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Blog – Posted on Tuesday, Dec 17

The Best Books of 2019: 50 Reads That Stole Our Hearts

New Year’s is a time for reflection — thinking back on the year that’s been, and planning ahead for the one to come. For bookworms, this can mean anything from scrutinizing your ever-expanding TBR to checking on how you did with your reading goals.

Here at Reedsy Discovery, one of our favorite year-end activities is making Best of lists. So that’s exactly what we did! We’ve compiled 50 of the best books of 2019 — organized by release date, so you can see exactly what the year looked like in books. These are the books that kept us up late, gave us book hangovers, and filled out thoughts and discussions throughout the year. From fantasy to suspense to biographies and memoirs, and everything in between, these are the books you don’t want to miss.

1. The Falconer by Dana Czapnik (January 29)

In this whip-smart YA novel, first-time author Dana Czapik taps into her sportswriting roots: she’s manned a copy desk at ESPN the Magazine and worked public relations for a professional lacrosse team, among other roles. You can see that background in the muscular grace of her prose, and in her attention to detail as she draws us into The Falconer’s world of high school basketball.

Growing up in New York City in the early ‘90s, Lucy Adler calls herself a pizza bagel: half Jewish, half Italian. She’s also 17 and staring down her senior year at Pendleton Academy, where her middle-class parents can’t really afford to send her. She can’t help but feel out of place among the scions of the glitterati — even with her best friend, Percy, whose succession of posh girlfriends suggests he doesn’t share her not-quite-platonic affections. No wonder Lucy only feels at home on the court. Whether she’s hustling for her school team or playing pickup games at the public court, it’s basketball that will save her — right?

2. The Age of Light by Whitney Scharer (February 5)

This stunning historical novel mines material so explosive and dazzling, it’s easy to imagine it floundering in less skilled hands — the fiction overshadowed by the flash and luster of the truth. Luckily, Whitney Scharer is up to the task. Her prose is so assured, her characterization so exacting, it’s hard to believe The Age of Light is her first novel. 

Scharer renders a historical icon in human terms — no easy task, given the superhuman dimensions of Lee Miller’s life. A teen model for Vogue, she made her way to the other side of the lens, moving from fashion photography to photojournalism. As the collaborator — and lover — of the avant-garde artist Man Ray, she cultivated a surrealist point of view all her own. By World War II, Lee was giving Vogue readers a front-row seat to history in the making, documenting the liberation of Paris and the horrors of Dachau. The Age of Light tells Miller’s story with warmth and nuance, homing in on her relationship with Ray while giving voice to her individual genius.

3. Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James (February 5)

If you’re a fantasy buff, Black Leopard, Red Wolf might have come onto your radar as an “African Game of Thrones” — a catchy tagline that, as it turns out, Marlon James meant as a joke. The Booker alum isn’t a straightforward grimdark fantasist. The GRRM comparisons do manage to gesture at the complexity and brutality of his setting — a version of precolonial Africa where lightning vampires, demons, and shapeshifters preside over a phantasmagoria of rape and carnage. Still, there’s nothing of conventional fantasy in how Marlon leads you through this world, which seems to quake beneath your feet with a kind of seismic instability. Narrative arcs dissolve as soon as you manage to grasp them, like salt dipped in water. But it’s impossible to look away.

Our narrator, a man called Tracker, spends most of the book on a quest that we learn, from the very first sentence, is doomed to fail. He’s dispatched to sniff out a boy who went missing three years ago, though we already know that “the child is dead”. Told out of order, beginning with the end of this futile manhunt, the story puts Tracker in the paths of other mercenaries and hunters wielding dangerous powers — all while a political cataclysm looms in the horizon.

4. The Collected Schizophrenias by Esmé Weijun Wang (February 5)

In this slim volume, Wang dissects her experience of mental illness with a laboratory elegance: examining it under a variety of lenses, from scientific to confessional, and capturing it in precise, measured language. As a result of her insights, we see the chaos of schizophrenia go still for us to observe, like butterflies pinioned by the lepidopterist’s glass. 

The Collected Schizophrenias arguably owes its rigor to Wang’s background as a Yale- and Stanford-educated scientist and its carefully constructed beauty to her past as a style blogger. And if she comes across as very “put together” — the Ivy League fashion plate, a far cry from the conventional mental illness memoir’s Girl, Interrupted — that’s also part of the story she’s telling. That desire to seem high-functioning, through cosmetics and credentials, is a crucial motif in Wang’s exploration of schizophrenia, as experience and as cultural marker. 

5. American Spy by Lauren Wilkinson (February 12)

This wildly inventive Cold War drama is the perfect thriller for people who don’t read thrillers — though spy novel buffs will also appreciate its taut pace and sky-high stakes. Debut author Lauren Wilkinson is the future of the genre, and American Spy proves she’s got range as well, offering steamy romance and artfully rendering history in addition to the requisite thrills.

As a young, black FBI operative, Marie Mitchell knows it won’t be easy to climb up the ranks. Intelligence is an old boys’ club, and its members have her mired in paperwork. So when she’s given the chance to do something interesting for once, she’s all too happy to take it. That’s how Marie ends up having to seduce (the real-life) Thomas Sankara, a young revolutionary who just pulled off a coup — making him a president at 33, and Burkina Faso a Communist state. Accepting the mission isn’t a good idea: Marie’s still mourning her sister, who died under mysterious circumstances, and she can’t say she’s not sympathetic to Sankara’s work. Can she stay true to her country — and herself?

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6. On the Come Up by Angie Thomas (February 12)

In 2017, Angie Thomas topped national bestseller lists with her dazzling debut novel, The Hate U Give — inciting sky-high expectations for her sophomore release. With On the Come Up, Thomas not only delivers, she excels, with authenticity, originality, and a great deal of heart.

