My Favorite Non-Crime Fiction of 2019

Like last year, while trying to come up with a Top 10 this year, I ran into a small problem (at least for me). Crime/Thriller/Mystery novels made up approximately half of the novels I read this year and therefore dominated the candidates. So, I decided to split them into 2 lists—one for Crime Fiction and one for Everything Else. Not the catchiest title, I grant you, but you get what you pay for.

These are my favorites, the things that have stuck with me in a way others haven’t—not necessarily the best things I read (but there’s a good deal of overlap, too). But these ten entertained me or grabbed me emotionally unlike the rest.

Anyway…I say this every year, but . . . Most people do this in mid-December or so, but a few years ago (before this blog), the best novel I read that year was also the last. Ever since then, I just can’t pull the trigger until January 1. Also, none of these are re-reads, I can’t have everyone losing to books that I’ve loved for 2 decades that I happened to have read this year.

Enough blather…on to the list.

(in alphabetical order by author)

A Man Called OveA Man Called Ove

by Fredrik Backman, Henning Koch (Translator)

My original post
I’ve been telling myself every year since 2016 that I was going to read all of Backman’s novels after falling in love with his My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry. The closest I got was last year when I read his first novel, A Man Called Ove (and nothing else). It’s enough to make me resolve to read more of them, and soon. The story of an old, grumpy widower befriending (against his will, I should stress) a pretty diverse group of his neighbors. It’s more than that thumbnail, but I’m trying to be brief. The story was fairly predictable, but there’s something about the way that Backman put it together that makes it perfect. And even the things you see coming will get you misty (if not elicit actual tears).

5 Stars

Dark AgeDark Age

by Pierce Brown

My original post
When I started reading this, I was figuring that Pierce Brown’s Red Rising Saga was on the downward trend. Boy, was I wrong. Dark Age showed me that time after time after time after time . . . Entertaining, occasionally amusing, stress-inducing, heart-wrenching, flat-out captivating. It was brutal and beautiful and I can’t believe I doubted Brown for a minute.

5 Stars

Here and Now and ThenHere and Now and Then

by Mike Chen

My original post
One of the best Time Travel stories I’ve ever read, but it’s so much more—it’s about fatherhood, it’s about love, it’s about friendship. Heart, soul, laughs, and heartbreak—I don’t know what else you want out of a time travel story. Or any story, really. Characters you can like (even when they do things you don’t like), characters you want to know better, characters you want to hang out with after the story (or during it, just not during the major plot point times), and a great plotline.

4 1/2 Stars

Seraphina's LamentSeraphina’s Lament

by Sarah Chorn

My original post
Chorn’s prose is as beautiful as her world is dark and disturbing. This Fantasy depicts a culture’s collapse and promises the rebirth of a world, but getting there is rough. Time and time again while reading this book, I was struck by how unique, how unusual this experience was. As different as fantasy novels tend to be from each other, by and large, most of them feel the same as you read it (I guess that’s true of all genres). But I kept coming back to how unusual this feels compared to other fantasies I’ve read. The experience of reading Seraphina’s Lament isn’t something I’ll forget any time soon.

4 1/2 Stars

No Country for Old GnomesNo Country for Old Gnomes

by Delilah S. Dawson and Kevin Hearne

My original post
Having established their off-kilter world, strong voice, and approach to the stories of Pell, Dawson and Hearne have come back to play in it. The result is superior in every way that I can think of. I lost track of how many times I said to myself while reading something along the lines of, “how did they improve things this much?” These books are noted (as I’ve focused on) for their comedy—but they’re about a lot more than comedy. The battle scenes are exciting. The emotional themes and reactions are genuine and unforced. And tragedy hits hard. It’s easy to forget in the middle of inspiring moments or humorous aftermaths of battle that these kind of novels involve death and other forms of loss—and when you do forget, you are open to getting your heart punched.

(but mostly you laugh)

4 1/2 Stars

Twenty-one Truths About LoveTwenty-one Truths About Love

by Matthew Dicks

My original post
It’s an unconventionally told story about a man figuring out how to be a businessman, husband, and father in some extreme circumstances. The lists are the star of the show, but it’s the heart behind them that made this novel a winner.

