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We’re halfway through the year, which means it’s time for the best books of the first half of 2019!
As with the end of year “best of” lists, I always enjoy looking back on my reading and recalling my favorites. At least a few from the first half of the year always make it to the year-end list, but I think the books that come out later in the year have the advantage. (Update: check out my final best books of 2019, plus 30 of the best books of the decade.)
It only makes sense that the books we’ve read and loved most recently come to mind first as we make our year-end lists. That’s why I love the mid-year lists as well.
It’s a chance to highlight the books we loved from the first half of the year, before other new and shiny books come out and take their places as our favorites.
Some of them, of course, are so good that they remain on our list of bests–and I think at least a few of these will make the year-end cut.
For the most part, my book lists are not in any particular order. However, for this one, the books in the first half of the list below are very likely to remain on my best books of 2019 list at the end of the year, while those in the second half are likely to fall off the list.
Not all of these are five-star reads, which leaves me hopeful that more of those are to come.
Something else I’ve learned? While I love audiobooks, it’s rare that they make my best-of lists. I actually tend to think of them as completely separate from my print reads (I may do an audio favorites list soon).
A couple of books that some trusted readers loved (namely Normal People and Daisy Jones and the Six) were books I listened to, rather than read in print. I enjoyed them both, but I think they would have made a bigger impression on me in print.
It’s a lesson to me that if a book seems like it could be a potential favorite, I should opt for print over audio.
Anyway, while I of course have not read all of the 2019’s new books, below are mini-reviews from my favorites so far this year.
The Best Books of the First Half of 2019
Taz and Marnie are just starting their lives together, working on their fixer-upper in Montana and anticipating the birth of their first child. When Marnie dies in childbirth, Taz is consumed by grief–and left to raise his newborn daughter without her mother. Taz struggles to navigate a world he no longer recognizes, controlled by the needs of the baby, floating through a fog of exhaustion, love, and hopelessness.
A Job You Mostly Won’t Know How to Do follows Taz’s first two years with his daughter, supported by a small cast of characters who support, push, back away, and push again in a uniquely stoic, Montana way.
Fromm’s writing is emotionally resonant; expansive when it needs to be, but sometimes staccato and sharp. Reading it feels like grieving, while fighting debilitating exhaustion. This small story brought me to tears more than once–something that doesn’t happen often. This is a “gut-punch,” five-star book; I haven’t heard much buzz about it, but I hope other readers will discover it and love it as much as I did.
Wow–this book delivered on the hype and met all of my high hopes for a truly excellent read. It was gritty, brutal, a little dreamy, and utterly absorbing.
Twelve-year old Eli Bell loves his messed-up family: his older brother, August, who stopped talking after a childhood trauma, and his mother and stepfather who are heroin dealers and former addicts. Eli’s best friend and babysitter, Slim Halliday, is a notorious felon, famous for his multiple escapes from prison. Things go south when the violence of his parents’ business comes to their home. His stepfather disappears and his mother ends up in jail.
Eli embarks on several missions: to save his mother, to find out what happened to his stepfather, to become a crime journalist, and to become a good man–all while taking down the man running the drug show in his seedy Australian suburb.
Fair warning: parts of this book are brutal and a little gruesome. Dalton based the story on his own youth as the child of drug dealers–Slim Halliday was a real person who was actually Dalton’s babysitter–which makes it all the more fascinating. I didn’t realize this tie to real life until I finished the book, and I immediately started Googling to learn more. If this catches the interest of other readers, it may be a candidate for a future story of the story post.
Much of The Last Romantics hinges on the moments that define four siblings in childhood. Together, Renee, Caroline, Joe, and Fiona have the Pause. Following their father’s early death, their mother’s years-long retreat defined their relationships, cementing a lifelong closeness, sense of responsibility, and knowing of one another.
But it’s the unknown traumas and struggles that sends each on their own paths into adulthood, paths that the others don’t understand–though they feel their connections should make understanding a given. Told over decades, The Last Romantics is a beautifully rendered portrait of complicated familial relationships, examining the nature of love, commitment, and the strength of those bonds even as what we know changes. Read my full review.
I loved Peter Heller’s The Dog Stars, so I’ve been looking forward to this new book from him. It did not disappoint. Not only was this a five-star read, but I couldn’t put it down over the two days I read it.
The story starts slowly, with college friends Wynn and Jack drifting down a Canadian river in their canoe. The two met in college and quickly became best friends, bonding over their shared love of the outdoors and literature. As they drifted along, I settled in for a story that I thought may slowly meander. Heller’s writing was pleasant, and I already liked Jack and Wynn. I didn’t expect it to pick up as fast as it did.
The two men spot a wildfire in the distance, then encounter two other pairs on the river and try to warn them. Their leisurely journey turns into a race to safety, where the fire is not the only threat they face.
Heller is obviously a skilled outdoorsman; he doesn’t ignore the beauty and brutality of the setting or what it takes to survive in it, even as he builds the tension of the story. He grants both Jack and Wynn enviable survival skills and toughness. While different, they also have artistic, empathetic hearts that make you love them both and root for their friendship, even as the struggles of the trip strain it. This would make an excellent movie–I hope it happens someday!
