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

In an Absent Dream by Seanan McGuire: Another Wayward Child’s story — magical, enchanting, heartbreaking. You know the drill.

In an Absent DreamIn an Absent Dream

by Seanan McGuire
Series: Wayward Children, #4

Hardcover, 204 pg.
Tor Books, 2018
Read: January 9, 2019

           …the worst she was ever called where anyone might here was “teacher’s pet,” which she took, not as an insult, but rather as a statement of fact. She was Katherine, she was the teacher’s pet, and when she grew up, she was going to be a librarian, because she couldn’t imagine knowing there was a job that was all about books and not wanting to do it.

Here’s a quick recap of this series for those of you who haven’t heard about it yet/have ignored everything I’ve said about the series these last few years: Imagine Children who go off to a magical kingdom for a bit from our world — Narnia, Fillory, the Lands Beyond, Neverland, Lyrian, whatever you call that land on the other side of the fourteenth door in Coraline, etc. — and then return home. Some will go on to live “normal” lives — others can’t forget or outgrow their attachment to the magical world — some of those, those who want more than anything to return to whatever was on the other side of the door wind up at Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children. This series is about some of those children.

There’s a basic outline to these books — McGuire introduces you to a Child and a new world. Her language will be lyrical, playful and enchanting. She’ll draw you in with the awe and wonder and while you’re not looking, she’ll set the hook, and you will be as emotionally tied to her characters as you are close family members*. Then something devastating will happen to those characters, and you will feel horrible, yet love the experience. No matter what kind of resolution is found in the book (death, rescue, brokenness), when you close the book you’ll almost instantly start waiting until the next book comes out, because McGuire is just that good.

In this book we meet Katherine — Katherine’s never been good at making friends her age (there are justifiable reasons for this), but she likes talking to adults more, she likes rules, and she loves reading. There’s something about each Wayward Child that readers can identify with, but Katherine is more relatable to readers than the others have been. One day, Katherine comes upon a tree that hadn’t been there before. This tree had a door in it, and before she realized what was happening — she was on the other side of the door, walking down a hall, on her way to a Goblin Market. In the last book, we saw a nonsense world — this is a logic world, through and through. There are rules, enforced by everyone who lives there — and somehow, by the world itself.

Unlike that (mostly) tongue-in-cheek outline above, each of these books are so different from the rest, it’s hard to compare them — so I’ll try not to. But the structure of this seems more different than the others have. So I’m not going to tell you any more about the plot than I have — I’ll just say it’s a great story, incredibly well told — and even when the narration tells you the ending is not going to be “kind”, you keep expecting/hoping/wanting for things to work out for Katherine and her loved ones.

I’ve made the ending sound bad — it’s not “happy,” but I’m not complaining, I’m not criticizing, I’m most definitely not warning a reader away. It’s the right ending for this story, it’s absolutely how things needed to go — but this is not the Feel-Good Novella of the Year. It is wonderfully written, beautifully written, imaginative, awe-inspiring, delightful, and eventually heartbreaking. McGuire’s one of the best at work today — and this is proof of it.

Yes, you can read these out-of-order — but I don’t recommend it. And hey, were talking 200 pages or less each, you’ve got time for that. You’ll be glad you did (once you stop feeling horrible)


* That might be a bit hyperbolic.

—–

5 Stars