5 Stars

State of the UnionState of the Union: A Marriage in Ten Parts

by Nick Hornby

My original post
This series of brief conversations held between a married couple just before their marriage counseling sessions. At the end of the day, this is exactly what you want from a Nick Hornby book (except the length—I wanted more, always): funny, heartfelt, charming, (seemingly) effortless, and makes you feel a wide range of emotions without feeling manipulated. I loved it, I think you will, too.

4 1/2 Stars

The SwallowsThe Swallows

by Lisa Lutz

My original post
This is not my favorite Lutz novel, but I think it’s her best. It has a very different kind of humor than we got in The Spellman Files, but it’s probably as funny as Lutz has been since the third book in that series—but deadly serious, nonetheless. Lutz puts on a clinic for naturally shifting tone and using that to highlight the important stories she’s telling. From the funny and dark beginning to the perfect and bitingly ominous last three paragraphs The Swallows is a winner. Timely and appropriate, but using tropes and themes that are familiar to readers everywhere, Lutz has given us a thrilling novel for our day—provocative, entertaining, and haunting. This is one of those books that probably hews really close to things that could or have happened and you’re better off hoping are fictional.

5 Stars

PostgraduatePostgraduate

by Ian Shane

My original post
This has the general feel of Hornby, Tropper, Norman, Weiner, Russo (in his lighter moments), Perrotta, etc. The writing is engaging, catchy, welcoming. Shane writes in a way that you like reading his prose—no matter what’s happening. It’s pleasant and charming with moments of not-quite-brilliance, but close enough. Shane’s style doesn’t draw attention to itself, if anything, it deflects it. It’s not flashy, but it’s good. The protagonist feels like an old friend, the world is comfortable and relaxing to be in (I should stress about 87.3 percent of what I know about radio comes from this book, so it’s not that). This belongs in the same discussion with the best of Hornby and Tropper—it’s exactly the kind of thing I hope to read when I’m not reading a “genre” novel (I hate that phrase, but I don’t know what else to put there).

4 1/2 Stars

The Bookish Life of Nina HillThe Bookish Life of Nina Hill

by Abbi Waxman

My original post
This is a novel filled with readers, book nerds and the people who like (and love) them. There’s a nice story of a woman learning to overcome her anxieties to embrace new people in her life and heart with a sweet love story tagged on to it. Your mileage may vary, obviously, but I can’t imagine a world where anyone who reads my blog not enjoying this novel and protagonist. It’s charming, witty, funny, touching, heart-string-tugging, and generally entertaining. This is the only book on this particular list that I know would’ve found a place on a top ten that included Crime Novels as well, few things made me as happy in 2019 as this book did for a few hours (and in fleeting moments since then as I reflect on it).

5 Stars

Books that almost made the list (links to my original posts): Not Famous by Matthew Hanover, Circle of the Moon by Faith Hunter, Maxine Unleashes Doomsday by Nick Kolakowski, In an Absent Dream by Seanan McGuire, The Rosie Result by Graeme Simsion, and Lingering by Melissa Simonson

Pub Day Repost: Here and Now and Then by Mike Chen: A Dad. A Daughter. And Time Travel. (Kleenex may be required)

When I really love a book and don’t know how to express it, I tend to ramble. Case in point:

Here and Now and ThenHere and Now and Then

by Mike Chen

eARC, 336 pg.
Mira Books, 2019

Read: January 15 – 16, 2019

You can have fun with a son
But you gotta be a father to a girl

That’s Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, not Mike Chen — but the spirit of the book is in that second line, so I’m going to use it. I found myself singing those lines a lot while thinking about the book. If you’re a father to a daughter, you will love this book. I don’t think it’s necessary to appreciate the book — non-parents, mothers, people with sons should still be able to see how good it is and to empathize with the characters. But I can’t imagine any Father of a Daughter won’t see themselves (and Daddy’s Little Princess) in these pages.

In the past, I’ve said something about not really liking non-Doctor Who Time Travel stories. I’m starting to think it’s because I haven’t been reading the right kind of Time Travel stories. In the last year (give or take), I’ve read and loved four Time Travel novels — All Our Wrong Todays by Elan Mastai, Just One Damned Thing After Another by Jodi Taylor, Paradox Bound by Peter Clines, and now Here and Now and Then by Mike Chen. In all of them, the tropes of Time Travel are honored — while played with a little bit — but are really just excuses to tell very real emotional stories about some pretty great characters. Which is what Who does best, too, now that I think about it. So maybe for me, Time Travel has to be a means to an end, not the end itself.

