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: The Bookish Life of Nina Hill by Abbi Waxman: Believe the hype. All of it. 352 pages of Joy.

The Bookish Life of Nina HillThe Bookish Life of Nina Hill

by Abbi Waxman

eARC, 352 pg.
Berkley Books, 2019
Read: July 1 – 3, 2019

I think it’s entirely fitting to start my post about this book by talking about another book (Nina Hill would approve, maybe even insist on it). I remember a lot of what I read about High Fidelity in the late 90’s (I was a little late to the party), was about guys saying to either hand the book to women to help them understand how we think — or to keep it out of their hands, for the very same reason. That resonated with me. I never thought for a second that I was Rob, Dick or Barry, but we thought the same way, we had a similar weltanschauung — their banter was scripted, where mine frequently fumbled — but overall, they were proof that I wasn’t the only one in the world who thought that way. It took me less than two chapters to feel the same way about Nina Hill — our tastes differ somewhat, she’s more clever than I am, and there’s the ridiculous affection for felines — but on the whole, she’s my kind of person. In fact, many of the people in this book are — she’s just the best example of it.

The authorial voice — Nina’s voice, too — is fantastic. I seriously fell head over heels almost instantly with them. The narrative is specific, funny, observant, compassionate, and brutally honest — mostly funny. It’s just so well-written that I knew (and said publicly) by the end of the first chapter that this was going to be in my personal Top 3 for 2019 — I’ve had some time to think about this, and have reconsidered. I’m confident it’ll be in the Top 5, but I should give the rest of the year a little room to compete. It’s one of those books that’s so well-written you don’t care what or who it’s about, as long as you get to read more of that wonderful prose. By chapter 4 — and several times after that — I had to self-consciously stop myself from highlighting and making glowing notes — because if I didn’t, I’d end up never finishing the book (I still have a lot of notes and passages highlighted).

Let me try to explain via a tortured metaphor (this is where you see why I blog about books, and not write my own). Say you’re taking a road trip, say, to go look at autumn leaves and you know the city you’ll be staying in, but know that there are about 18 different ways for the driver to arrive in that city. You know the whole time where you’ll end up, but you don’t have a clue how you’ll get there, what kind of foliage you’ll see (hint: it’ll be brown, red or orange), what the roads will be like, or what random and surprising things might happen along the way. It’s not about the destination, it’s the journey — as the fortune cookies and high school graduation speeches tell you. This book is the same way — readers are going to know pretty much where this book is going to end up once they’ve read a few chapters. What they don’t know is how they’ll get there, what they’ll see on the way, what kind of surprises will be along the way, and how fast they’ll get there. It’s in these things that Waxman excels — her plotting is pretty obvious, but her execution is dazzling and often unexpected. (I want to stress that this is an observation, not a criticism)

Nina Hill is a reader — books are how she defines herself, the prism through which she sees and interacts with the world. She has a job (bookseller), a cat, a small home with a lot of shelves, a trivia team, book club, a place she exercises, a visualization corner, a fantastic planner and a love of coffee and quality office products. Her life is pretty regimented, but everything is just how she likes it. She also is introverted, prone to anxiety, and averse to change. Nina’s smart with a great memory, a penchant for honesty, and highly-developed sense of who she is.

Her friends are essentially the women she works with and the members of her trivia team — all of whom are intelligent, witty, well-read and fun. The kind of people I’d love to hang out with over coffee or wine for a few hours a week.

Nina’s mother is a noted and award-winning photojournalist and spends most of her time traveling the world being one. Nina was largely raised by a Nanny (although her mother visited frequently). Nina has never known a father.

Until one day her life changes — a lawyer arrives with some news. Her father is dead. Apparently, her mother discovered he was married and refused to have anything further to do with him. He was absolved of any need to support Nina or her mother as long as he never made contact with her. Which he honored — but made provisions for him in his will.

Her father was a successful entertainment lawyer, and a serial monogamist. He was married three times (one divorce, one widowing, and one marriage intact), had several children and more grandchildren (there are contextually appropriate and helpful graphics to help you understand the family structure). Nina went from being alone in the world to being a sister, an aunt and a grand-aunt in one conversation. She slowly meets various members of the family — discovering similar personality traits, interests and physical characteristics. The family she meets is wonderful — I could easily spend more time with them all. One brother and a nephew (who is older than her) in particular stand out — she gets to know them sooner and deeper than the rest. But many others are on their heels, and even the least-likable among them turn out to be great (with one exception, but that’s by design).

