Janine’s Best of 2019
I was tempted to make a list of my favorites among the 2019-published books I read this year. In the end I decided to focus on my favorite 2019 reads (first time reads; I didn’t include books I had read / reviewed in prior years) without regard to their year of publication. It made narrowing the list harder but allowed me to include more of my favorites. The order they are ranked in changes from day to day, but here they are, ranked by a combination of how high I’d grade them now and how much I love them. –Janine
Milkman by Anna Burns
Though set in a place and time identifiable as Belfast in the 1970s, during the Troubles, Milkman is a timeless literary novel that chronicles both its narrator’s #metoo struggle to evade a menacing figure known as the milkman and the struggles of her community for autonomy and justice. The book is written in stream-of-consciousness with digressions and does not name its characters (instead they are “maybe boyfriend,” “wee sisters,” “oldest friend,” etc.) But that only adds to the book’s universality.
The narrator is in her late teens and reading is her escape from the dangers of the world around her. So when the Milkman, a fighter in her side’s insurgency, begins to stalk and circle her, she is not well-equipped to cope with it. We know from the opening paragraph that the Milkman will die and the heroine will not welcome his attentions, but the book is still gripping. Its heroine is both relatable and unforgettable, as is her community’s resistance. The reading experience I had was magical. The book has earned a place of honor on my keeper shelf.
Gods of Jade and Shadow by Silvia Moreno Garcia
Set in 1920s Mexico, this is the story of an eighteen-year-old girl’s desire for agency and adventure, and of the way her fate collides with that of Hun-Kame, a resurrected Mayan god. Linked by Hun-Kame’s bone shard, which has implanted itself in Casiopea’s hand, the two must travel across Mexico to retrieve three objects and then fight those who imprisoned Hun-Kame in order to save their lives.
I loved Casiopea; she was strong-willed, rebellious, but pragmatic without sacrificing her dreams. Hun-Kame is fascinating, beginning as inscrutable but slowly gaining humanity. And I adored the setting, with its railways, flapper dresses, dusty towns, bustling cities, prohibition, and early motorcars. 1920s Mexico shines, as does the figurative road Casiopea and Hun-Kame travel.
Throughout the book the reader doesn’t know how it will end and whether Hun-Kame or Casiopea will survive. And yet, though difficult to predict, the novel’s conclusion feels exactly right.
Gods of Jade and Shadow is as an adventure, a heroic quest, a touching love story and a haunting journey toward a choice between death and life. I read it mid-year the year and it has stayed with me.
Devil’s Daughter by Lisa Kleypas
Ah, West Ravenel. I could talk about him all day (and have, with Kaetrin and others). He’s wry, supportive, sexy, and vulnerable. He’s neither a titled aristocrat nor a billionaire but his steady competence is no less attractive for that. Best of all, he reformed himself before Phoebe came along. And though in childhood he bullied Phoebe’s late husband, he is remorseful and humble as an adult.
Phoebe is a wonderful heroine, with a capacity for emotional generosity and a delicate growth arc. She starts out a widow just coming out of her grief and ends as a determined landowner and equal partner to West. Her children, Justin and Stephen, play an important part in the story yet are nowhere near saccharine or plot moppet terrain. Then there’s the cat, Galoshes, and Phoebe’s father, Sebastian St. Vincent. It’s hard to say which of those two is slinkier.
Devil’s Daughter was not the most flawless book I read this year, but it is the one I enjoyed most. I read it five times, own it in three formats, and have bought four copies for friends.
To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han, audiobook narrated by Laura Knight Keating
Sixteen-year-old Lara Jean Song-Covey has a habit of writing love letters; it’s her way of exorcising her emotions. None of the five boys she’s written to are aware that she has ever crushed on them. Lara Jean has never mailed the letters but she cherishes them and saves them in a hatbox. One day the hatbox goes missing and Lara Jean discovers that the letters have been mailed. To keep Josh, her sister’s ex-boyfriend, from learning that she ever loved him, Lara Jean agrees to fake-date Peter Kavinsky, another of the boys she wrote to. But as they spend time together on pretend dates, Lara Jean finds herself falling for Peter all over again.
The fake boyfriend / girlfriend trope has rarely worked better than it does in this book. It fits the high school setting and the ages and personalities of the protagonists so well. Lara Jean is a marvelous heroine, tenderhearted and young, filled with yearning and wistfulness. Peter is more than a cute and popular boy, as she realizes when she gets to know him. He too is vulnerable.
To All the Boys I’ve loved Before is a touching book, expertly paced and plotted. It’s easy to see why it was made into a Netflix movie. Laura Knight Keating’s narration of the audiobook took a little getting used to but now I can’t imagine another narrator voicing Lara Jean.
This is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone
This novel is a tale of two elite enemy agents whose warring factions struggle for the upper hand in a war over time itself. The forbidden exchange of letters between them begins as gloating but evolves into something else.
The novel has some sneaky surprises in store for its readers. So much of what happens in this little book would qualify as a spoiler, but among the things I can say is that the worldbuilding is both intricate and intriguing, and the correspondence between Blue and Red swoony. Each of them could be running a long con game or risking her life for the other, and the novel keeps us guessing as to which is true.
The book’s gradual evolution from an intellectual marvel to a story emotional enough to induce tears took me by surprise. For such a short (208 page) novel, This is How You Lose The Time War packs a dizzying punch.
Echo in Emerald by Sharon Shinn
Chessie is streetwise, cagey and slightly cynical. Lord Dezman is generous-hearted, thoughtful, and a bit trusting. Both are honorable. Chessie’s outer toughness is belied by an inner softness; Dezman’s initial cluelessness hides a solid determination to uncover the identity of the mastermind behind an attempted assassination of the crown prince. He quickly becomes equally determined to come to Chessie’s aid.