Maybe I should leave the introspection for another time, and just get on with talking about the book, eh? My point was supposed to be that, like Matsai, Taylor and Clines, Mike Chen has surprised and excited me beyond expectations and hopes.

The day I started (and fell in love with) this book, I tried to explain it briefly to someone. I did so in a way that was clearly reductionistic (because, that’s what you do in a couple of sentences), spot on, and yet horribly inaccurate — all at the same time. Here’s what I said: It’s a gender-flipped Outlander, except the protagonist goes to the future instead of the past, and they use science-y stuff to the Time Travel instead of magic-y stuff.

Kin (pronounced /ˈkēn/) is, or was — or will be — a Secret Agent for the Temporal Corruption Bureau in 2142. He came back to 1996 to prevent a Twenty-Second Century criminal from altering the timeline for their own profit — and did so. But things went wrong in carrying out the mission and he was unable to be returned to his time. So he got stuck in 1996 for a bit. For him, it was 18 years. For the TCB it was a couple of weeks. For Kin, he had to give up hope of rescue, get a job — and then he fell in love, got married and had a kid. He has a nice life — he’s a success in IT for a video game company, he’s a pretty decent amateur chef and is working on trying out for a reality show for home chefs, his wife is great, and his daughter is, too. Miranda’s fourteen, a soccer star, wicked smart, a SF nerd and loves her parents.

Then his partner Markus shows up to bring him back to their time — Kin’s largely forgotten his former, er, past, er…other life and has really become a resident of 2014 (this is explained in science-y wibbly wobbly, timey wimey terms that actually make sense in context), so Markus has to take him by force. Once he’s back to his future, Kin starts remembering his life — his job, his hobbies, his utter ineptitude in the kitchen — and his fiancé (Markus’ sister). But it doesn’t come back to him immediately, and he has to work at it.

One thing he can’t do, is let go of his Twenty-First Century life, and he schemes for ways to remain a part of Miranda’s life. For awhile, this works — but only for a while. The instant it starts, every reader knows that Kin won’t be able to fly under the radar forever and he gets found out. It turns out that what he’s doing risks the future — but the only fix the TCB has in mind will mean Miranda’s death. While Kin can understand their decision, there’s no way he can let that happen to his daughter.

I don’t think I’ve said (much) more than the publisher’s blurb — but I can’t say much more without spoiling. And trust me, Chen’s version is much better than mine would be.

Kin is a great character — he’s thoughtful, skilled, smart — and human. He makes a lot of mistakes, his judgement is shaky (not just when it comes to Miranda, either) — but he tries to do the right thing. His loved ones — in all eras — are people you can believe are in his life and you can see why he cares for them, and you do too — because of Kin. That’s all I’m going to say about the other characters because I can’t talk about any of them without ruining something.

The world of 2142 is just about perfect — it’s different than 2014, but there are straight lines connecting it all. It’s the little changes that make it right — often Kin’s perspective allows us to see it. Like the offhand way he mentions to someone that temperatures are 5 degrees lower in 2014. Or the way he reacts to a recreation of 21st Century fast food. There are things about Mars that are just tossed off in conversation without explanation that clearly mean humans are doing something on the surface of the planet. Don’t ask me what — Chen doesn’t say. It even took me seeing him use the phrase a couple of times before I realized what it meant. But once I did, I got very excited about how he pulled it off. There are many subtle details like these that really make this a believable read.

The story and the writing are imaginative and playful — you will smile a lot while reading this. But the instant that Markus shows up and says it’s time to go, you just know that your heart is going to get broken in these pages. And you will be right. Thankfully, Chen will give you almost as many reasons to be happy — some small, some big. It’d have been very easy to make this maudlin or depressing. He could’ve also make this a playful romp. Chen instead walks the tightrope between the extremes in a performance worthy of Philippe Petit. The pages fly by, I really couldn’t believe how quickly I read this — part of it was because I just had to find out what happened to Kin, Miranda and the rest — but part of it was Chen’s writing. Despite hitting you with all that he hits you with, it’s very (and at times, deceptively) easy to read.

