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Best of 2019: Fiction

Updated: January 31, 2020

The best books of the year, as selected by Los Angeles Public Library staff. Perfect for holiday gift-giving! For more book lists and featured book reviews, check LAPL Reads.

10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World
Shafak, Elif.
Short-listed for the Man Booker Prize, master storyteller Elif Shafak's deliriously melodic and beautifully written novel chronicles the life of an Istanbul streetwalker, Leila Tequila, as it unfolds during the 10 plus minutes her brain remains in a conscious state, after she is murdered and dumped in a trash bin. For the next 10 minutes and 38 seconds, we witness her poignant and often humorous memories from birth to adulthood, sketching the colorful life of her five close friends, and chronicling a story of friendship and love within the confines of a rigid, patriarchal society where repressive politics and societal mores crush and stifle spirits, both tender and strong. An elegy to Istanbul, an ancient and modern city, with all its ugliness and splendor, and to the enduring resilience of spirit and humanity.

Agent running in the field
Le Carre, John, 1931-

John le Carré is all-knowing about domestic and international secret intelligence work, and his subtle nuanced writing reflects the layers of complexity that are part of the profession. This novel has themes straight out of today's headlines: Moscow Centre, aka KGB, is in full throttle, attempting disruptions where they see fit; and questions are raised about a Ukranian oligarch. A seemingly washed-up British agent is called back into action to find out what the Russians are up to, and to determine if one of Britain's own agents is working both sides. John le Carré still has the master's touch when writing about human motivation.

The bird king
Wilson, G. Willow, 1982-

In the sultan’s palace in Granada, Fatima is a concubine who yearns for freedom. Outside the palace gates the Inquisition lays siege to the city. When she recognizes the threat that the Inquisition poses to her friend Hassan, a mapmaker with magical gifts, the two of them escape into the night, risking the wrath of the Sultanate in a quest for freedom and survival. This is a historical fantasy with charming characters and lyrical writing. 

The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek
Richardson, Kim Michele

Two stories that have been overlooked in most fiction and history are: the story of the blue people of Kentucky and the Pack Horse Librarians of the 1930s, both are incredible examples of the resilience to triumph over difficult circumstances. This novel is a love letter to the women who daily risked their lives delivering books and other reading materials to those far removed from the traditional realms of “book learning.” It is also an ode to a group of people who were subjected to terrible treatment and crimes because of the color of their skin. This is a compelling and enjoyable read. 

The bookish life of Nina Hill
Waxman, Abbi,

If you loved the fast-paced dialogue of The Gilmore Girls, you’ll love this story of anxiety ridden Nina and her bookstore colleagues. Ms. Waxman’s dry humor and on point observations of the Larchmont Village neighborhood, where this novel takes place, makes this one of those rare gems that you do not want to end. Here’s hoping there is a sequel to this delightful novel.

Cape May
Cheek, Chip,

In this lovely first novel by L.A. writer Chip Cheek, a young couple from rural Georgia oddly choose late summer/early fall to spend their honeymoon in Cape May, New Jersey. Summer season has ended and the weather is cooling. They encounter a more cosmopolitan, and quite scandalous, set of friends during their brief time there, and quickly get swept up in a boozy, party atmosphere that will affect them long after their time in Cape May has ended. 

The Cassandra : a novel
Shields, Sharma,

Mildred Groves is initially thrilled to be employed as a secretary at the government facility in Hanford, Washington during WWII. But she soon finds herself sleepwalking and having horrific visions of untold numbers of dead and mutilated people. Her prophetic powers prove useless in halting the production of plutonium at the plant, much less the dropping of atomic bombs on Japan. She’s left feeling complicit in the resulting slaughter, as well as the damage done to the environment and health of the people of Hanford. This is a chilling and superbly written novel.

Celestial bodies : a novel
Harithi, Jukhah,

Modernity confronts age-old traditions and customs in the lives of three sisters who live in the village of al-Awafi in Oman. Rich layers of complexity are protrayed in this novel about a country and culture in the throes of rapid change as reflected in the lives of three women.

City of girls
Gilbert, Elizabeth, 1969-

This novel follows the life of Vivian, a young woman of privilege, who is a gifted seamstress, and self-described sensualist, and her life in the off-off Broadway theatre circuit in New York during World War II and subsequent decades. A beautiful tale of what constitutes love, family, and acceptance of one’s self and others. The novel was recently purchased by Warner Brothers Pictures.


Daisy Jones & the Six : a novel
Reid, Taylor Jenkins,

This soon to be 13-part series for Amazon tells the story of the crash and burn of a superstar 1970s rock band, Daisy Jones & The Six, as told from the perspective of each band member. Ms. Reid does an excellent job in capturing the essence of the Los Angeles rock music scene during its heyday of the 1970s..

