LitReactor Staff Picks: The Best Books of 2019 - Part I
Another year has come and gone. You know what that means, don't you? Time for a bunch of strangers to tell you what was good! And why should you care what the LitReactor staff thinks are the best books of the year? Trick question! You shouldn't. But what they have to say might interest you nonetheless, because they are good-looking and knowledgeable and they read like the wind. So for those who care, we submit for your approval/derision some of LitReactor's favorite reads of 2019 (part 1).
Not all of these books were published this year. We figured if someone read a book for the first time in 2019, they deserved the opportunity to crow about it.
Rob Hart — Class Director
"American Spy" by Lauren Wilkinson
I have recommended this book so many times and I am going to do it again. My favorite book of the year, full stop. I could compliment a dozen things about it but the way it's structured is so brilliant it makes me legit jealous. Read this book.
"Wanderers" by Chuck Wendig
800-something pages and I read it in three days. Wendig took everything you see on Twitter that keeps you awake at night and condenses it all into a cohesive narrative about our garbage-fire reality, and makes it a ripping thriller on top of that.
"Recursion" by Blake Crouch
No one writes brain-melting sci-fi like Blake. That's what I'm going to call it. Brain-melting sci-fi. This is the kind of stuff that makes me feel like I need to up my game.
"Three-Fifths" by John Vercher
This is Vercher's first novel and damn does he come out of the corner swinging. This is the kind of noir that you sometimes need to read while peeking through your fingers.
"Such a Fun Age" by Kiley Reid
This doesn't come out until Dec. 31 but I got a galley earlier in the year and tore right through it. It's timely, the characters are fantastic, but, more than that, it's in the literary space but almost has the pacing of a thriller. It's a magic trick of a book.
Kathe Koja — Instructor
"Rag Stories" and "Northwood: A Novella" by Maryse Meijer
Maryse Meijer writes like absolutely nobody else, with elegance, dread, power, wit, and gets more done in less words than just about anyone. I'll read anything she writes.
"The Cook" by Maylis de Kerangal
It's about a guy who wants to cook. It's about a guy who finds a way to be what he already is, about discipline, keeping yourself and others fed (body and soul), and how to use your life. My first read of hers but definitely not my last.
"Blood Sugar" by Daniel Kraus
A hard kick in the shins you never saw coming, a litany of troubles in a kid's untroubled voice, pain, candy, Halloween, and the shifting balance between right, wrong, and life. And wow, is it fun to read.
"Wide Sargasso Sea" by Jean Rhys
I generally hate prequels, but this is a prequel to Jane Eyre the way the Old Testament is a prequel to the New.. Powerful, weird, lush, sad— there's a reason this book is still very much alive. Read along with JE for the best effect.
Gabino Iglesias — Columnist
"In the Dream House: A Memoir" by Carmen Maria Machado
Machado took memoirs to a new level with this one. The visceral writing, the second person, the choose-your-own-adventure passages...simply brilliant.
"Dead Astronauts" by Jeff VanderMeer
This is the wildest, most imaginative thing VanderMeer has written, and that's saying a lot. This book soars. It's engaging, dark, weird, timely, and important.
"Tinfoil Butterfly" by Rachel Eve Moulton
I had never read Moulton before and now I'm a fan for life. This is one of the creepiest novels I've ever read, and I started devouring dark fiction at an age when most boys are playing with toys or discovering video games. Truly an extraordinary debut that's still under my skin a few months after reading it.
"The Book of X" by Sarah Rose Etter
This novel is what happens when smart prose gets weird one night and ends up pregnant with triplets: poetry, horror, and mutated visions from the same universe as E. Elias Merhige's Begotten.
"The Country Will Bring Us No Peace" by Matthieu Simard
Darker than a pool of dried blood at midnight in an alley with a busted lamppost. Creepy. Full of pain. Smart. Slightly surreal. Mysterious. Just read it.
Steph Post — Columnist
"Songbirds and Stray Dogs" by Megan Lucas
Quite possibly my favorite debut novel of the year. Songbirds and Stray Dogs has everything I love about Southern fiction—atmosphere, a deep attention to place and, most importantly, tough, unforgettable characters, spearheaded by the indomitable Jolene. Megan Lucas is the very definition of a badass, female grit lit author.