(this next paragraph could get a bit spoiler-y. But not really, just in vague sentiments, no particulars…Still, skip if you want)
This worked for me on just about every level and on just about every front — it checked all of my boxes and did just about every superlative thing I can think of. But the ending — I loved the ending, don’t get me wrong — just felt a little too easy. Things worked a little too well. Which the fanboy in me loves, but . . . I dunno, the book was filled with twists and struggles and challenges and the in the last three or four chapters everything was a little too easily overcome — and even the challenges melted away. And yes, I cheered, but I wanted Kin and everyone to have to work a little harder for my cheers. So, I’m docking this 1/2 star. (which is easy to do because on Goodreads/Amazon/NetGalley I have to round up, because they won’t accept half-stars, so the ratings average still gets to stay high).

Heart, soul, laughs, and heartbreak — I don’t know what else you want out of a time travel story. Or any story, really. Characters you can like (even when they do things you don’t like), characters you want to know better, characters you want to hang out with after the story (or during it, just not during the major plot point times), and a great plotline. This book is about as good as it gets. Grab your copy now while I start eagerly anticipating Chen’s next book.

Disclaimer: I received this eARC from HARLEQUIN – MIRA via NetGalley in exchange for this post — thanks to both for this. These are my own honest — and hopefully not convoluted — thoughts and opinions.

—–

4 1/2 Stars

Here and Now and Then by Mike Chen: A Dad. A Daughter. And Time Travel. (Kleenex may be required)

When I really love a book and don’t know how to express it, I tend to ramble. Case in point:

Here and Now and ThenHere and Now and Then

by Mike Chen



eARC, 336 pg.
Mira Books, 2019

Read: January 15 – 16, 2019

You can have fun with a son
But you gotta be a father to a girl

That’s Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, not Mike Chen — but the spirit of the book is in that second line, so I’m going to use it. I found myself singing those lines a lot while thinking about the book. If you’re a father to a daughter, you will love this book. I don’t think it’s necessary to appreciate the book — non-parents, mothers, people with sons should still be able to see how good it is and to empathize with the characters. But I can’t imagine any Father of a Daughter won’t see themselves (and Daddy’s Little Princess) in these pages.

In the past, I’ve said something about not really liking non-Doctor Who Time Travel stories. I’m starting to think it’s because I haven’t been reading the right kind of Time Travel stories. In the last year (give or take), I’ve read and loved four Time Travel novels — All Our Wrong Todays by Elan Mastai, Just One Damned Thing After Another by Jodi Taylor, Paradox Bound by Peter Clines, and now Here and Now and Then by Mike Chen. In all of them, the tropes of Time Travel are honored — while played with a little bit — but are really just excuses to tell very real emotional stories about some pretty great characters. Which is what Who does best, too, now that I think about it. So maybe for me, Time Travel has to be a means to an end, not the end itself.

Maybe I should leave the introspection for another time, and just get on with talking about the book, eh? My point was supposed to be that, like Matsai, Taylor and Clines, Mike Chen has surprised and excited me beyond expectations and hopes.

The day I started (and fell in love with) this book, I tried to explain it briefly to someone. I did so in a way that was clearly reductionistic (because, that’s what you do in a couple of sentences), spot on, and yet horribly inaccurate — all at the same time. Here’s what I said: It’s a gender-flipped Outlander, except the protagonist goes to the future instead of the past, and they use science-y stuff to the Time Travel instead of magic-y stuff.

Kin (pronounced /ˈkēn/) is, or was — or will be — a Secret Agent for the Temporal Corruption Bureau in 2142. He came back to 1996 to prevent a Twenty-Second Century criminal from altering the timeline for their own profit — and did so. But things went wrong in carrying out the mission and he was unable to be returned to his time. So he got stuck in 1996 for a bit. For him, it was 18 years. For the TCB it was a couple of weeks. For Kin, he had to give up hope of rescue, get a job — and then he fell in love, got married and had a kid. He has a nice life — he’s a success in IT for a video game company, he’s a pretty decent amateur chef and is working on trying out for a reality show for home chefs, his wife is great, and his daughter is, too. Miranda’s fourteen, a soccer star, wicked smart, a SF nerd and loves her parents.