While I was among the many readers who loved Angie Thomas’ debut, The Hate U Give, I wasn’t certain that On the Come Up should go on my reading list. Did I really want to read a book about hip hop–a topic that didn’t interest me–and a sophomore effort at that (historically a disappointment for many authors)?
I tentatively started it, but immediately I couldn’t put it down. I will dare to say that On the Come Up may be even better than The Hate U Give. Teen protagonist Bri is a little less likable than Starr, but Thomas makes you root for her just as much.
That need for likability is part of the point. Bri is an aspiring hip hop artist, supremely talented and the daughter of a late underground legend. She views success in hip hop as not just a dream, but an imperative; her family is on the verge of eviction, the power is off, and the fridge is empty.
But the path to success is fraught with compromise, particularly when you’re young, black, poor, and in hip hop. Bri soon finds herself pulled between her own ideals and the persona the industry wants her to adopt. Thomas perfectly captures how exhausting and frustrating it is when the world wants you to be one way for its own money-making purposes, but also expects perfection and humility from you for its own comfort. Any sign of anger or frustration is used against you, words are twisted, intentions are misconstrued. It’s no-win, all the time.
This is an eye-opening book for many reasons, not least of which is the incredible talent and creativity of freestyle rappers. It’s a world I’m unfamiliar with, and my respect for it increased 100-fold just by reading this amazing book. Read it now.
Ask Again, Yes has been getting a lot of buzz and rave reviews–for good reason. It’s an excellent book, that follows two neighbor families over decades. While the adults are not close, children Kate and Peter are. They forge a friendship in childhood, but a violent event rips the families apart and has repercussions long afterward. Kate and Peter, however, never forget one another and reunite as adults. Time, distance, and adulthood sometimes brings new perspectives on past events–and sometimes they don’t and those events are dealt with in other ways.
While this was an excellently rendered book, I found it quite a difficult read. The challenges the characters face are tough, and unrelenting. When you’re ready for a heavy, character-driven novel, this is a good choice–but save it for later if you’re seeking light summer reads.
Two brothers meet at the line of their properties in the Australian outback, with their third brother dead at their feet. They grieve his loss and investigate what could have happened–but there are few suspects on the isolated outback, and secrets that people want to keep hidden.
While a mystery is at the center of this story, it’s really a character examination, filled with family dynamics. This is one of those novels where the setting–the forbidding outback–has a life of its own. It was fascinating how Harper managed to make such an expansive setting feel so suffocating. As unappealing as life in the outback would be to me, this book piqued my interest in life there and in Harper’s other stories set there. I look forward to reading more of her books.
At a dorm in a small college town, a freshman girl falls asleep and doesn’t wake up. Soon, other students also fall into deep sleeps and are hospitalized, kept alive by tubes. The remaining students are isolated, but others in the town succumb. Soon the town itself is under quarantine, its residents living in fear of falling asleep and volunteers risking themselves to keep people alive.
A mother is quarantined away from her daughter. Two college students squat in a house and wander town, searching for sleepers to get them to help. A couple tries to protect their newborn baby while living in the fog of new parenthood. Two young girls hide in their house after their survivalist father falls asleep, terrified that they’ll be taken from one another.
The Dreamers is less dystopian fiction and more rumination on the true nature and power of dreams, as well as the freedoms we sacrifice in the name of fear and safety.
When their Punjabi mother dies, British-born sisters Rajni, Jezmeen, and Shirina agree to carry out her last wish: a pilgrimage, carefully planned by their mother, to India. They are to visit places that were meaningful to her and to deliver her ashes to their final resting place.
The three sisters have never been close, and couldn’t be more different. Authoritarian Rajni secretly agonizes about a dilemma at home in her own family, while flighty Jezmeen tries to figure out how to save her floundering acting career after an embarrassing video goes viral. People-pleaser Shirina, meanwhile, is ill-at-ease and preoccupied by demands made on her by her wealthy in-laws in Australia.
The three sisters grapple with their grief, their strained relationships, and the stresses of their regular lives, while attempting to carry out their mother’s wishes and perhaps come together in a way they never have.
This was a fast, smart read, filled with vivid characters and places, as well as interesting reflections on India from a female generation raised outside of it. Visiting forces them to recognize the dangers and limitations of women’s lives there. The Unlikely Adventures of the Shergill Sisters was a surprise 5-star read; I look forward to more from this author.
A truly riveting story of a Russian teen, Ilya, from a poor family who wants nothing more than to go to America. He idolizes his older brother, Vladimir, despite his troublemaking and eventual drug addiction. Ilya continues on the straight-and-narrow and eventually makes it to a family in Texas. But back in Russia, his brother is imprisoned for the murders of three local women. Ilya is determined to exonerate Vladimir while finding that, despite the excesses of America, drugs are just as devastating as in Russia.
The characters here are vivid, as are the locales that shape them. I loved the juxtaposition of the two cities, both illuminated nightly by the refineries that are the lifeblood–and in many ways, the undoing–of both locations. Dark and gritty, but highly recommended.
While I had a couple of backlist books that would rate as favorites, I did focus my list this year only on books that are new in 2019, since that’s what most of my reading has been. I still love backlist books, of course–if you’re looking for a few of those, check out my past best-of lists:
What are the best books you’ve read so far this year?