This novel takes place in the same carefully constructed universe as THUG, but concerns a very different cast of characters and set of issues. Our protagonist and narrator is Bri Jackson, a sixteen-year-old rapper who hopes to honor her late father’s memory by “making it” (something he never had a chance to do). Yet when Bri writes a rap about her experience as a young black woman, facing racism at her school and feeling the weight of systemic inequality dragging her down, she has no idea what’s in store for her. The song soon goes viral, thrusting Bri into the spotlight whether she likes it or not — and certainly not everyone takes a shine to her. As she rapidly ascends the ladder of fame, Bri is forced to confront who she is and where her principles truly lie, all the while attempting to block out the noise of those who don’t know her at all.

7. The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon (February 26)

Don’t let the 800+ pages of this epic fantasy put you off — this is one novel fantasy lovers won’t want to miss. It’s already been compared to both The Lord of the Rings and A Game of Thrones, but with one important difference: this time, it’s a feminist take on the genre. Women drive the heart and soul of this novel. Well, women and dragons. Need we say more?

The Priory of the Orange Tree is a novel about a world divided. East and West both have radically different views on dragons. But they’re going to need to find a way to put those differences aside if they hope to survive an attack by The Nameless One — an ancient dragon so far kept in check by the South. Packed with history and culture, this immersive novel will grip fantasy fans from the first page to the last. From its richly drawn character arcs, to its pirate battles and dragon riders, there’s plenty to enjoy. Plus, even though it’s a long book, it’s a standalone story and not the start of a series, so there will be no multi-year wait between sequels. We call that a win!

8. The Raven Tower by Ann Leckie (February 26)

From the author of Ancillary Justice, one of the best sci-fi novels in recent memory, comes another unique and gripping speculative premise. The Raven Tower takes place in a world where gods and men rule in tandem, and in the kingdom of Iraden, a god called the Raven has served as lord and protector for hundreds of years. The Raven watches from atop a grand tower and enacts his will through a human called the Lease. However, the god has grown weak and his chosen Lease been ousted from the throne. With Iraden under siege by invaders and rival gods, one young warrior called Eolo must attempt to reinstate the true Lease, restoring truth, balance, and security to the kingdom. And he has to do it before a dark, long-hidden secret threatens to destroy the Raven Tower.

This book’s unusual use of second person narration (the reader experiences much of the story as Eolo), coupled with unexpected shades of Hamlet in the plot, undoubtedly makes for a compelling and urgent fantasy you’ll be reluctant to put down.

9. Daisy Jones and the Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid (March 5)

This stunningly original novel is the bibliophile’s answer to This Is Spinal Tap. An exhaustive — but not at all exhausting — account of a made-up rock band’s meteoric rise rise, Daisy Jones and the Six reads less like historical fiction than fictional history. It’s a bold narrative experiment, but one that pays off in Reid’s capable hands. Trust us: you’ll practically be able to hear the music in your head. And, when the Reese Witherspoon-produced TV show comes out, you’ll be able to hear it in your ears. 

Of course, the book doesn’t shy away from rock stardom’s darker side. Fame, Daisy Jones knows, can be fleeting as a fever dream and burn you straight through the core. She’s spent her girlhood, in 1970’s LA, sneaking into shows and partying with rock stars, but she knows she’s got the chops to get onstage with them. That’s why she agrees to sing with the Six, a band on the cusp of their own big break. Together, they can ascend to stardom — or wink out like a comet in the night.

10. The Women’s War by Jenna Glass (March 5)

In this medieval-inspired epic fantasy, women are just as belittled, oppressed and abused as they were in the actual Middle Ages… at least, that’s how the story begins. When a spell cast across the land makes it possible for women to control their own fertility, they finally gain power over their male counterparts, especially those for whom they are expected to produce sons. This spell shatters the glass ceiling, so to speak — women start performing all kinds of sorcery, which had once been the dominion of men alone.

This is the backdrop of The Women’s War, which focuses on two key figures in this magical feminist revolution: Alys, a widowed mother who discovers an exceptional talent for magic, and Ellin, a young queen who refuses to marry and yield sovereignty to a man. Their newfound abilities make for a captivating power struggle with the men in their lives — yielding supremely satisfying results as they realize what they are truly capable of.

11. The Bird King by G. Willow Wilson (March 12)

A rarely featured, intricately drawn setting takes the stage in this beautiful historical fantasy by G. Willow Wilson. The Bird King begins on the Iberian Peninsula in 1491, with the dying strains of Grenada’s last sultanate… and the sultan’s last concubine, Fatima, wondering what will become of her. Fortunately, she has friends in high places — namely the palace cartographer Hassan, whose maps can bend reality to his will. But when Hassan’s talents are revealed to the wrong people, the pair must flee the palace immediately. With the help of an intrepid genie, they embark on a mission to reach true sanctuary: the island home of the Bird King, whom they believe will grant them purpose and peace.

This skillful mix of history, politics, and Persian mythology, delivered in Wilson’s golden-tongued prose, render The Bird King a clear classic in the making — and a must-read for anyone tired of white-led medieval fantasy.

12. If, Then by Kate Hope Day (March 12)

In this invigorating blend of science fiction and literary fiction, If, Then introduces us to the sleepy town of Clearing, Oregon. There, four neighbors begin to see visions of the lives they could have led: a surgeon witnessing love outside her stagnant marriage, a father obsessed with protecting his family from a coming disaster, a daughter learning to move forward from loss, and a young mother struggling to find balance between her career and her family.

The story unfolds in alternating chapters, as each character struggles to understand not just what’s happening to them, but the impact that seeing these “other” selves has on their current lives. Kate Hope Day critically examines of the power of possibilities, and the importance of every choice we make. It’s a story that sparks both scientific wonder and s soul searching —and one that will leave you ruminating long after the final page.

