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

The Swallows by Lisa Lutz: Hilarious and Harrowing Account of Destroying the Status Quo because the Status is Not Quo

The Swallows

The Swallows

by Lisa Lutz

Hardcover, 399 pg.
Ballantine Books, 2019

Read: August 21 – 22, 2019

As I gazed at my students, I had the same thought I always had on the first day. They looked so young and innocent. Then I found a dead rat in the bottom of my desk drawer and remembered the tenet I had learned over the last eight years. The young may have a better excuse for cruelty, but they are no less capable of it.

For someone looking for omens, it’s odd how many exit signs I chose to ignore.

If a century of tradition were the only thing my time at Stonebridge brought to an end, I’d be okay with that. It’s the two deaths that keep me up at night.

How can I talk about The Swallows without ruining the experience? Not easily, and verbosely. Let’s see if I can manage it.

Structurally, it’s a boarding school book—a bunch of well-off (and/or scholarship) kids livingly largely without parental supervision and guidance, getting away with all sorts of things while the adults responsible for the supervision turn a blind eye, are honestly oblivious, or are complicit in the goings-on. At the end of the day, the real power is wielded by the students—a small sub-set of them, anyway—and there’s a split between those wanting to exercise their power for their own pleasure and benefit (largely male at the expense of female empowerment, self-respect, self-esteem, and dignity) and those, well not wanting that.

Largely the book focuses on a small group of female students sick and tired with the status quo (offended and angry, actually) who set out to expose the cabal and the horrible games they play with people in a way to salt the earth so it can’t be repeated. This seems like a tall order, but what choice do they have? They also have male students sympathetic to their cause and are willing to help out.

But also, there’s a teacher (or more) not willing to go along with this, and who knows something’s going on, so she does what she can to track it down to find ways to stop it (either herself or via student/faculty proxies). Her name is Alex Witt and she’s just arrived at Stonebridge Academy following an ignominious departure from Warren Prep. It takes her very little time to determine that something is rotten at Stonebridge and that a couple of her students are trying to do something about it. Instinctively in agreement with them, Alex does what she can to encourage the individuals to find one another and use the strength their numbers and collaboration can bring. One student described her as:

…my friend, my ally, my confidante. She charmed, teased, amused, incited, and befriended us.

Alexandra Witt was the pied piper of Stonebridge Academy.

Chapters are told from the perspective of Alex or some of the other faculty or various students—primarily from the perspective of Gemma Russo (the student quoted above). Gemma was well on her way to a time as a firebrand, but with nudges and aid from Alex, her crusade picks up momentum until upheaval comes to the existing conditions and then all bets are off (see that last line of the opening quotation). Essentially, Alex is John Keating without the stand-up or poetry, making Gemma Neil Perry, I guess.

The book starts off as offbeat, with Gemma as this strange instructor in an alien environment, trying to escape her legacy and to maybe find a little peace while the students are running around pretending to be revolutionaries. But it shifts at a certain point, and while still occasionally comic and never anything but fun to read, it sheds the comedy in favor of earnest emotions and motives and dangerous situations. You don’t notice it happening, but after a certain point, you’ll notice the ground has shifted. Lutz pulls that off really well.

There’s a lot of subtle work to the plot and the prose, and some that’s pretty obvious. But even the obvious is done well. There’s a reveal toward the end of the book that caught me so off-guard, but was so perfect I think I laughed out loud. I think this is technically streets ahead of Lutz’ previous work.

It’s 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 it’s mixed with the harsh realities of The Passenger and the feel of How to Start a Fire. Lutz puts on a clinic for naturally shifting tone and using that to highlight the important stories she’s telling.

There’s not a poorly designed or written character—I can’t say I liked all of them, or even most of them (many of them could use a few days in a pillory while fellow students threw rotten fruit or whatever at them)—but as players in this particular drama, they’re great. I was repeatedly torn between things happening too quickly, and yet not quickly enough—which I take as a sign that she nailed the pacing.

Because I’m really nervous about oversharing here, I’m going to wrap things up—but this is one you really should be reading. If it’s not on one of my Top 10 lists of 2019, I’ll be pretty shocked. I can’t think of many that I’ll put ahead of it at the moment.

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 thriller 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. Lisa Lutz is always a very good author, The Swallows is Lutz at her best.


5 Stars

Opening Lines—The Swallows by Lisa Lutz

Head & Shoulders used to tell us that, “You never get a second chance to make a first impression.” That’s true for wearing dark shirts, and it’s especially true for books. Sometimes the characters will hook the reader, sometimes the premise, sometimes it’s just knowing the author—but nothing beats a great opening for getting a reader to commit. This is one of the better openings I’ve read recently. Would it make you commit?

Some teachers have a calling. I’m not one of them.

I don’t hate teaching. I don’t love it either. That’s also my general stance on adolescents. I understand that one day they’ll rule the world and we’ll all have to live with the consequences. But there’s only so much I’m willing to do to mitigate that outcome. You’ll never catch me leaping atop my desk, quoting Browning, Shakespeare, or Jay-Z. I don’t offer my students sage advice or hard-won wisdom. I don’t dive into the weeds of their personal lives, parsing the muck of their hormone-addled brains. And I sure as hell never learned as much from them as they did from me.

It’s just a job, like any other. It has a litany of downsides, starting with money and ending with money, and a host of other drawbacks in between. There are a few perks. I like having summers off; I like winter and spring breaks; I like not having a boss breathing over my shoulder; I like books and talking about books and occasionally meeting a student who makes me see the world sideways. But I don’t get attached. I don’t get involved. That was the plan, at least.

from The Swallows by Lisa Lutz