While reeling from the changes of learning she has an extended family, starting to meet them, and learning about her father — another thing happens in her life. There’s a member of a rival trivia team that she finds attractive, and who just may find her attractive. They have similar tastes and many shared interests, but he seems to know a lot about sports (including what “a Don Shula” is) and isn’t much of a reader. But there’s something about him . . .

There are three significant child characters in the novel — they’re not around much, but when they are, they have a large impact on the plot. They are all pretty unrealistic, talking and (apparently) thinking in ways that are immature, but not how kids talk and/or think. But they’re so adorable that you forgive Waxman immediately for these overly-precocious children. It’s not a major thing, I just wanted to say something less-than-positive about the book, and this is all I could come up with.

Throughout the novel, Nina learns how little she’s really alone in the world and how she might be able to find time for more people in her life — without losing who she is and too much reading time. This is the core of the novel and everything else is in service to this goal. While this is going on, there are plenty of laughs, chuckles and wit to carry the reader from plot point to plot point.

It’s a good thing that I stopped quoting from ARCs (I almost never got around to verifying the lines in the published version), because this post would either never be completed or would be so long that I’d be the only one who’d read the whole thing. I had to stop myself — repeatedly, actually — from highlighting great lines. Particularly comments Nina made to others (or the Narrator made on her behalf) about books and/or reading. Book memes are going to be mining this novel for years — you’ve seen 357 variations on the Tyrion lines about reading, or the 200+ takes on “Books were safer than people anyway” from The Ocean at the End of the Lane. Folks, Nina Hill is going to bury both of them.

According to Goodreads, I’ve read 122 books so far in 2019. If pressed, I’d easily say this is better than 120 of them, and might tie the other (it’s a lot more fun, I can say without a doubt). 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. I don’t know what else to say other than: Go, go read this, go buy it, expect it as a gift from me (if you’re the type to receive gifts from me, I’m not buying one for all of you on my wages, as much as I might want to).

Disclaimer: I received this eARC from Berkley Publishing Group via NetGalley in exchange for this post — thanks to both for this great opportunity!!

—–

5 Stars

The Bookish Life of Nina Hill by Abbi Waxman: Believe the hype. All of it. 352 pages of Joy.

The Bookish Life of Nina HillThe Bookish Life of Nina Hill

by Abbi Waxman


eARC, 352 pg.
Berkley Books, 2019

Read: July 1 – 3, 2019

I think it’s entirely fitting to start my post about this book by talking about another book (Nina Hill would approve, maybe even insist on it). I remember a lot of what I read about High Fidelity in the late 90’s (I was a little late to the party), was about guys saying to either hand the book to women to help them understand how we think — or to keep it out of their hands, for the very same reason. That resonated with me. I never thought for a second that I was Rob, Dick or Barry, but we thought the same way, we had a similar weltanschauung — their banter was scripted, where mine frequently fumbled — but overall, they were proof that I wasn’t the only one in the world who thought that way. It took me less than two chapters to feel the same way about Nina Hill — our tastes differ somewhat, she’s more clever than I am, and there’s the ridiculous affection for felines — but on the whole, she’s my kind of person. In fact, many of the people in this book are — she’s just the best example of it.

The authorial voice — Nina’s voice, too — is fantastic. I seriously fell head over heels almost instantly with them. The narrative is specific, funny, observant, compassionate, and brutally honest — mostly funny. It’s just so well-written that I knew (and said publicly) by the end of the first chapter that this was going to be in my personal Top 3 for 2019 — I’ve had some time to think about this, and have reconsidered. I’m confident it’ll be in the Top 5, but I should give the rest of the year a little room to compete. It’s one of those books that’s so well-written you don’t care what or who it’s about, as long as you get to read more of that wonderful prose. By chapter 4 — and several times after that — I had to self-consciously stop myself from highlighting and making glowing notes — because if I didn’t, I’d end up never finishing the book (I still have a lot of notes and passages highlighted).