13. The Light Brigade by Kameron Hurley (March 19)

Throughout science fiction history, there’s a long lineage of books that go beyond the splashy, surface-level concepts they sell us on.These instant classics  deliver stories that reflect our current world back at us with such chilling clarity, we can never look at it the same way again. The Light Brigade continues that proud tradition.

The story follows Dietz, a “ghoul” neglected by the mega-corporations that run society. After a devastating attack, they sign up as a grunt soldier to seek revenge against the faction on Mars who murdered their family. Here, soldiers are shipped off to battle by breaking them down into light particles and beaming them across space. But sometimes this process goes wrong, and now, it’s going very wrong. Dietz’s experiences aren’t lining up with anyone else’s — certainly not the official word from the corporations. Untangling exactly what’s going on, and who’s to be believed, will take Dietz on a heart-pounding hunt for the truth. This is the genre at its best: angry sci-fi, rebellious sci-fi, do better or die trying sci-fi. It’s not one to be missed.

14. Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams (March 19)

This tender, witty novel has been billed as a millennial Bridget Jones’s Diary — an updated take on the women’s fiction classic with a black heroine at its center. Queenie Jenkins’s wry voice and disarming honesty do bring Helen Fielding’s infamous diarist to mind. But she also takes us to places Bridget Jones never goes, treating race and mental illness with warmth and insight.

At 25 years old, Queenie is struggling. Sure, as a self-professed “catastrophist,” she might be slightly exaggerating the scale of her troubles. But there’s no denying she’s got trauma in her past — and uncertainty in her future. Queenie’s work in a prestigious newsroom has her feeling out of place among white, middle-class colleagues, while her Jamaican grandmother remains unimpressed by the job and her hard-hitting dreams. Her love life, meanwhile, is going nowhere fast. At least the girls in her WhatsApp group thread have her back! Queenie will have you laughing out loud as you root for its witty young protagonist.

15. A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine (March 26)

There’s a long history of expansionist empires in science fiction, but how many of them can say their culture is heavily influenced by poetry? Welcome to the world of A Memory Called Empire, easily one of the year’s most unique and engrossing space operas.

This book follows Mahit, an ambassador from a small mining colony, who comes to the heart of the sprawling Teixcalaanli Empire only to discover that her predecessor is dead. No one is willing to admit that his death wasn’t an accident, so it falls on Mahit to discover the truth — hopefully in time to save her own life. Packed with worldbuilding, this novel takes a deep look atculture and colonialism, while also blending in courtly intrigue, a splash of romance, and a thrilling murder mystery to unravel. Despite the huge stakes, it never loses touch with the people at the heart of the story. If you want a new world to lose yourself in, or even if you just want to see a woman affecting major political change without ever raising a weapon, this book is for you.

16. My Lovely Wife by Samantha Downing (March 26)

What truly goes on inside a marriage? Samantha Downing’s ambitious debut speculates on that question in the most chilling way possible. We open on a fairly unremarkable scene: a man and woman sitting in a bar, flirting. But the woman across from the man is not his wife — and as we soon learn, almost everything he’s told her has been a lie.

Thus begins the mesmerizing roller coaster of My Lovely Wife, narrated by a man ensnared in a treacherous game of passion and destruction. He recounts how he and his wife, Millicent, settled happily in the suburbs with their two young children… only for life to become predictable and boring. Then, Millicent offers a creative solution to kill their slump (no pun intended). But this disturbing revelation is only the beginning of Downing’s tale, which she elevates through masterful character development and a series of shockingly original twists.

17. Spring by Ali Smith (March 28)

The incomparable Ali Smith has been called “Scotland’s Nobel Laureate in waiting,” and her latest novel shows exactly why. Part of her ambitious seasonal quartet, it reflects, like the preceding Autumn and Winter, on the seismically active landscape of contemporary politics: the fault lines surrounding Brexit, the shaky ground of “alternative facts,” the less-than-metaphorical wounds inflicted on the earth by climate change. The effect is less newsy than you might expect, and more archaeological: a careful excavation of a national mood.

Smith’s Spring isn’t the season of rosebuds and renewal — it’s an unflinchingly sober look at immigration detention in the UK, centering on the Immigration Removal Centres where refugees are processed with apathetic cruelty. Twenty-something Brit works at one such center, where her growing moral unease isn’t enough to stop her from doing her job. Then, a precocious 12-year-old called Florence comes into her life. In the hands of a less prescient writer, the collection of tropes at work here might read as hokey. But Smith turns them into a modern myth with biblical resonance.  

18. The Girl He Used to Know by Tracey Garvis Graves (April 2)

If you’re a fan of slow burn, this sweet, smart romance is sure to hit the spot, as it serves up a long-simmering, character-forward love story that spans ten years. And in a genre often accused of cookie-cutter sameness, The Girl He Used to Know breaks the mold, showing us a compelling, autistic female lead rendered with three-dimensional richness.

When Annika Rose runs into Jonathan Hoffman at the grocery store, it’s the first time she’s laid eyes on him in a decade. She’s been on her own since they broke up after college, while he’s still emotionally bruised by the wreckage of his failed marriage. Their re-meet cute by the frozen strawberries brings Annika back to her student days, when they fell in love over black and white squares at the chess club. Love wasn’t something she expected to find in college, and now she and Jonathan may have a shot at it again. But is she still the girl he used to know? 

19. I Miss You When I Blink: Essays by Mary Laura Philpott (April 2)

Following in the footsteps of the normally incomparable Nora Ephron, Mary Laura Philpott proves herself an arbiter of comedy and contemplation in this book of essays. (The title, I Miss You When I Blink, was taken from the offhand musings of her six-year-old — clearly the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.) Its contents range from deep ruminations on identity and reinvention to lighter anecdotes about Roombas, to-do lists, and how easy it is to lose your car in a parking garage.