The Darwin Affair
Mason, Timothy
Call Number: M

Playwright Tim Mason presents an excellent historical mystery, spinning a tale of intrigue and conspiracy that ranges throughout the highest levels of the British aristocracy and church, and revolves around Charles Darwin and his, at the time scandalous, theories of evolution. A novel full of atmosphere, action, suspense and memorable characters.

The Deep
Solomon, Rivers

This novel uses the Hugo nominated songs of the same name by Daveed Diggs, William Hutson, and Jonathan Snipes as the foundation to create a world and culture deep under the sea, with origins rooted in the sins of our past and a future resting on the shoulders of a young woman. The devastating and lasting effects of slavery are represented clearly and directely. It is a novel filled with pain, sorrow and rage, but there is also a strong sense of hope that builds throughout the book and culminates in a joyous conclusion.

Everything inside : stories
Danticat, Edwidge, 1969-

Edwige Danticat's short stories are about pain, grief and loss, and reflect her Haitian-American experience. Expressed in lyrical language, she explores the human condition in all of its complexity.

Jacka, Benedict,

Another fantastic book in the Alex Verus series. The last four books have been leading up to a confrontation between Alex and Richard, and it is not what the reader is expecting. Goody two shoes Alex makes some major changes which are not to be missed!

The gameshouse
North, Claire,

The gameshouse is a civilization and culture-spanning place where people go to play games of strategy. Once a player graduates to the upper levels of the house these games turn real, as they are played across and with the world and its citizens. The book tells of three such games. The novel is an excellent choice for lovers of intricate plotting and action of all sorts. 

Gods of jade and shadow
Moreno-Garcia, Silvia,

Silvia Moreno-Garcia's novel of young Casiopea Tun's quest to aid a Mayan god retain his kingdom is a journey through 1920s Mexico and the shadowy world of the dead. It seamlessly blends history, myth, and Casiopea's personal growth.

Haunting of Tram Car 015
Clark, P. Djeli

There is a return to the alternate Egypt created for A Dead Djinn in Cairo.  This is a  marvelous story that ranges from frightful to hysterical and back again several times over the course of its scant 130 pages.

Hollow kingdom : a novel
Buxton, Kira Jane,

Something is not right.  First, Big Jim's eyeball falls out of his head, and then he won't even drink a perfectly good ice-cold beer. Domesticated crow, S.T., is doing his best to care for Big Jim and his slobbering dog, Dennis, but he can't help suspecting something is amiss. For one thing, the neighbors should NOT be eating each other. Unwilling to watch his beloved owner literally fall apart , S.T. and Dennis venture out to search for a cure, but discover that Seattle is a chilling new world with dangerous new predators. 

Hope for the best
Taylor, Jodi,

Those crazy historians,  from the Chronicles of St. Mary's series, are at it again. The whole gang is involved and this time there's a secret mission to capture Clive Ronan. Max, in tandem with the time police, has come up with a plan. However, as in past escapades, Ronan is as slippery as a person can get. The ending will make you ask yourself, who is the real villain? 

How Rory Thorne destroyed the multiverse
Eason, K,
Call Number: SF

This book reads like a fairy tale set in the middle of a space opera, with a princess who is genre savvy enough to know she's trapped in a fairy tale, and crafty enough to take advantage of the fact.

In an absent dream
McGuire, Seanan,

The fourth book in The Wayward Children series is about Katherine Lundy, who as a young girl found her way to the goblin market, a magical place where things are fair in a way they never were at home. As she becomes an adult, she knows she'll have to make a choice between her home or the goblin market, and either way people will be hurt. 

Nesbø, Jo, 1960-
Call Number: M

Oslo Police Detective Harry Hole thinks he's finally hit bottom: dumped by his wife, his job in jeopardy, and his only escape the blackout drinking that nearly killed him. Then one morning he wakes up from a bender, drenched in blood, with no memory of the night before. When he learns someone he had reason to kill has been stabbed to death, Harry suddenly knows he's still got a whole lot further to fall.

The light brigade
Hurley, Kameron,
Call Number: SF

In a future caught in an endless war, where people struggle against powerful corporations for basic needs, a young solider realizes that she has become unstuck in time. She and others like her, struggle against the heartbreaking deprivations and chaos of war, unsure if anything they do will help, or if they have become lost flotsam on an endless bloody tide.


Magic for Liars: A Novel
Gailey, Sarah

In this debut novel, author Sarah Gailey mashes up elements of several disparate genres. Magic for Liars is part noir-mystery, part urban fantasy, part Harry Potter and part Mean Girls and the result is, pardon the phrase, magical!  The novel is both a wonderful whodunit and an incredible urban fantasy. 

McGuire, Seanan

This is a complex, compelling, magnificent story about how two children find their way in the world, with the fate of the universe hanging in the balance. It is not quite science fiction, as alchemy plays a large part in the plot; not quite fantasy, as mathematics, linguistics and multiple other disciplines play crucial roles in the story.