"Famous in Cedarville" by Erica Wright
With Famous in Cedarville, Wright breaks away from her Kat Stone P.I. series, but still retains her signature style of quirky characters and simmering mystery. With an Old Hollywood twinkle at the core of the story, Wright delivers yet another page-turner to compulsively devour.
"The Nickel Boys" by Colson Whitehead
This fictionalized account of a reform school of terror targeting African American boys in the 1960s particularly hit home for me as Whitehead's setting is based upon the very real Dozier school, located here in Florida. With The Nickel Boys, though, White does more than shine a light on a harrowing place—he honors those who survived it.
"The Wolf Wants In" by Laura McHugh
Gritty, chilling and utterly uncompromising, McHugh's dark thriller, rife with secrets and characters grappling with family loyalties and the smothering grasp of small town life, is both an engrossing read and a primer on how to use beautiful language to tell disturbing stories.
"The Man They Wanted Me to Be" by Jared Yates Sexton
Not only does Sexton tackle the slippery subject of toxic masculinity from a historical and academic perspective, he connects wholeheartedly with the reader by pulling back the curtain on his own experiences of abuse fostered by masculine dynamics and expectations. The Man They Wanted Me to Be is both a compelling read and an eye-opening exploration of power, politics and popular culture.
John F.D. Taff — Instructor
"Sefira and Other Tales of Betrayal" by John Langan
Been waiting for this since I devoured The Fisherman. I love the way Langan deals with people and the dark spaces in their lives so realistically. When the outré happens, it's powerful stuff.
"Dear Laura" by Gemma Amor
Friends. One is kidnapped and disappears. The killer then disturbingly hounds the remaining friend. Guilt, grief and utter creepiness.
"The Same Deep Water as You" by Chad Lutzke
Coming of Age is a common trope in horror, but Lutzke lifts it up and gives it a proper shaking.
"Inspection" by Josh Malerman
Isolation, education and teenage hormones all come to play in this deeply unsettling, deeply weird story that is Malerman at his finest.
"Ormeshadow" by Priya Sharma
Her recent collection All the Fabulous Beasts was awesome. In this novella—Fantasy? Horror?—a dysfunctional family falls apart in the most Gothic of ways. Her writing is a thing of beauty.
Chris Shultz — Columnist
"A Sick Gray Laugh" by Nicole Cushing
This is one of the weirdest, most original books I've ever read, a deliciously horrendous blend of Ligotti and Lynch you won't soon forget. If there were any doubts about her talents, Nicole Cushing definitely proves her prowess as a horror writer here.
"The Testaments" by Margaret Atwood
Sequel novels rarely work, unless they're devised as part of a longer series (and even then, results may vary). This is especially true when there's a significant age gap between the original and the follow-up, but Atwood pulls it off in spades here. Gilead, though older and ostensibly more benign, is terrifying as ever, as the novel's trio of protagonists usher us deeper into its nightmare than Offred ever did.
"Recursion" by Black Crouch
On the surface, this book is an action-packed sci-fi thriller the average reader can eat up in a single beach sitting. And while that's certainly true, Recursion also offers heady explorations of mind, memory, and reality. There's also existential horror aplenty. If you like entertainment imbued with intelligence, this book, and Crouch overall, is for you.
"The Rust Maidens" by Gwendolyn Kiste
The first of two selections published in 2018, Kiste's debut novel, a weird coming of age tale about girls that turn into anthropomorphic Rust Belt nightmares, is lush with bleakness but also vibrating with hope. You can practically inhale the steel mill fumes, poverty, and despair of 1980s Cleveland. And yet, despite the depressive setting (and characters too), this novel is an absolute joy to read.
"The Cabin At The End Of The World" by Paul Tremblay
Tremblay is undoubtedly one of the new kings of horror, right alongside Laird Barron, Josh Malerman, and Stephen Graham Jones (not to mention all the queens of horror kicking ass out there too). This novel blends the home invasion narrative with cosmic terror (or does it?), and it will spin your head around like a top, then bowl it down a line toward a triangle fleet of pins, then dunk it in a hoop like a basketball, and so on, right up until the glorious conclusion.
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