Philpott’s is a refreshing, relatable voice in both the male-dominated comedy sector and the dramatically transformative self-help sector. These essays convey how she’s taken things one day at a time, weathering the journey with wit and wisdom. You won’t find a more enjoyable midlife crisis anywhere else (or a better gift for Ephron-loving readers).

20. The Luminous Dead by Caitlin Starling (April 2)

If a sci-fi psychological thriller that isn’t afraid to dig deep into madness sounds up your alley, this is the book for you. Set on a far-flung mining planet, the book follows Gyre, a woman desperate enough to fake her credentials for a too-good-to-be-true caving job that will pay out more than enough to get off-planet. Sure, she doesn’t entirely know what they’ve sent her down to look for. And maybe her only topside support staff is a mysterious woman named Em, who isn’t exactly warm — and certainly isn’t above injecting Gyre with drugs to make her more efficient and pliable. But if Gyre can just survive this one job, she’ll finally be able to track down the mother who abandoned her years ago. It’s got to be worth it. Right?

Told entirely through Gyre’s point of view and getting increasingly tense and trippy as her situation deteriorates, The Luminous Dead was easily one of the freshest and most unexpected reads of 2019. Part mystery, part character study, and part ghost story, this is a book that will trap you in its depths from its first breath and haunt you long after you close the cover.

21. Descendant of the Crane by Joan He (April 9)

In a world where magic has been outlawed, Princess Hesina of Yan ascends to the throne under the most dire of circumstances: her father’s murder. Desperate to uncover who did it, Hesina consults a soothsayer, who gives her just enough information to hire investigator Akira (himself a convicted criminal trying to outrun the past). Together, this unlikely duo follows a breadcrumb trail back to the killer, which eventually escalates into courtroom drama worthy of Law & Order — with the extra intrigue of illegal magic also at play. On top of all that, Hesina must navigate the waters of her newly minted queenship, struggling to balance what’s right with what’s true as she guides her people. 

Descendant of the Crane is chock full of palpable suspense and incredibly realistic character dynamics. This murder mystery/political drama/unique work of fantasy has already carved out a place in the canon all its own.

22. Naamah by Sarah Blake (April 9)

This dreamy genre-bender is the fiction debut of acclaimed poet Sarah Blake, known for her wildly inventive verses on topics as wide-ranging as grief, the body, and Kanye. Naamah sees her turn that omnivorous imagination to the biblical account of Noah’s ark. Blake approach to this age-old story is as bracing as the floodwaters, and as strange: the premise of sailing through the world’s end, packed in with all manner of hoofed, clawed, and winged life, is taken all the way to its fleshy, smelly limits.

Blake shows us the Great Flood through the eyes of Noah’s wife, a matriarch who remains nameless in the bible but appears, in its medieval Jewish glosses, as a woman called Naamah. Here, she’s no silent helpmeet: her fierce love for her sons is balanced against her baffled anger at God. And as moves through dreams and faces tempted by angels, we see her question everything, from her faith to her family’s uncertain future. 

23. Trust Exercise by Susan Choi (April 9)

Pulitzer finalist Susan Choi spent her teenage years in the ’80s at a high school for the performing arts. Based on this tidbit, her latest novel looks, at first glance, like a fairly typical bit of autobiographical fiction — albeit one where the confessional strain is wrapped in Choi’s signature lyricism. Trust Exercise brings us to a high school for the performing arts, in the ‘80s, of course. Here teen romance ignites, teen friendships unravel, and a charismatic drama teacher pushes his worshipful charges to become “masters of feeling” on and off the stage. But halfway through the novel, our understanding of what unfolds changes entirely.

We won’t say too much and spoil the pleasure of unspooling all the gossamer intricacies in Choi’s plotting. Just know that there’s more than one story here — and more than one storyteller leading us through the same set of events. See all these competing versions of the truth laid out before you, and you can’t help but reflect on how narrative itself is nothing more than a trust exercise: an invitation into the strange territory of someone else’s understanding. 

24. Miracle Creek by Angie Kim (April 16)

This polished thriller with a heart shows just how far the old adage of “writing what you know” can take you. Miracle Creek might be Angie Kim’s first novel, but she’s mined her personal experiences — as a courtroom lawyer, a Korean immigrant, and a parent to a special-needs child — to invest it with rare finesse and depth. The result? A legal thriller animated with a humanity you don’t always see in the genre.

Miracle Creek centers on an obscure form of medical treatment called hyperbaric oxygen therapy, or HBOT. An acknowledged cure for carbon monoxide poisoning, it’s also applied to a host of other, less well-understood conditions like autism and cerebral palsy. As you can imagine, this treatment lies somewhere left of medical convention, and it attracts its fair share of parents desperate to help — or “cure” — their special-needs kids. This off-label use of the chamber brings four families together in the small town of Miracle Creek, Virginia, where a Korean immigrant family runs an HBOT treatment center. It’s business as usual inside the submarine — until someone sets a fire, killing two people. Who’s responsible — and why?

25. Underland: A Deep Time Journey by Robert Macfarlane (May 2)

This erudite bestseller is the trippiest travelogue you’ll ever read. Underland takes you beneath the crust of the earth and back through the centuries in almost 500 ambitious, sweeping pages. It’s literally about, well, what lies under the ground. But the intellectually omnivorous Macfarlane interprets that broadly. With an effortless lyricism, he moves from the caves where veins of glitter wait for intrepid spelunkers, to the tombs that house the ancient dead, to the sealed-off spaces where our nuclear waste decays to emit alpha particles long after we’re gone. And then there are the myths — the heroes who sink deep into the ground to reach the land of the dead.