A nearly normal family
Edvardsson, M. T.

Nordic Noir meets Ordinary People in this Swedish legal thriller. Pastor Adam Sandell, and his criminal defense attorney wife, Ulrika, have always had trouble controlling their headstrong daughter, Stella. But they never thought Stella would land in jail, accused of the savage murder of her lover. How far will these devoted parents go to save the daughter they suspect is guilty as charged?

The Nickel Boys: A Novel
Whitehead, Colson

Whitehead's previous genre explorations are synthesized into a lean and horrifying prison novel ripped from the pages of history. His writing has become so even and cool that you don't feel the shank sliding into your gut as you finish the story. 

The Night Tiger
Choo, Yangsze

The Night Tiger weaves a wonderful tale of life set in Malaysia nearly a century ago. The characters are both recognizable and memorable, and the resolution will keep readers guessing and turning the pages until the very last one.


Ninth House
Bardugo, Leigh

Yale's secret societies aren't just wealthy and prestigious, they're magic. When that magic goes wrong, Galaxy Stern and the Ninth House have been set up to take care of it. Galaxy Stern is a young woman from the wrong side of the tracks, with great and terrible gifts of her own. There is only so far she is willing to go for the magical elite, no matter what standing up to them may cost her. A page-turning novel that is terrifying, thought provoking and, at times, laugh-out-loud funny.

On Earth we're briefly gorgeous
Vuong, Ocean

Three immigrants are struggling to survive in America amidst trauma, abuse, racism, homophobia, addiction, and yet the dark core alternates with light and humorous moments. Absolutely stunning prose from a wildly talented (and absurdly young) poet.

The Paragon Hotel
Faye, Lyndsay,

Alice "Nobody" James arrives in Portland, Oregon in 1921, with a festering bullet wound and a suitcase full of cash. Pullman porter Max befriends her and brings her to the Paragon Hotel, Portland's only all-Black hotel. The residents are uneasy about a white woman in their midst, a fear that only grows as Ku Klux Klan activity is on the rise. Everyone has a complicated past, and things come to a head when young Davy Lee disappears from the hotel.

Protect the prince
Estep, Jennifer,

In the second book of the Crown of Shards series, Everleigh's, aka Evie's, story continues. The gladiator queen has to deal with problems at home and abroad. The only people Evie can really trust are the members of her gladiator group, and the bastard prince Sullivan, aka Sully. In the first book, Evie and Sully are drawn to each other, but can a bastard prince and a queen find a happily ever after ending? Of course not, where would the fun be in that!

Doctorow, Cory
Call Number: SF

A collection of four novellas that use speculative fiction to comment on political and cultural hot topics, about which Cory Doctorow wants you to know exactly where he stands  As always his writing is sharp and clear, covering the absurdities that surround and infiltrate our lives, and predicts new ones waiting for us just around the corner. A compelling, thought provoking, macabre funny read.


Recursion : a novel
Crouch, Blake.

When a neuroscientist created a device to preserve memories in order to help her mother, who is suffering from Alzheimer's Disease, she had no idea that she had also discovered a way to alter memories and lives, too. When a New York police detective starts to investigate, what he finds is hard to believe. This incredibly well-written sci-fi thriller will have you wondering if you can trust your own memories. 

Red, White & Royal Blue
McQuiston, Casey

This debut novel takes an outrageous idea: what if a romance developed between the First Son Of The United States and one of Great Britain’s Royal Princes, and runs with it full tilt! Imagine a fairy tale, with TWO princes, and a very happy ending. It was the perfect summer/beach read, it is also an enjoyable read for any time of the year!

The Reign of the Kingfisher: A Novel
Martinson, T. J.

This debut novel takes the basic elements of Batman’s mythoses and spins from them a markedly more realistic and darker crime thriller. Everything and everyone in this story falls somewhere on a spectrum of grey. While there are no comic book heroes in this story, there are heroes who are far more believable, with real foibles and a tremendous amount to lose, which makes them all the more admirable as the story progresses.


The Remaking: A Novel
Chapman, Clay McLeod

This novel illustrates how powerful stories can be and how we fuel those stories through retelling. The book begins with a horrific story, based on the true story of a different “witch girl” in Pilot’s Knob, Kentucky, and shows how this single occurrence progresses from a story told around a campfire to two feature films, and is the subject for endless speculation by an ever increasing audience, growing from the residents of the town where the events took place to a worldwide audience. This is the best type of horror, where the chills and discomfort are based enough on reality to be truly unsettling, with a bit to ponder when you've finished reading.