Dezman and Chessie each have two echoes, doppelgangers bestowed on them by the triple goddess, and their echoes figure largely in the story.
When Chessie and Dezman join forces to figure out who ordered the assassination, the reader discovers how right they are for each other. But the investigation places more in jeopardy than Chessie’s heart.
I loved how well-matched this couple was. Chessie showed Dezman how to be more wary, and Dezman showed Chessie how to be more open. Moreover, their romantic relationship was essential to the novel at every step of the way and developed with each plot turn of the fantasy-and-mystery plot.
With deft and accessible world-building, rising stakes, breathtaking plot twists and a touching romance, Echo in Emerald was a shoo-in for this list.
Jade City by Fonda Lee
This novel has been described as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon meets The Godfather and that high-concept description is apt. Set in a fantasy world with a mid-to-late 20th Century technology level, on a Hong-Kong-like island called Kekon, it’s the story of a family and a group of fighters who are determined to survive a street war with the help of the Jade that powers their magical abilities.
The plot takes a while so summarize so I’ll just direct readers to my review. But the characters are indelible and their story is riveting.
The novel has a mafia vibe even though the Kauls, the family at its center, don’t generally break the law. There’s no romance to speak of and a happy ending is not guaranteed; in fact, it’s the kind of book in which you can expect favorite characters to die.
Jade City is vivid and exciting, with sympathetic (despite it all) characters and an unforgettable setting. If it sounds like a book you could enjoy, don’t miss it.
The Flatshare by Beth O’Leary
What happens when two people share an apartment and a bed–without being in them at the same time? A charming, epistolary friends-to-lovers romance.
Tiffy is quirky, dedicated to her job as an editor at a DIY publishing house, and a bit fragile after a bad breakup. Leon is caring, loyal to his unjustly convicted brother, and just as dedicated to his work as a palliative care nurse. Both are gentle, vulnerable people and each is exactly what the other needs.
The Flatshare takes us through new flatmate adjustments, shared post-it notes that range from amusing to moving, food gifts, delicious first and second meetings, and ultimately a conclusion as touching as its characters. Throughout the book, the characters learn things about themselves and grow into stronger people.
Someone to Honor by Mary Balogh
When Abigail Westcott first lays eyes on Gil Bennington, an immediate and disturbing (to them, not to the reader) attraction forms between them. Each thinks the other isn’t someone he or she could like, with Gil mistaking Abigail for a snob and Abby mistaking Gil for someone who might be frightening. But though Gil bears a scar on his forbidding face, he is as sweet and gentle on the inside as his ironically-named dog, Beauty.
Gil, a commoner and the out-of-wedlock son of a blacksmith’s daughter, is in danger of losing custody of his daughter and when Abigail learns that, her push-and-pull attraction to Gil solidifies into determination to help him.
The book isn’t perfect, but Gil was as memorable as he was unusual. A dour man who did not expect happiness, a low-born soldier who rose in the ranks of the military, and a loving but reticent father. Abigail was less of a standout, but the way their romance begins (with each confiding in the other but not even understanding why) was wonderful.
The True Queen by Zen Cho
By magical means Muna and her sister Sakti have been shorn of their memories. All they have is each other and Mak Genggang, a wise woman who advises them to leave their Malaysian island of Janda Baik for England after they cause a diplomatic incident.
But Sakti disappears on the journey and Muna must go to England alone and try to find out what happened to her sister. There she meets Henrietta, a shy witch she grows to feel affection for. The rub is that Henrietta must marry a wealthy man to save her family from penury.
Muna is a lovable heroine, quiet and thoughtful but stubborn at the same time. She lies in service of finding Sakti, but feels bad about deceiving England’s mages and witches.
The novel also includes an arrogant dragon, fairyland beings, and England’s high-handed Sorceress Royal, Prunella. There are also Heyeresque quips, hijinks, and Not-Henrietta, a hilarious doppelganger that Henrietta leaves in her place so as to fool her family. This is an entertaining book with a sweet romance between two endearing women.
The Bride Test by Helen Hoang
The Bride Test is about finding love and acceptance, recognizing what you feel, and taking a chance—both on a lover and on a country.
Khai and My / Esme’s romance begins when Khai’s mother brings Esme to the US in the hopes that Khai will fall for and marry her. Khai has no intention of ever marrying since he believes his Asperger’s renders him incapable of love.
Khai is sweet and confused, and he stumbles in his relationship with Esme due to the way he processes his emotions. But the book belongs to My / Esme—a courageous woman who clings to her dream of a better life for herself and her daughter even as she gives Khai her affection and love. I haven’t encountered many heroines with more heart.
Among the other things I enjoyed about The Bride Test was the role food played in the story, from the steam and clatter near the kitchen in a restaurant owned by Khai’s mother to the pungent soup Esme makes for Khai. I also loved Khai’s big, extended family, especially his guilt-tripping but warm and loving mom. The first sex scene was unusual and terrific. Most of all, it was Esme who won my heart.
All three DA reviews of the book, including mine, can be found here.
This list reflects some trends in my reading. Not all of the books on the list have an HEA or HFN ending. Several of the books I listed include romances that end happily, but some of these were published outside the romance genre. Eight of the books have POC protagonists. Six are #ownvoices and two are LGBTQ. Four are fantasy novels, making that genre as represented as the romance genre on my list.
(I am happy to answer questions about which are which as well as any other questions you have in the comment section where I can hide spoilers.)
This was a good reading year for me; I had a lot of honorable mention books hovering around the B or B+ mark that didn’t quite make the cut. I wish all our readers an equally good or better reading year in 2020.