Underland makes all these threads hang together. It isn’t necessarily an easy read, but it’s a tremendously rewarding one. Macfarlane’s intricate language deserves to be savored, while the breadth of the ideas he unfolds might take a while for your mind to span. Once it does, though, you’re sure to change the way you see the ground beneath your feet.

26. Middlegame by Seanan McGuire (May 7) 

This intricate fantasy puzzle is a masterpiece in pacing. It might weigh in at a whopping 500-plus pages, but its taut, punchy sentences propel you at breakneck speeds, from a tantalizing opening to a masterful conclusion. Seanan McGuire writes with such grace and urgency, you won’t be phased by her story’s byzantine structure, a kind of folded-up, Escher-esque relationship to time that jumps backwards and forwards — all while a clock counts down to the end of the world.

Luckily, Middlegame gives us a pair of compelling leads to follow through the twisted-up shape of this world. Roger and Dodger are, as their names suggest, twins. But they don’t know it at first — separated at birth, they grow up on opposite coasts, magically helping each out with their homework through a mysterious psychic link. That’s lucky, because together, they make one complete prodigy: Roger’s a genius with words, and Dodger, his sister, a whiz with numbers. But the twins don’t get to stay in their childish idyll, playing innocently with ideas. Between them, there’s James Reed, the alchemist who’s not their father but their creator, who fashioned them like tools for some terrifying purpose. Can the twins come together to save the world — and themselves?

27. With the Fire on High by Elizabeth Acevedo (May 7)

With one of the best YA premises of this or any recent year, With the Fire on High follows the unorthodox life of seventeen-year-old Emoni Santiago. Emoni has been taking care of others for as long as she can remember: her three-year-old daughter “Babygirl,” her financially struggling abuela, even her high school friends.

Emoni cares for herself with the healing power of cooking, which has become her greatest passion — especially as she’s learned to create dishes that reflect her Afro-Puerto Rican heritage. Needless to say, when her high school offers a new culinary arts class, she jumps at the chance to take it… despite being unable to afford the end-of-the-year trip to Spain. But as Emoni learns through the class (and with the encouragement of a cute classmate), life is too short not to go after what you really want — especially if you’re amazing at it. Despite the heaviness of Emoni’s past, this story is light and sweet as a meringue, with a subtle thread of magical realism and vibrant prose that leaps off the page.

28. I Wish You All the Best by Mason Deaver (May 14)

We’re not gonna lie, the beginning of this book is heartbreakingly difficult to get through. Within the first few pages, Ben comes out to their parents as nonbinary over Christmas break, gets thrown out of their house, and ends up standing in the cold calling their estranged sister because they have no one else to turn to.

Despite the emotionally difficult start, though, this story is actually one of deep love, acceptance, and hope. It’s about learning to claim who you are, and how to share that with others, even when they cannot accept you. And it’s about those wonderful people who can — who embrace you even when you’re unsure of yourself, and lift you up in your times of darkness. I Wish You All the Best is a deeply important book, and one easily worthy of becoming a classic.

29. Red, White, and Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston (May 14)

What happens when the First Son of the United States falls in love with the Prince of Wales? All us readers fall in love right beside them, apparently! Red, White, and Royal Blue has gotten all the rom-com hype this year, and it’s no secret why. When Alex, son of President Ellen Claremont, causes a minor international incident at a royal wedding, the only solution is for him to pretend to be best friends with Prince Henry — at least until the press dies down. But of course, once Alex and Henry get to know each other, things become… complicated. And increasingly delightful for all of us.

From the delicious enemies-to-lovers trope done oh-so-right, to the optimistic alternate political landscape, to the purest and most tenderhearted resolution we’ve seen in ages, this book will win over even the most hardened hearts.

30. The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead (May 24)

In 2011, Florida state authorities shut down the notorious Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys, an institution where juvenile offenders had been shunted since the early 20th century. Just a year after its closure, forensic anthropologists began unearthing unmarked graves on its shuttered campus: chilling testimony to the school’s 111-year legacy of abuse and neglect. Their discovery shocked the world. But to the Dozier survivors who’d been speaking out for decades, it came as vindication — albeit too late.

This real-world story forms the backdrop to The Nickel Boys, a rich, difficult novel with sky-high ambitions and deep, historical roots. The Pulitzer-winning novelist Coulson Whitehead reimagines Dozier as The Nickel Academy, a reform school where state staffers claim to transform wayward boys into “honorable and honest men,” while actually subjecting them to beatings and sexual abuse. When a single misstep diverts Elwood from the black college where he was headed to the horrors of Nickel, he tries to hold on to the words of his idol, Martin Luther King: “Throw us in jail and we will still love you.” But they make for cold comfort in a world that seems determined to destroy Elwood, body and soul. 

31. City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert (June 4) 

Viral memoirist Elizabeth Gilbert takes on the romance genre in City of Girls, a plush and playful period piece with less eating and prayer than her fame-making hit — but just as much love. Told through a high-spirited nonagenarian looking back on her wild girlhood in ‘40’s, it’s a sexy beach read with real emotional weight. Gilbert excels at conjuring up the jazzy mood of the times: you can almost hear the big band music in the air.

When 19-year-old Vivian Morris gets kicked out of Vassar, she can’t exactly claim surprise: it’s the sort of thing that happens when you’ve got the second-to-worst grades in your class, and the girl behind you had the excuse of polio. Her parents ship her off to stay with her Aunt Peg in what’s meant to be a sort of punishment. But Peg happens to own the Lily Playhouse, where showgirls and actors congregate in a whirl of feathers and gin, and they’re all too happy to pull Vivian into their world of glitz. Sure, there’s a world war looming on the horizon, and a lot of growing up to do. But for now, Vivian just wants to live.

