None of these was a book newly published in 2019. I don’t avoid reading brand-new books, but I don’t see any reason to focus on new ones when there are so many wonderful books out there! Because I tend to buy new books or check out books that are available at the library without reserving them, I’m most likely to read books that are a few years old. So these are my favorites of the books I read for the first time in 2019.
Dreamland Burning by Jennifer Latham
Rowan is a 21st-century teenager with a white father and an African-American mother, living in Tulsa’s affluent Maple Ridge neighborhood in the home her father’s family has owned for generations. The old servants’ quarters, long used for storage, are now being renovated–and some old bones are found under the floor.
William is a white teenager in 1921 Tulsa, helping his father run the Victrola shop that will pay for their new house in Maple Ridge. His crush on a girl and his friend Clete’s racist rhetoric get him into a fight at the speakeasy that breaks his hand and starts far more trouble than he expected. Meanwhile, he helps a black guy who wants to buy a Victrola but is being treated unfairly by Will’s father.
Rowan’s and Will’s stories alternate, building up a twisty murder mystery that’s a lot of fun to read. I caught some of the clues and figured out the solution before it was revealed in the book–but in a good way, so that I felt clever instead of feeling like the writing wasn’t clever enough.
The Hypnotist’s Love Story by Liane Moriarty
Ellen is a hypnotherapist with a pleasant little home-based practice. Still single at 35, she’s turned to Internet dating, and when her current bloke says, “There’s something I have to tell you,” she’s ready to cope serenely with the breakup. But what Patrick has to tell her is that he’s being stalked by his ex-girlfriend, Saskia. She’s in the restaurant with them right now.
Ellen is more intrigued than frightened. Accustomed to getting to the root of people’s motivations to help them solve their problems with the power of their own minds, her instinct is to know and help Saskia. Of course Patrick doesn’t want them ever to meet; he wants to protect Ellen from Saskia. He and Ellen don’t realize that she already knows Saskia by another name.
This is a very interesting, twisty story of people and their motivations and different kinds of love. The parts told from Saskia’s perspective are especially insightful, explaining feelings that anyone could understand and then giving them just a tiny twist away from normal. Refreshingly, this book does not overdo the peak conflict that tips everything toward resolution–it’s just enough.
Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng
Mrs. Richardson is living the good life in Shaker Heights, Ohio, a suburb of Cleveland planned around enlightened principles. She’s got a happy marriage, four closely-spaced children who are now in high school, a big house to live in, and a duplex to rent to people who really deserve the advantages of living in Shaker Heights and who are just interesting enough to be assets to their proudly diverse community.
Mia and her daughter Pearl rent the upstairs apartment of Mrs. Richardson’s duplex, and within a few months, their lives are interwoven with those of the Richardsons in a tangle of friendships and other partnerships.
But that’s all backstory. The novel opens with three of the Richardsons in the street outside their burning home, all of them sort of feeling that they always knew something like this would end up happening. The book weaves together seven perspectives on the events of the past few months, their roots in the more distant past, and their connections to the controversy over a local transracial adoption. All the characters are very real and complicated and never fully understand one another, but the reader gets a very full understanding of what’s happened here, as well as a vivid experience of life in Shaker Heights in the late 1990s.
[This review is a shortened version; you can read my original, more rambling comments on this book here.]
The Poison Tree by Erin Kelly
This is a British thriller written in observant prose that reminds me of Barbara Vine, but with Generation X characters who feel very real both in the 1990s and 2008 scenes. It has plenty of suspense and twists!
Karen is bringing her partner Rex home from prison, where he served ten years for a double homicide he didn’t commit. Now he and Karen and their nine-year-old daughter will finally be a family–if only Karen can stop worrying that someone will find out the truth–no, not the truth that Rex didn’t do it but the truth of who did and the other truth, the one Karen knows but Rex doesn’t and Karen isn’t quite telling you….
Along with the fascinating plot, I loved Karen’s recounting of that one summer when everything changed for her, when meeting a new friend opened her eyes to the narrowness of her old life and the beauty of a crumbling old house on the edge of a forest in the middle of London.
Sex at Dawn by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha
Various animals have various patterns of mating behavior, but everybody knows that human beings naturally form an exclusive pair-bond that lasts the rest of their lives, right? Okay, sometimes it doesn’t work out for some couples, but they must have done it wrong or not had enough social support, because that’s the type of sexual relationship that humans naturally have, right?
Maybe not. Ryan and Jetha make a convincing case for an alternative interpretation of what’s natural for our species, presenting research findings from primatology, anthropology, and physiology. They suggest that what would really work best for humans is living in smallish groups in which each adult has multiple lovers and all adults care for all children regardless of biological relationship. They explain how many research studies distorted or misinterpreted the very situations they meant to observe, and how some findings about our anatomy were suppressed and later disregarded.
The weakest section of the book is the one that tries to guide us toward a new model of relationships, moving forward from the society in which we find ourselves after generations of struggling with monogamy. It’s like the authors were getting close to deadline and didn’t have time to interview a bunch of happy, functional polyamorous people to find out how that works. But at least they advocate talking very openly with your partner(s) about how love and sex work for you and trying to work out what will be most fulfilling for everyone.
Find out what books other writers liked best this year in the 2019 Recap of Show Us Your Books!