memory and the narratives we construct to make sense of our lives even when there’s no sense to be made. If you love great (but not showy) writing, family sagas, and redemptive journeys, you need to pick up this book! And while I loved this book on paper, I’ve heard the audio narrated by Tom Hanks is outstanding.
The World That We Knew by Alice Hoffman. I thought I was burnt out of World War II historical fiction, but it turns out that all I needed was Hoffman’s signature magic. This novel is gorgeous. I loved each character’s journey even when they broke my heart. And I marveled at how Hoffman managed to write a story that was simultaneously devastating and hopeful--one that depicts real evil while celebrating the triumph of the human spirit.
Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson. Woodson’s writing is pure poetry in the sense that every sentence is packed with imagery and layered with meaning. That’s certainly how she’s able to tell such complex and nuanced stories in so few pages. Centering on the effects of an unplanned pregnancy, this is a family story that depicts three generations worth of hope and heartbreak.
Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss. I was blown away by this slight book that explores family, love, and obsession. The novel starts with one of the most unsettling scenes I read this year and then spends its 150 pages detailing how we arrived at this moment. The book’s protagonist is 17-year-old Sylvie who’s spending her vacation living out her father’s fantasy participating in an Iron Age reenactment camping trip. Through this strange little story, Moss comments on class stratification, dangerous obsessions, domestic abuse, and the glamorization of history.
The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Coates’ first novel is a brilliant, if oddly paced story of resistance and resilience in the face of American slavery. Hiram Walker is an enslaved boy with many gifts. One is his ability to remember anything he sees and hears; the other is something a little more mystical and mysterious. Hiram’s powers land him in the service of the Underground Railroad and the novel ultimately becomes a thrilling spy adventure featuring some of the most heroic people in American history.