32. Magic for Liars by Sarah Gailey (June 4)

Part noir mystery, part fantasy, part high school drama, and all delight, Magic For Liars tells the story of Ivy Gamble, a no-nonsense detective with a beef against cheaters. When she’s asked to take a case at The Osthorne Academy of Young Mages, she’s thrilled — not because it’s magical (she has no interest in magic, nope, none at all) — but because it’s a big case. Sure, she’ll have to spend time around her estranged, magical sister, Tabitha, but Ivy can handle that. Of course the school brings more challenges to the table than Ivy could have anticipated. From troublesome highschoolers to the attentions of the Physical Magic teacher, to Ivy’s decision to keep her non-magical status a secret, there’s more than enough to keep her hands full — and that’s before we even get to, you know, solving the murder.

This is delightful, unexpected book will keep you guessing until the end. With all the tension of a thriller, it also manages to examine family, of self, and of the secrets we keep from ourselves and each other — whether or not we should.

33. On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong (June 4)

Since his debut collection came out in 2016, Ocean Vuong has been lauded as one of the poetic voices of his generation: a millennial Emily Dickinson who delivers observations that cut to the marrow, in language as clear as glass. This is his debut novel, a sharp, beautifully rendered reflection on all the themes we’ve come to expect from his work: queerness, immigrant identity, and the aftermath of historical violence.

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is written as a series of confessional letters, from a young, gay Vietnamese American man nicknamed Little Dog to his illiterate mother. Bound by their fierce and troubled love for one another, they’re also pulled apart by their traumas both distinct and shared, and by the abuse she heaped on him throughout his childhood. Vuong unsnarls the complicated tangle of this mother-son relationship with his characteristic precision and grace. 

34. The Future of Another Timeline by Annalee Newitz (July 16)

Everything old is new again in this time travel story of culture, history, and the long-lasting impacts that even the smallest choices can have. In one narrative, it’s 1992, and seventeen-year-old Beth ends up on an increasingly bloodthirsty quest for vengeance against the men who’ve gotten away with assaulting girls like her. In the other, a time traveler called Tess from 2022 sets off on an underground mission to protect the timeline from a rogue group bent on returning women to the status of property. As the story progresses, these histories hew ever close, as Tess travels between the Chicago World’s Fair, to her present, to Beth’s time, and back again. When Tess begins to realize the future of time travel itself is at stake, it will take all of her resources and courage to combat it — including the strength to stand up to her own past.

At turns hopeful, empowering, and downright chilling, The Future of Another Timeline is both timely and timeless: a cautionary tale mixed with a call to arms. Taking from real historical events and mashing them together with current threats and futures all too easy to imagine, it will linger long after you finish reading it.

35. This is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone (July 16)

This little novella sure packs a big punch. From the delicate worldbuilding to the utterly gripping enemies-to-lover romance to the language that weaves itself straight into your bones, there is so much to fall in love with in This is How You Lose the Time War.

Red and Blue are agents on opposing sides of the time war: both clever, both ruthless, both the best at what they do. Neither would have ever dreamed of communicating with the other, until one day Red finds a letter in the scorched aftermath of a battlefield, marked “Burn before reading.” But what starts as a boast between rivals soon grows into something vaster, and much more dangerous. Written with the deft grace of a poet, this book will keep you guessing right up until the breathless — and ultimately inevitable — conclusion.

36. Gods of Jade and Shadow by Silvia Moreno-Garcia (July 23)

This vibrant, glitzy fairy tale is the perfect antidote to the medieval monotony of old high fantasy. Gods of Jade and Shadow may deal in deities and heroes, but they’re not like anything you’ve seen from Tolkien or GRRM. Instead, Silvia Moreno-Garcia takes a deep dive into both pre-colonial Mexican folklore and 1920s history. With lively language and meticulous care, she plucks the Mayan gods of the underworld right from the Popol Vuh and folds them deftly into a Cinderella remake of breathtaking originality.

She might be living in the Jazz Age, but Casiopea Tun isn’t hearing any saxophone trills — she’s busy cleaning her wealthy grandparents’ house in the Yucatán, dreaming of being anywhere else. But one day, she opens up an old chest and finds herself holding the bones of a god: a Mayan lord of the dead called Hun-Kamé. Turns out, her new divine acquaintance has troubles of his own. Disposed by his twin brother, he’ll have to fight his way back onto the throne of Xibalba, underworld he should be ruling. And Casiopea, it seems, will have to help him. A journey to the land of the dead doesn’t sound like much of a vacation, but she just might get to see the glitter of Mexico City in the process.

37. Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion by Jia Tolentino (August 6)

Chances are, you’d recognize Jia Tolentino by her New Yorker avatar: the illustrated portrait that gazes at you, unsmiling, from the bottom of every piece she’s written for the storied lit mag. A champagne-haired cartoon with Glossier-worthy eyebrows, it’s graced incisive takes on everything from skincare as a coping mechanism, to Edith Wharton’s relevance in the Instagram age. 

As her New Yorker output proves, Tolentino is a writer who takes pop culture seriously, wringing transformative insight from all its absurdity and dross. Along those lines, this essay collection sees her trying to make sense of all the tricks played on us by contemporary culture’s hall of mirrors: the trolls that savage us through social media, the celebrities that take up real estate in our heads, the drive to get stronger and hotter and better every day — optimizing our bodies like machines. Tolentino never pretends she has all the answers. And it’s a pleasure to watch her mind in motion as it makes its way through Trick Mirror’s labyrinth of questions. 

38. The Pretty One: On Life, Pop Culture, Disability, and Other Reasons to Fall in Love with Me by Keah Brown (August 6)

Though you may recognize her from the viral hashtag she created in 2017 (#DisabledandCute), Keah Brown’s story is far too full of verve and vigor to fit in a Twitter thread… so she put it in a book. The Pretty One contains essays about Brown’s experiences as a black woman with cerebral palsy, exploring her identity through the lenses of religion, the media, and American society as a whole.