Then his partner Markus shows up to bring him back to their time — Kin’s largely forgotten his former, er, past, er…other life and has really become a resident of 2014 (this is explained in science-y wibbly wobbly, timey wimey terms that actually make sense in context), so Markus has to take him by force. Once he’s back to his future, Kin starts remembering his life — his job, his hobbies, his utter ineptitude in the kitchen — and his fiancé (Markus’ sister). But it doesn’t come back to him immediately, and he has to work at it.

One thing he can’t do, is let go of his Twenty-First Century life, and he schemes for ways to remain a part of Miranda’s life. For awhile, this works — but only for a while. The instant it starts, every reader knows that Kin won’t be able to fly under the radar forever and he gets found out. It turns out that what he’s doing risks the future — but the only fix the TCB has in mind will mean Miranda’s death. While Kin can understand their decision, there’s no way he can let that happen to his daughter.

I don’t think I’ve said (much) more than the publisher’s blurb — but I can’t say much more without spoiling. And trust me, Chen’s version is much better than mine would be.

Kin is a great character — he’s thoughtful, skilled, smart — and human. He makes a lot of mistakes, his judgement is shaky (not just when it comes to Miranda, either) — but he tries to do the right thing. His loved ones — in all eras — are people you can believe are in his life and you can see why he cares for them, and you do too — because of Kin. That’s all I’m going to say about the other characters because I can’t talk about any of them without ruining something.

The world of 2142 is just about perfect — it’s different than 2014, but there are straight lines connecting it all. It’s the little changes that make it right — often Kin’s perspective allows us to see it. Like the offhand way he mentions to someone that temperatures are 5 degrees lower in 2014. Or the way he reacts to a recreation of 21st Century fast food. There are things about Mars that are just tossed off in conversation without explanation that clearly mean humans are doing something on the surface of the planet. Don’t ask me what — Chen doesn’t say. It even took me seeing him use the phrase a couple of times before I realized what it meant. But once I did, I got very excited about how he pulled it off. There are many subtle details like these that really make this a believable read.

The story and the writing are imaginative and playful — you will smile a lot while reading this. But the instant that Markus shows up and says it’s time to go, you just know that your heart is going to get broken in these pages. And you will be right. Thankfully, Chen will give you almost as many reasons to be happy — some small, some big. It’d have been very easy to make this maudlin or depressing. He could’ve also make this a playful romp. Chen instead walks the tightrope between the extremes in a performance worthy of Philippe Petit. The pages fly by, I really couldn’t believe how quickly I read this — part of it was because I just had to find out what happened to Kin, Miranda and the rest — but part of it was Chen’s writing. Despite hitting you with all that he hits you with, it’s very (and at times, deceptively) easy to read.

(this next paragraph could get a bit spoiler-y. But not really, just in vague sentiments, no particulars…Still, skip if you want)
This worked for me on just about every level and on just about every front — it checked all of my boxes and did just about every superlative thing I can think of. But the ending — I loved the ending, don’t get me wrong — just felt a little too easy. Things worked a little too well. Which the fanboy in me loves, but . . . I dunno, the book was filled with twists and struggles and challenges and the in the last three or four chapters everything was a little too easily overcome — and even the challenges melted away. And yes, I cheered, but I wanted Kin and everyone to have to work a little harder for my cheers. So, I’m docking this 1/2 star. (which is easy to do because on Goodreads/Amazon/NetGalley I have to round up, because they won’t accept half-stars, so the ratings average still gets to stay high).

Heart, soul, laughs, and heartbreak — I don’t know what else you want out of a time travel story. Or any story, really. Characters you can like (even when they do things you don’t like), characters you want to know better, characters you want to hang out with after the story (or during it, just not during the major plot point times), and a great plotline. This book is about as good as it gets. Grab your copy now while I start eagerly anticipating Chen’s next book.

Disclaimer: I received this eARC from HARLEQUIN – MIRA via NetGalley in exchange for this post — thanks to both for this. These are my own honest — and hopefully not convoluted — thoughts and opinions.

—–

4 1/2 Stars