The Best Books from the First Half of 2019

My top 10 releases of 2019 thus far, in no particular order, are:

Not pictured: one more book read from the library; the Kindle represents two NetGalley reads.

General / Historical Fiction

 

Stubborn Archivist by Yara Rodrigues Fowler: What a hip, fresh approach to fiction. Broadly speaking, this is autofiction: like the author, the protagonist was born in London to a Brazilian mother and an English father. The book opens with fragmentary, titled pieces that look almost like poems in stanzas. The text feel artless, like a pure stream of memory and experience. Navigating two cultures (and languages), being young and adrift, and sometimes seeing her mother in herself: there’s a lot to sympathize with in the main character.

 

*The Flight Portfolio by Julie Orringer: Every day the Emergency Rescue Committee in Marseille interviews 60 refugees and chooses 10 to recommend to the command center in New York City. Varian and his staff arrange bribes, fake passports, and exit visas to get celebrated Jewish artists and writers out of the country via the Pyrenees or various sea routes. The story of an accidental hero torn between impossible choices is utterly compelling. This is richly detailed historical fiction at its best. My top book of 2019 so far.

 

Daisy Jones and The Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid: This story of the rise and fall of a Fleetwood Mac-esque band is full of verve and heart, and it’s so clever how Reid delivers it all as an oral history of pieced-together interview fragments, creating authentic voices and requiring almost no footnotes or authorial interventions. It’s pure California sex, drugs, and rock ’n roll, but there’s nothing clichéd about it. Instead, you get timeless rivalry, resentment, and unrequited or forbidden love; the clash of personalities and the fleeting nature of fame.

 

 

Victorian Pastiche

 

Things in Jars by Jess Kidd: In the autumn of 1863 Bridie Devine, female detective extraordinaire, is tasked with finding the six-year-old daughter of a baronet. Kidd paints a convincingly stark picture of Dickensian London, focusing on an underworld of criminals and circus freaks. Surgery before and after anesthesia and mythology (mermaids and selkies) are intriguing subplots woven through. Kidd’s prose is spry and amusing, particularly in her compact descriptions of people but also in more expansive musings on the dirty, bustling city.

 

The Doll Factory by Elizabeth Macneal: Iris Whittle dreams of escaping Mrs Salter’s Doll Emporium and becoming a real painter. Set in the early 1850s and focusing on the Great Exhibition and Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, this also reveals the everyday world of poor Londoners. It’s a sumptuous and believable fictional world, with touches of gritty realism. If some characters seem to fit neatly into stereotypes (fallen woman, rake, etc.), be assured that Macneal is interested in nuances. A terrific debut full of panache and promise.

 

 

Graphic Novel

 

The Lady Doctor by Ian Williams: Dr. Lois Pritchard works at a medical practice in small-town Wales and puts in two days a week treating embarrassing ailments at the local hospital’s genitourinary medicine clinic. The tone is wonderfully balanced: there are plenty of hilarious, somewhat raunchy scenes, but also a lot of heartfelt moments as Lois learns that a doctor is never completely off duty and you have no idea what medical or personal challenge will crop up next. The drawing style reminds me of Alison Bechdel’s.

 

 

Medical Nonfiction

 

Constellations by Sinéad Gleeson: Perfect for fans of I Am, I Am, I Am by Maggie O’Farrell, this is a set of trenchant autobiographical essays about being in a female body, especially one wracked by pain. Gleeson ranges from the seemingly trivial to life-and-death matters as she writes about hairstyles, blood types, pregnancy, the abortion debate in Ireland and having a rare type of leukemia. The book feels timely and is inventive in how it brings together disparate topics to explore the possibilities and limitations of women’s bodies.

 

Hard Pushed: A Midwife’s Story by Leah Hazard: An empathetic picture of patients’ plights and medical professionals’ burnout. Visceral details of sights, smells and feelings put you right there in the delivery room. Excerpts from a midwife’s official notes – in italics and full of shorthand and jargon – are a neat window into the science and reality of the work. This is a heartfelt read as well as a vivid and pacey one, and it’s alternately funny and sobering. If you like books that follow doctors and nurses down hospital hallways, you’ll love it.