Those unfamiliar with Brown might be deterred by the apparent weight of these topics, but those who know her will eagerly anticipate the signature warmth, humor, and steady stream of pop culture references she uses to tackle them. Brown emerges as a bright, engaging new voice on everything from the best TV shows ever to the nuances of disability and, ultimately, the revolutionary act of loving oneself.

39. Cantoras by Carolina De Robertis (September 3)

Set in Uruguay, this sweeping historical novel centers around five women: Romina, Flaca, Anita "La Venus," Paz, and Malena. Called “cantoras” (an old slang for lesbians — though some of the characters are bi), these women have plenty to fear under the dictatorship running their country in the ‘70s. Even just the five of them meeting up at once would be considered a crime, and that’s without getting into the concern of being “disappeared” for who they love.

The story sets off when the five of them, brought together by Flaca, discover a remote beach village where they can escape for short trips. Here, in a half-constructed building where there are no toilets, and no telephones, and no husbands, the five come together to find solace and community. The women are the heart of this novel — their lives, their loves, their friendships. And our understanding of them deepens as they return to their beach again and again over the next several decades. Told in elegant prose, Cantoras is a tale of forgotten histories, of finding your “people,” and of hope and perseverance through the most trying times.

40. Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir (September 10)

Gideon the Ninth is a book like no other — and with all the books out there, that’s really saying something! Set in a vibrant science fiction world of magic and necromancy, it follows Gideon as she packs up her sword, her shoes, and her dirty magazines to escape her cell in the Ninth House. At the same time, we meet Harrowhawke, a Necromancer summoned to participate in a competition that could make her immortal — if she manages to win. To do that, she’ll need a skilled sword by her side. And Gideon has a sword, which she’s quite good at using…

Equal parts funny, dark, and unexpected, this book took the science fiction and fantasy community by storm this year. We certainly get it. Between its incredibly fleshed-out worldbuilding, the many, many twists and turns throughout its pages, its examinations of power and vulnerability, and its perfectly tuned, witty banter, what’s not to love? This is a book that many will feel they’ve been waiting their whole life for, and they will not be disappointed now that they’ve found it. We can’t wait to see how the rest of the story plays out over the next two books.

41. The Testaments by Margaret Atwood (September 10)

One of the most fervently anticipated books of 2019, The Testaments serves as both sequel to Atwood’s landmark dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale and commercial accompaniment to the Emmy-nominated Hulu series of the same name. But what would have been an impossible bar for any other author to clear has culminated in a new peak of Atwood’s career — another NYT bestseller, critical darling, and joint winner of the Booker Prize.

The Testaments commences fifteen years after the events of The Handmaid’s Tale and is narrated by three women: two girls who have grown up in and alongside the fertility-obsessed nation of Gilead, and one woman instrumental to its founding, who now hopes to bring Gilead’s totalitarian hyper-patriarchy to the ground. Their narration is deliberate and evocative, doling out harrowing details of both the regime and their own experiences, making the personal political in a grimly familiar way. Yet beneath the veneer of horror runs a stubborn strand of hope, as these women’s lives intertwine and they collude on a mission that could change everything — risking their lives so that countless women won’t have to face the same fate.

42. Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs?: Big Questions from Tiny Mortals About Death by Caitlin Doughty (September 10)

How often have you wondered what happens after you die? Not in the philosophical, spiritual sense of afterlives and eternal happiness or damnation — the nitty-gritty of what happens to your body. Well, maybe not your body, but — you know, a body. Like a body that dies in space. Or one that’s eaten unpopped popcorn before being cremated. Or a long-dead mummy. And just how stinky are some of these corpses?

Caitlin Doughty is a mortician who’s made a name for herself as someone happy to educate us all on the subject of death. In Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs? she’s taken us on a journey deep into the best questions that children have posed to her about a subject most of us grown-ups are too polite to ask about. Equal parts educational, fascinating, and just a little bit gross, this book uses humor and morbid delight to make us all a little more comfortable with a subject we’ll all  have to learn to live with in the end.

43. A Cosmology of Monsters by Shaun Hamil (September 17)

This genre-bending Lovecraft tribute treads the line between between horror and family drama, enlivening scary standbys — the haunted house, the cursed family — with a psychological richness that’ll move you to feelings other than terror. A Cosmology of Monsters is more tender than cynical. But it’s still not the kind of book you’d want to read alone in the dark — especially if you’re spending the night in a creepy house.

As a family, the Turners haven’t had the best luck. Patriarch Harry, a longtime Lovecraft fan, works obsessively on building a haunted house attraction where the hauntings end up quite a bit worse than gimmicky jump-scares. Meanwhile, mother Margaret and sister Eunice suffer nightmares too immersive to be dismissed in the daylight. Even Noah, the baby of the family, sees things he isn’t supposed to, namely a wolf-like thing with glowing eyes who leaves him notes in chalk. Fans of The Haunting of Hill House will savor — and shiver at — this elegant meditation on the gothic. 

44. Know My Name by Chanel Miller (September 24)

As Emily Doe, she wrote a victim impact statement, capturing her sexual assault and its aftermath in words so precise and eloquent they hurt to read. They bared the absurdity of a justice system that coddled her attacker for being a Stanford swimmer — but turned its harshest gaze on the woman who survived his violence.

In Know My Name, Chanel Miller lifts that veil of anonymity. The resulting memoir gives context to that name, investing it with the richness of personhood: she comes through, not just as a powerful survivor, but as a Chinese American woman capable of far more than eloquent rage. Moving from her assault, through the ensuing trial, and to the life she’s built in the three years since, it captures a broad palette of emotions with rare clarity. Miller lays claim to her own story, in all its complexity, but she’s also not afraid to make connections beyond it, addressing the #MeToo movement and the long genealogy of women’s pain.

