Favorite Books of 2019

If you love dysfunctional family novels, this is one doozy of a story—and a must-read. When two rookie cops who meet at the NYC Police Academy strike up a friendship, it sets in motion a tragic chain of events that echo through the decades, through the lives of their children and their children’s children. I found this book exceptionally difficult to read—it’s depressing and dark and triggers abound—yet I was eager to find out what would happen next to these doomed families, and the astonishing developments of the last 75 pages vaulted this to my best-of-the-year list. A poignant story of grace, forgiveness, and redemption, for fans of Atonement and Little Fires Everywhere.
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Chiaverini’s new historical novel was inspired by the life of Mildred Harnack, a real historical figure whose story was previously untold because the U.S. government deliberately buried it after the war. Harnack was one of dozens of members of the network of American and German resistance fighters the Gestapo called die Rote Kapelle (Red Orchestra). The bulk of the action takes places between the wars, beginning in 1929; I was initially surprised that a novel about Nazi Germany before and during WWII began SO early, but Chiaverini’s chosen timeline serves her story well: as a reader, you see events escalate over time through these women’s eyes: first they’re incredulous, then increasingly horrified, all the while asking each other, what do we do? The setup feels leisurely but the payoff is worth it. Recommended reading for fans of We Were the Lucky Ones.
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Part memoir, part educational glimpse into the profession of psychotherapy, completely absorbing. Making use of an unusual two-pronged approach, psychotherapist Gottlieb shows us how therapy really works. She introduces us to four of her patients, taking us inside the room to show what happens in their sessions. Thanks to a sudden breakup, Gottlieb is in therapy herself, and through her eyes we get the patient's perspective as well. I so enjoyed getting to know her patients, session by session, and rooted hard for them as they worked through the process. A book not just about therapy but about how we grow, change, and connect with each other—and how we can do it all more effectively. For fans of Christie Tate’s Group and Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams.
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This tough and tender coming-of–age story is Part Grapes of Wrath and part Huckleberry Finn, while mirroring The Odyssey’s narrative. The tale centers on four Minnesota kids during the Great Depression, whose respective situations become ever more impossible due to human cruelty and circumstance. After a tornado demolishes the last of life as they know it, they realize no one is going to save them—and so they make a plan to save themselves that starts with escaping down the river in a canoe. Their little band by turns encounters kind strangers and others all too willing to exploit vulnerable children. For those of you who say my husband Will is your book twin: he loved this. An epic story, beautifully told, and one that contains perhaps the finest setup-and-payoff sequence I’ve read in years. Content warnings apply. For fans of Krueger’s Ordinary Grace and Jess Walter’s The Cold Millions.
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I waited far too long to read Kindred by Octavia Butler, and I was riveted from the first page. Time travel meets slave narrative in this modern science fiction classic. When Dana, a modern Black woman from 1976, gets transported to the antebellum south in order to save one of her white ancestors, she preserves her own history. But it doesn’t end there. As she keeps getting pulled back to the past, her trips grow more and more dangerous, and Dana must figure out how to survive in a reality far more terrifying than the history books ever suggested. If you still need a push to read Kindred, listen to Volume II Episode III of One Great Book.
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I didn't read this for so long because I thought it was going to be hard and heavy since it This book has been repeatedly recommended to me over the past year, and despite purchasing my own copy on fall book tour, I postponed reading it. I expected it to be hard and heavy—it does have "trauma" in the title, after all—but while van der Kolk certainly addresses difficult subjects, the main descriptor I'd use is fascinating. Burying our traumatic experiences comes at a great cost, because they can't truly be ignored—those experiences manifest themselves in our very bodies. Van der Kolk explores what that looks like, and what to do about it. Some of the treatment options were so unexpected (and effective) that I couldn't resist reading paragraphs out loud to my husband.
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This modern-day version of The Parent Trap is fun for the whole family. This collaboration between two highly successful authors—one who primarily writes for kids, the other for grown-ups—features two twelve-year old girls living on opposite coasts who strike up an unwanted correspondence after they discover their single fathers fell in love at a building conference and are now dating. This relationship is not good news to either of them, as they make clear in the ensuing emails that comprise the book. Their situation goes from bad to worse when their fathers force them to attend the same summer camp, hoping they’ll become friends. Things go horribly wrong in more ways than one, but there's not a single page here that doesn’t feel fresh, funny, charming, and real. A big-hearted story for readers of all ages. For fans of C.C. Payne’s The Thing About Leftovers and Rebecca Stead’s The List of Things That Will Not Change.
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"Because while it is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single, Muslim man must be in want of a wife, there’s an even greater truth: To his Indian mother, his own inclinations were of secondary importance." In this P&P-inspired retelling, set in contemporary Toronto, Darcy becomes Khalid, a devout Muslim man whose mother is trying to marry him off. Elizabeth becomes Ayesha, a teacher who'd much prefer to be a poet. When they first meet, it's utter disaster: she thinks he's rigid and judgmental; he thinks she's not a good Muslim because she's holding a drink (virgin) and cigarette (not hers). But circumstances bring them together again, of course. I loved the supporting cast featuring good friends, a cousin dreaming of a Bollywood-inspired wedding, an embarrassing mother, and a Shakespeare-quoting grandpa. If you're a P&P devotee, this is a delight. If you've never read the original, you can still enjoy this story about love, family, obligation, and romance.
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Colson Whitehead brings Jim Crow-era Florida to life through the real story of a reform school in Tallahassee that claimed to rehabilitate delinquent boys and instead abused and terrorized them for over one hundred years. Elwood Curtis is bound for a local black college when an innocent mistake lands him at The Nickel Academy instead. Elwood finds comfort in Dr. Martin Luther King's words and holds to his ideals, whereas his friend Turner believes the world is crooked so you have to scheme to survive. All this leads to a decision with harrowing repercussions for their respective fates.
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I didn’t know a book could be both gorgeous and terrifying—but then I devoured this in a day. When two college friends plan a long canoeing trip in northern Canada, they anticipate a peaceful yet memorable summer escape filled with whitewater paddling, fly fishing, and campfire cooking. The first hint of danger is a whiff of smoke, from an encroaching forest fire. The next comes from a man, seemingly in shock, who reports his wife disappeared in the woods. If these boys didn’t feel compelled to do the right thing and go look for her, they’d be fine, but instead they step in to help—and are soon running for their lives, from disasters both natural and man-made. A tightly-written wilderness adventure, a lyrical mystery, and a heartrending story of friendship, rolled into one. For fans of Sebastian Junger’s Fire and Tim Johnston’s The Current.
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