Let me try to explain via a tortured metaphor (this is where you see why I blog about books, and not write my own). Say you’re taking a road trip, say, to go look at autumn leaves and you know the city you’ll be staying in, but know that there are about 18 different ways for the driver to arrive in that city. You know the whole time where you’ll end up, but you don’t have a clue how you’ll get there, what kind of foliage you’ll see (hint: it’ll be brown, red or orange), what the roads will be like, or what random and surprising things might happen along the way. It’s not about the destination, it’s the journey — as the fortune cookies and high school graduation speeches tell you. This book is the same way — readers are going to know pretty much where this book is going to end up once they’ve read a few chapters. What they don’t know is how they’ll get there, what they’ll see on the way, what kind of surprises will be along the way, and how fast they’ll get there. It’s in these things that Waxman excels — her plotting is pretty obvious, but her execution is dazzling and often unexpected. (I want to stress that this is an observation, not a criticism)

Nina Hill is a reader — books are how she defines herself, the prism through which she sees and interacts with the world. She has a job (bookseller), a cat, a small home with a lot of shelves, a trivia team, book club, a place she exercises, a visualization corner, a fantastic planner and a love of coffee and quality office products. Her life is pretty regimented, but everything is just how she likes it. She also is introverted, prone to anxiety, and averse to change. Nina’s smart with a great memory, a penchant for honesty, and highly-developed sense of who she is.

Her friends are essentially the women she works with and the members of her trivia team — all of whom are intelligent, witty, well-read and fun. The kind of people I’d love to hang out with over coffee or wine for a few hours a week.

Nina’s mother is a noted and award-winning photojournalist and spends most of her time traveling the world being one. Nina was largely raised by a Nanny (although her mother visited frequently). Nina has never known a father.

Until one day her life changes — a lawyer arrives with some news. Her father is dead. Apparently, her mother discovered he was married and refused to have anything further to do with him. He was absolved of any need to support Nina or her mother as long as he never made contact with her. Which he honored — but made provisions for him in his will.

Her father was a successful entertainment lawyer, and a serial monogamist. He was married three times (one divorce, one widowing, and one marriage intact), had several children and more grandchildren (there are contextually appropriate and helpful graphics to help you understand the family structure). Nina went from being alone in the world to being a sister, an aunt and a grand-aunt in one conversation. She slowly meets various members of the family — discovering similar personality traits, interests and physical characteristics. The family she meets is wonderful — I could easily spend more time with them all. One brother and a nephew (who is older than her) in particular stand out — she gets to know them sooner and deeper than the rest. But many others are on their heels, and even the least-likable among them turn out to be great (with one exception, but that’s by design).

While reeling from the changes of learning she has an extended family, starting to meet them, and learning about her father — another thing happens in her life. There’s a member of a rival trivia team that she finds attractive, and who just may find her attractive. They have similar tastes and many shared interests, but he seems to know a lot about sports (including what “a Don Shula” is) and isn’t much of a reader. But there’s something about him . . .

There are three significant child characters in the novel — they’re not around much, but when they are, they have a large impact on the plot. They are all pretty unrealistic, talking and (apparently) thinking in ways that are immature, but not how kids talk and/or think. But they’re so adorable that you forgive Waxman immediately for these overly-precocious children. It’s not a major thing, I just wanted to say something less-than-positive about the book, and this is all I could come up with.

Throughout the novel, Nina learns how little she’s really alone in the world and how she might be able to find time for more people in her life — without losing who she is and too much reading time. This is the core of the novel and everything else is in service to this goal. While this is going on, there are plenty of laughs, chuckles and wit to carry the reader from plot point to plot point.

It’s a good thing that I stopped quoting from ARCs (I almost never got around to verifying the lines in the published version), because this post would either never be completed or would be so long that I’d be the only one who’d read the whole thing. I had to stop myself — repeatedly, actually — from highlighting great lines. Particularly comments Nina made to others (or the Narrator made on her behalf) about books and/or reading. Book memes are going to be mining this novel for years — you’ve seen 357 variations on the Tyrion lines about reading, or the 200+ takes on “Books were safer than people anyway” from The Ocean at the End of the Lane. Folks, Nina Hill is going to bury both of them.

According to Goodreads, I’ve read 122 books so far in 2019. If pressed, I’d easily say this is better than 120 of them, and might tie the other (it’s a lot more fun, I can say without a doubt). 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. I don’t know what else to say other than: Go, go read this, go buy it, expect it as a gift from me (if you’re the type to receive gifts from me, I’m not buying one for all of you on my wages, as much as I might want to).

Disclaimer: I received this eARC from Berkley Publishing Group via NetGalley in exchange for this post — thanks to both for this great opportunity!!

—–

5 Stars