LitReactor Staff Picks: The Best Books of 2019 - Part II
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 2). Check out Part 1 here.
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.
Richard Thomas — Columnist/Instructor
"Inside Black Mirror" by Charlie Brooker, Annabel Jones, and Jason Arnopp
For fans of the television show this is a book you cannot miss. I mean, WOW, it gives us so much extra detail about the making of each episode, the struggles that went into them, and the interviews with actors, directors, and writers are fascinating. Great photos, as well, a nicely put together book. Probably the best book I read this year. Loved it. 10/10
"Consider This" by Chuck Palahniuk
And I don’t list Chuck on here just because we’re friends, and we edited Burnt Tongues together with Dennis Widmyer. It’s funny, because Chuck and I are on the opposite ends of the writing spectrum—him a minimalist, me a maximalist. But the advice he gives here aligns with so much of what I have to say, and it’s hilarious as well. Great tales from the road, too. It will now be on my list of recommended craft books on writing. 10/10
"The Dark Net" by Benjamin Percy
I’ve been a fan of Ben for a long time, going back to Refresh Refresh and The Wilding, as well as Red Moon and The Dead Lands. Ben is an amazing mix of genre and literary fiction, and this story was a wild ride, mixing older, classic mythology with contemporary advances in society. I think he also has some original characters, ones that you love or hate, but it’s never expected or cliché. Very good book, but not his best. 8/10.
"Best Horror of the Year, Volume Eleven" edited by Ellen Datlow
It’s an honor to have a co-written story in here (with Kristi DeMeester, Michael Wehunt, and Damien Angelica Walters—all amazing authors) but Ellen’s anthology of horror is always at the top of my list. With exceptional work by John Langan, Gemma Files, Laird Barron, Joe Hill, and Orrin Grey, for example, it’s hard to go wrong, whether you write horror, or just read it. 9/10.
"Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly" by Anthony Bourdain
This was a book that I put off reading for a long time. When Anthony passed away (RIP) I decided it was time to dig in. It’s a fascinating journey across time, food, his own shortcomings, and the world of cooking. It’s just as seedy and screwed up as you’d expect, and I felt just a bit closer to him for reading it. If you’re a fan of the show, and his work, pick it up. 8/10.
Alex Segura — Instructor
"Lady in the Lake" by Laura Lippman
Perhaps my favorite book of the year, Lippman continues to reinvent and propel herself as a writer, evolving and keeping her readers challenged and engaged. Set in 1966 Baltimore, this modern noir touches on many of the issues plaguing us today, through the prism of an unsolved murder and an unexpected hero. Unique, loaded with suspense, and pulsing with Lippman’s signature charm and verve, Lady in the Lake will linger with you long after you’ve turned the final page.
"Your House Will Pay" by Steph Cha
Taut, intense, racially-charged novel set in early 90s Los Angeles, Cha’s standalone burrows deep into the racial tensions that plagued the city and continue to torment us as a nation. Cha’s evocative look at two families thrust into the same space by a shocking crime is one of the best crime novels I’ve read in years.
"The Warehouse" by Rob Hart
Terrifying, haunting, plausible and starkly human, Hart’s standalone work of speculative fiction presents a world much like our own, where an Amazon-like company, Cloud, has taken over…well, everything. How do people survive? Smartly told through various viewpoint characters and loaded with well-placed twists and reveals, Hart makes a daring leap from seasoned PI writer to something next-level. A powerful novel.
"Rebel Girls" by Elizabeth Keenan
A 90s high school YA drama that resonates perfectly with what’s going on today, Keenan’s Rebel Girls is loaded with complicated and conflicted characters that feel honest and real, with a plot that may feel ripped from the headlines but has actually been lurking in the back of our society for decades. Evocative, sharp, and also breezy and real, Rebel Girls deserves more attention than it’s received from critics and fans alike.
"Mostly Dead Things" by Kristen Arnett
Funny, heart-squeezing, dark, and uniquely Floridian, Arnett’s debut novel is pulsing with sensory descriptions and a powerful, evocative sense of place — which mixes perfectly with her amazing collection of characters. This book’s a blast and was one of my favorites of the year.
Andrea Johnson — Columnist
Spare me the never-ending debate that says adults shouldn’t read YA novels. As a person who has spent a good deal of her life studying popular fiction—in fact, I have a degree in it—there’s value in revisiting that part of our lives not only from a cathartic standpoint but also from the inspiration that can be drawn from seeing life anew. So throw your judgments aside and be amazed by the talent that emerged in the young adult industry in 2019.
"Slay" by Brittney Morris
Morris’s debut novel gives gamers of color a voice and shows the world that the black experience can’t be reduced to a simple sound bite. Described by the author as Ready Player One meets The Hate You Give, this novel is a must-read for anyone who wants to gain a better understanding of the importance of safe space for minorities.
"On the Come Up" by Angie Thomas
Hype has been building for this book all year, but it’s well-deserved as it is a testament to how new authors can easily overcome the potential sophomore slump with great characterizations and a high-concept premise. The story follows a sixteen-year-old aspiring rapper named Bri whose lyrics spark a national controversy about race—and, trust, the original lyrics penned by the author are not to be missed.
"If I’m Being Honest" by Emily Wibberley and Austin Siegemund-Broka
Still stuck on the idea that YA novels can’t be smart? Well, this romance tale, like the others written by this real-life couple, sets out to prove us wrong by turning Shakespeare’s "Taming of the Shrew" on its head with a modern-day retelling that will leave you believing in love again.
