The best literature & fiction of 2019 so far

The best literature & fiction of 2019 so far

A recent study released by the Kingston University in London revealed that people who read a lot of books–particularly fiction–are nicer, kinder and more empathetic. But where to begin?! Fortunately it’s been an embarrassment of riches this half of the year–full of profound, entertaining, harrowing and moving novels (one or 20 of them just for you). Here are our favorites:


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A Woman Is No Man by Etaf Rum

Newlywed Isra thought life would be different when she immigrated to America from Palestine, but her dreams were quickly dashed. You’ll need to steel yourself the more you delve into Etaf Rum’s penetrating debut novel A Woman Is No Man, which follows Isra’s journey, and that of her daughter Deya. The clash between dual cultures creates much of the drama, as Deya tries to do what her mother ultimately couldn’t–break free from their family’s violent, misogynistic past and forge her own path in life. While A Woman Is No Man is a rallying cry to resist patriarchal strictures designed to keep women in ‘their place,’ it is also a love letter to books and their transformative power. Reading was one of the only comforts, and acts of rebellion, that Isra enjoyed, and she had a particular affinity for literary heroine Scheherazade: “For a thousand and one nights [her] stories were resistance. Her voice was a weapon—a reminder of the extraordinary power of stories, and even more, the strength of a single woman.” It’s the harnessing of that strength that sets Deya, and this family, free. –Erin Kodicek


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Daisy Jones & The Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid

There is something a little intoxicating about Daisy Jones & The Six. This is the story of a young, captivating singer who came of age in the late 60s/early 70s, all told as an oral history. The Six did not hit the big time until Daisy joined the band as their lead singer, but her presence brought along drama, intrigue, and a variety of tensions between herself and Billy Dunne, the leader of The Six. It’s best not to know too much about this book going into it; instead, allow the transcribed interviews from the band members (they weren’t real, but they seem real), and from those who tagged along during this great fictitious band’s run, to unspool the story for you. –Chris Schluep


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The Guest Book by Sarah Blake

Sarah Blake’s latest novel, The Guest Book, is a gorgeous epic that charts the course of an American family over three generations, from the 1930s to present day. Blake draws you into the Milton clan, and the more I became privy to their secrets, fears, and desires, the more I felt at home with every flawed one of them. Early in the novel, Blake’s character Evie tells her students, “History is between the cracks,” and so it is in this book: a history created in moments big and small, knitting itself together inside us, and of us. Crockett Island, off the coast of Maine, bought by Kitty and Ogden Milton in 1936 as a place of refuge and legacy, is as much a character in the novel as those who gather there. Through Blake’s writing I could smell the ocean, see the lilac tree beside the door. And I could feel Kitty and Ogden’s dream fray when the grandchildren inherit the island and all it represents. The Miltons’ story mirrors the times in which they lived, and we watch as parents and siblings make choices driven by ambition, prejudice, or pride that later haunt them and their progeny. Issues of gender inequality, classism, racism, breaking free from the past—Blake tackles them all, because all play an important role in the history of the family as well as that of the country in which we live. There is so much I want to tell you about this book. So many passages I have underlined and returned to. Instead, I invite you to visit the Miltons of Crockett Island in the pages of The Guest Book yourself, so that you too may experience the emotional resonance of Blake’s remarkable and thought-provoking novel. —Seira Wilson


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The River by Peter Heller

Peter Heller has written three previous novels, but he has been writing about the outdoors in magazines like Outside and Men’s Journal for much longer. In The River Heller has drawn from all that experience to create an exciting, thoughtful, and well-paced thriller about two friends paddling into trouble in northern Canada. A distant wildfire is the first portent of danger. When the friends hear a man and woman arguing on the foggy riverbank, they decide to warn them about the fire—but their search for the pair turns up nothing. The next day a man appears solo on the river. Was he one of the people they heard the day before? The River starts out as a leisurely backwoods paddle and inexorably picks up speed before spilling readers down its cascade of an ending. This is a thriller, an adventure novel, and a meditation on friendship, the outdoors, and something altogether deeper. As I read, I felt like I had been waiting for this book without knowing it, and I fully expect The River to persist as one of my favorite reads of 2019. –Chris Schluep


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On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong

There is an immediacy to On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous that almost feels unique. The author Ocean Vuong was first published as a poet, and the poetry in this novel—present in the language, in the images and ideas—is unforgettable. The narrator is a young man in his late twenties, nicknamed Little Dog by his family, who is composing a long letter to his Vietnamese mother. Little Dog and his family grew up poor in Hartford, Connecticut, but their struggles do not end there. His mother still carries the burden of the war, as does his grandmother, and Little Dog’s struggles reach not only back to the traumas of Vietnam but forward in his efforts to fit in to a world that sees him as other. Eventually, he does find some solace in an ill-fated relationship with an older “redneck” boy, but that is only temporary. What is permanent is his desire to write, and of course his family. Vuong almost seems to be trying to super inject imagery, emotion, and language into every page, and to great effect; but no writer can reach absolute perfection. There are soaring moments in this novel, many of them. There will also be moments (although they will disagree on which ones) where readers feel that the writing fails. That’s how great art is made.—Chris Schluep


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