 

Mother Ship by Francesca Segal: A visceral diary of the first eight weeks in the lives of her daughters, who were born by Caesarean section at 29 weeks in October 2015 and spent the next two months in the NICU. As well as portraying her own state of mind, Segal crafts twinkly pen portraits of the others she encountered in the NICU, including the staff but especially her fellow preemie mums. Female friendship is thus a subsidiary theme in this exploration of desperate love and helplessness.

 

 

Poetry

 

Thousandfold by Nina Bogin: This is a lovely collection whose poems devote equal time to interactions with nature and encounters with friends and family. Birds – along with their eggs and feathers – are a frequent presence. Often a particular object will serve as a totem as the poet remembers the most important people in her life. Elsewhere Bogin greets a new granddaughter and gives thanks for the comforting presence of her cat. Gentle rhymes and half-rhymes lend a playful or incantatory nature. I recommend it to fans of Linda Pastan.

 


The three 4.5- or 5-star books that I read this year (and haven’t yet written about on here) that were not published in 2019 are:

 

Girls Are Coming Out of the Woods by Tishani Doshi [poetry]

Faces in the Water by Janet Frame

Priestdaddy: A Memoir by Patricia Lockwood

 

What are some of the best books you’ve read so far this year?

What 2019 releases do I need to catch up on right away?

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20 thoughts on “The Best Books from the First Half of 2019

  1. I haven’t read loads of new releases this year but did love the themes in Lifelines by Heidi Diehl.
    There are a few books coming that I’m looking forward to – the new Atwood (obviously!), the new Strout (obviously!) and new books by Australian authors Heather Rose and Favel Parrett.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Lifelines sounds great. Looks like I added it to my TBR in October — maybe that was your influence!

      My Most Anticipated list for second half of 2019 will be coming out soon 😉 I’m excited about the Strout sequel but not so much about the Atwood. Maybe I’ll change my tune before the year is out.

      Like

    1. As far as I know it’s only had a U.S. release so far. That’s why I felt so lucky to get a review copy while I was over there in May. You could suggest your library buy it, but if I recall correctly you’re a mostly-volunteers operation so perhaps money is short?

      Like

  2. Ooo, I can’t wait to read THE FLIGHT PORTFOLIO–I love smart historicals. As for 2019 books, I enjoyed PHANTOMS by Christian Kiefer (which you recommended as a comp for me, similar to SNOW FALLING…–thank you again!) but I didn’t love it like I loved his last one, ANIMALS. There was so much anxiety over who gets to tell the story–of Japanese neighbors in CA–that I didn’t become immersed in the story like I should have. I understand the whole #ourstories / cultural appropriation argument, but I felt like it got the best of Kiefer.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Funny that our library has The Bad Doctor but not The Lady Doctor – maybe it’s just a matter of time.
    The Flight Portfolio is on my list, and Hard Pressed and Mothership also sound good!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. An author to discover : a first novel published this spring, by Aysegül Savas, a young Turkish writer who writes in English, called Walking on the Ceiling (Riverhead Books). She has a unique voice, inspired in part by W.G. Sebald.

    Translated from German, Angel of Oblivion by Maja Haderlap, a Slovenian-Austrian writer of fiction, poetry and plays. The novel is a first person narrative, semi-autobiographical, of the author’s childhood in a Slovenian enclave of Austria and her gradual understanding of the deep wounds inflicted during and after WWII on the members of her family and their community, which was involved in active resistance during the Nazi occupation. Above all, a great work of literature.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I’m glad I now have a spreadsheet I can look down, not glad it’s so few cells long, as I’ve read the least I’ve ever read in a half-year this year. But here we go:

    Tirzah Garwood – Long Live Great Bardfield
    Aiysha Malik – This Green and Pleasant Land
    Jeremy Mynott – Birds in the Ancient World

    Only the 2nd and 3rd are 2019 releases.

    Liked by 1 person

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