"With the Fire on High" by Elizabeth Acevedo
Teen mom stories aren’t for everyone, but as writers we should read outside of our comfort zones, especially when presented with a coming-of-age novel so rich and full of poignancy that the prose speaks like poetry. Not to mention, the life-changing decisions the heroine faces, as she juggles her family responsibilities with a budding career as a chef, echo the choices each of us make as we follow our dreams and break new ground.
"Like a Love Story" by Abdi Nazemian
Eighties nostalgia is at an all-time high, but this novel doesn’t romanticize the era. Tackling the difficulties of self-expression for the LGBTQA+ community in New York circa 1989, we follow three friends as they pursue their passions in the face of a world still trying to understand the truth about AIDS and what it means to live with pride.
Christoph Paul — Columnist
"True" by Karl Taro Greenfield
My favorite book of the year. Once in a while, you encounter a novel that is strong and engaging in all areas. I don’t like the idea of the perfect novel but this is close to perfect. I have recommended it to all the writers I am currently working with.
"Fire Sermon" by Jamie Quatro
You ever stumble onto that indie film while searching the new releases and find a true gem? This was me looking around an indie book store and finding this beautiful novel of longing. I’ve never read a book where faith, love, & sex are explored so artfully. This book will stay with me for the rest of my years.
"The Men They Wanted Us to Be" by Jared Yates Sexton
Man, this was really good and really tough to read. Man, man, man, that word has new meaning to me after reading this book. This book went there and went there well, showing that a lot of toxic masculinity is basically run like a pyramid scheme hurting almost all of the men and the wives, sons, and daughters that are forced to deal with it.
"Recursion" by Blake Crouch
Blake Crouch shows he’s the book world’s #1 fun philosopher with yet another engaging and intelligent novel. I really think with this book, Crouch shows that he’s one of the best novelists of this decade.
"Girl Like a Bomb" by Autumn Christian
I published this and realize I look like an asshole for recommending it, but screw it, I'm keeping it real and will have a Kanye West moment. This truly is my one favorite of the books I've read or worked on. It's a literary novel, a horror novel, a superhero novel, an erotica novel, and it's an original work in every way.
Leah Rhyne — Columnist
About three years ago, I began running a 4-day literary festival here in sunny Charleston, South Carolina. While my work for that has definitely destroyed my time for writing, it's luckily given me an excuse to indulge in my #1 favorite lifelong hobby: reading. I try to read works from each of our annual speakers, and this year you'll see that reflected in my list. Of course, while my festival tends toward highbrow, I still love me some Stephen King, too.
"The Great Believers" by Rebecca Makkai
This book was a runner-up for the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and it's so clear to me why. Following the story of a group of gay male friends (and the younger sister of one) as the AIDS crisis of the 1980s is at its peak, Makkai weaves through years and locations (Chicago and Paris) with characters that stay with you for months after you read the final page. Her prose is stunning, her plot lines heartbreaking. This is a gorgeous book. You should read it.
"My Life As a Rat" by Joyce Carol Oates
It's been years since Oates' Foxfire: Confessions of a Girl Gang changed my outlook on life when I read it in high school, but somehow Oates' fiction is still as immediate and impactful. This is the story of a little girl in an old-school blue collar Family (capital F) who accidentally tips off the police to her brothers' involvement in a horrific murder. Cut out from the Family forever, she must find her own way in a world full of closed doors and hidden opportunities, and if you can read it without wanting to punch a few someones in the teeth, you may not have a heart at all. This is a gut-wrenching book. You should read it.
"Friday Black" by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah
This is a debut collection of short stories that made the NY Times Bestseller List, which is basically like striking it rich the first time you stick your shovel in an Old West-era gold mine: it doesn't happen often. Of course, it's easy to see why. Adjei-Brenyah's fictitious worlds are dark and gritty, filled with Black-Friday-Zombie-Shoppers and boys who sell their souls to find writing success. He takes on racism, consumerism, sexism, socio-economic-isms, and he does it with humor and razor-sharp daggers, too. This is a brilliant book. You should read it.
"The Institute" by Stephen King
It wouldn't be a List from Leah if it didn't have a Stephen King book on it. Forgive me, but I just can't help myself! In The Institute, King returns to his haunting roots of being able to write sharp, edgy stories about kids in danger. It's like a throw-back to my all-time favorite, It, and The Institute is soooooo good. It has it all: kids with special abilities, evil adults who are convinced they're the good guys, Old West-style shootouts, and adventures to boot. This is a fun book. You should read it.
Peter Derk — Columnist
"Raised in Captivity: Fictional Nonfiction" by Chuck Klosterman
I wrote a whole column about how and why this book is fantastic. The short version: Because, idiot.
"Kathleen Hale Is a Crazy Stalker" by Kathleen Hale
Okay, this one's controversial because Kathleen Hale went to a reviewer's house after getting a terrible review. Or, at least, that's how the story was presented. But I decided to read it, am pretty sure I'm one of 3 reviewers who read it, and...it's good. A solid collection of essays, one of which directly talks about the whole reviewer/stalker thing. It's like a trashy tabloid story written by a solid storyteller.
"Mister Miracle" by Tom King (Writer), Mitch Gerads (Illustrator)
Tom King's Vision was unbelievably good, and this one is its match. How do you fight an interdimensional, interplanetary war and raise a child? Seriously fun, lots of interesting things to say.
"White" by Bret Easton Ellis
Another controversial one. The book itself isn't nearly as hot button as you might think (the title is a joke meant to outrage and also namecheck Joan Didion's The White Album). It's Ellis' first book in awhile, and it's worth your attention.
"The Warehouse" by Rob Hart
I'd like to say I knew Rob Hart before he was successful, but that's not entirely true. I just knew him before EVERYONE knew he was successful. I'm sure this'll show up for others here too, so I just want to say that there's a very Demolition Man moment here that I'm forever grateful for.
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