45. The Dutch House by Ann Patchett (September 24)

Ann Patchett adds to her impressive oeuvre with The Dutch House, a searing, intimate family saga spanning five decades, but ultimately all coming back to the titular house. Our protagonists are Maeve and Danny Conroy, the children of the Dutch House, who find themselves mistreated by a real-life wicked stepmother after their wealthy father remarries. After his death, she severs ties with the siblings, forcing them to emerge from their bubble of privilege and make their own way in the world — all the while leaning (a little too heavily) on one another. Both strive for success and happiness, but they’re still haunted by their childhood and what could have been… especially when their own mother suddenly reappears in their lives. Deeply poignant, sharply narrated, and filled with a cast of complex and fascinating characters, The Dutch House is a rich tale of family dynamics and the far-reaching consequences of the past.

46. The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates (September 24)

Certified MacArthur Genius Ta-Nehisi Coates has written everything, from deep dives on race for The Atlantic to Black Panther comics for Marvel. With The Water Dancer, he adds “novelist” to his long list of writerly identities. Set in the Antebellum South, this instant magical realist classic meditates on slavery, memory, and liberation — all in prose as fluid as the water at the heart of its worldbuilding. 

Born on a Virginia plantation, Hiram Walker labors among “the Tasked,” who live in bondage, brutalized by the “the Quality” who own them. His mother was sold away when he was nine by his plantation-owning father, and she’s the only gap in his otherwise photographic memory. But one day, his carriage tumbles into the river as he’s crossing a bridge, and a sudden vision of her dancing seems to save Hiram from drowning. It also awakens a power even more extraordinary than his superhuman recall: the ability to conduct people over impossible distances when he’s in contact with water. With this power, which he calls “conduction,” in his grasp, Hiram is determined to make his escape — and to take as many of the Tasked with him as he can.

47. Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo (October 8)

YA stalwart Leigh Bardugo makes her adult fantasy debut with Ninth House, which accomplishes a lot in 480 mesmerizing pages. It’s at once a supernatural whodunnit, a moody campus novel, a love letter to the city of New Haven, and an intricate metaphor for the workings of patriarchy and class privilege. At the center of it are Yale’s secret societies, where alumni like George W. Bush (and Bardugo herself) have been known to spend their bright college years, doing… we’re not sure what exactly. 

In Bardugo’s occult version of Yale, each of these societies specializes in a branch of magic. That means Dubya — famously “tapped” by the group called Skull and Bones — spent his senior year performing divination on the livers of Yale-New Haven patients, forecasting the ebb and flow of the NASDAQ while chanting in Dutch. We drop right into the center of this rarefied world with Alex Stern, who’s convinced she doesn’t belong there. A high school dropout, she’s admitted to Yale only because the societies can make use of her mysterious ability to see ghosts. Alex’s time in the circles of power makes for a gripping, thought-provoking read. But keep in mind that it’s also incredibly dark, featuring graphic depictions of sexual and physical violence that may not be for everyone.

48. Orpheus Girl by Brynne Rebele-Henry (October 8)

In Greek mythology, Orpheus travels to the underworld in an attempt to save his wife, Eurydice, from death. In Orpheus Girl, mythology-obsessed Raya and her girlfriend are outed in their small Texas town, and Raya bravely follows Sarah into a literal hell on Earth: conversion camp.

With a premise like that, you’d easily expect this to be the darkest read on our list. But Brynne Rebel-Henry manages to pull off a truly heroic feat by delivering a book that is far more hopeful than heartbreaking. With a poet’s grace, Rebele-Henry takes readers through the tension of living with a secret that you know will one day change everything, through the disbelief and terror of exposure, and into one of the most horrific outcomes imaginable. The book does not ever shy away from the truth of Raya and Sarah’s situation. But the courage of the characters — and the strength of their shared community and their love for each other— overcomes  the worst that fate can throw at them. Parallels to the Orpheus myth are woven throughout, lending the story an ageless quality. It’s easy to imagine this book entering into history as a new classic.

49. Call Down the Hawk by Maggie Stiefvater (November 5)

It’s been three years since the release of The Raven King, the conclusion to Maggie Stiefvater’s magisterial Raven Cycle. The fandom has continued to flourish since, and one of the top questions they’ve been clamoring for an answer is: what happened to Ronan Lynch?

Well, the wait is over. Call Down the Hawk sets off a new trilogy centering on none other than everyone’s favorite brooding dreamer, Ronan. But don’t expect a rehash of The Raven Boys in this one. While it does pay fan service to devotees of the original series  with nods throughout, this book sets off on a path entirely its own. Darker in tone, it expands both the cast and our understanding of one of the core magical elements from the Raven Cycle. This book is raw and gorgeous, told in the magical, dream-like prose that Stiefvater is known for. Like all her work, it’s a book meant to be devoured first, then reread, savoured, reread again as you hunt out all the clever foreshadowing and hidden meanings. We can’t wait until the sequels are dreamed into existence.

50. In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado (November 5)

Since her debut short story collection was nominated for the National Book Award, Carmen Maria Machado has emerged as a visionary of speculative fiction. Her strange, sharp stories carried off startlingly original premises with witty, pop-inflected style — making her voice equally at home in haute-literary mainstays like Tin House and “best of” sci-fi anthologies. In the Dream House is her first foray into memoir, and she tackles this new ground with the same inventiveness and power that animates her fiction.

In these pages, Machado dissects her experience of abuse within a queer relationship, making sense of trauma through literary tropes: from the haunted houses of gothic horror to the bildungsroman’s coming of age. But these layers of restless intelligence don’t obscure the vulnerability at the center of this story — they illuminate it with Machado’s incandescent brilliance.

***

Still can’t get enough of the best books? Check out our picks for 21 Best Books of the 21st Century, or set your sights even higher with 100 Books to Read Before You Die.

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