The Secret Life of Sam Holloway
Thomas, Rhys

Sam Holloway is a good guy, kind and thoughtful. On nights when Sam isn’t at the pub with his friends, he dons a homemade superhero costume, and patrols the streets of his hometown, attempting to thwart crime and right wrongs! This is a gentle, lovely book about hiding and allowing oneself to be found. It is about what it means to be truly brave, which doesn’t often require donning a mask, but rather being willing to face what we fear most to gain what we desire and need, which in many cases, has been there all along, just waiting for us to realize it. 

The Sentence is Death
Horowitz, Anthony
Call Number: M

Acclaimed television and mystery writer Anthony Horowitz guides his fictional doppelganger through another murder investigation, which is always amusing and fun. The mystery is top notch, the writing is sharp, the humor is wickedly pointed and the resolution is more than satisfying. This series is off to a marvelous start!

Seven blades in black
Sykes, Sam, 1984-

A fantasy with evil magicians, dusty outposts of civilization, and a sarcastic, battle-scarred heroine on a quest for vengeance. Seven Blades in Black was a surprise in both the humanity of the characters and it's wry humor. 

The Sinister Mystery of the Mesmerizing Girl
Goss, Theodora
Call Number: M

The “girl monsters, or monstrous young women” are back for what may be their final adventure, with thrilling rescue attempts, and equally thrilling escapes! There are opium dens, crumbling castles, secret ceremonies held within the British Museum, and there are two 2,000-year-old ancient Egyptians. One is a recently reanimated mummy who is definitely a villain. The other may, or may not, be an ally to The Athena Club. What an exciting and perfect way to end this excellent series. 

Snow White Learns Witchcraft: Stories and Poems
Goss, Theodora

A fascinating, heart-warming and bone-chilling collection of stories, in prose or poetry, of how women survive and thrive, even in the most difficult circumstances. These tales will leave you breathless, whether from anticipation, shock, wonder, or laughing out loud, and are the result of a master writer applying her skills to material that she loves. It is a MUST read for those drawn to our ancient stories.

The Starless Sea
Morgenstern, Erin

When Zachary finds a book of stories in the library, one of which relays something that happened to him as a child, he becomes obsessed with figuring out where it came from. Clues lead to other clues and secret societies, and eventually a mysterious underground library. A book to be reread for its amazing details and imagery, and to catch all of the little plot hints. The book is a great love letter to books, stories, storytelling, fables, and everything else.

Steel Crow Saga
Krueger, Paul

Four very different people: a prince, a soldier, a detective and a thief, all with different past histories. What they do share is the experience of war, where each of them has suffered great losses. Author Paul Krueger plays fast and loose with fantasy tropes--with compelling results.  His talents truly shine in character development, and a knack for dialogue and repartee that has the snap and zing of a 1940s romantic comedy.

Stolen things : a novel
Herron, Rachael,

Laurie Ahmadi is a former cop turned 911 dispatcher, married to the first Arab-American chief of the local police department, and mother to 16-year-old Jojo, who has grown up surrounded my members of the force. Everything turns upside-down when Laurie picks up a 911 call to find Jojo on the other end of the line--lost, scared; unable to remember exactly how she wound up in the home of a local football star; what happened to her there; or where her friend Harper might have gone. As Laurie and Jojo race to find Harper, secrets emerge that threaten to tear their family apart, and leave them with no one to trust but each other.

A student of history : a novel
Revoyr, Nina, 1969-

Nina Revoyr admirably captures the idiosyncrasies of Los Angeles and its history through the character of Rick Nagano, a USC graduate student, whose desirable job has unforeseen drawbacks. While working for Mrs. W., matriarchal heir to an oil fortune, he has access to her personal journals and files that reveal an unknown history of the city. While assisting Fiona Morgan, a young socialite, Nagano learns more about the history of Los Angeles, which is interesting, but also proves to be more damaging to everyone.

The Survival of Margaret Thomas
Howison, Del

This is a story that is instantly familiar, with all of the recognizable trappings of a western tale, but simultaneously seeming like a welcome discovery of something new and exciting. Author Del Howison proves that there are still compelling Western stories to be told. 

The Ten Thousand Doors of January
Harrow, Alix E.

A story that is as grand and large as the multiple worlds it encompasses, and also as intimate as a young woman’s desperate need for the love and attention her absent father rarely provides. It is a wild adventure, a sharp critique of our past and present cultural norms, and a wickedly funny and powerful exploration of the power of words and stories--a triumphant debut novel.

This is how you lose the time war
El-Mohtar, Amal,

This is a lyrical little epistolary novel about two women, Red and Blue, who are on opposite sides of a battle to shape the strands of time in one direction or another. At the end of one momentous battle, one woman leaves a letter for the other. As they continue to wage their fight up and down the different strands of time, they continue their correspondence, developing a relationship that grows more and more meaningful to each of them.


To Be Taught, If Fortunate
Chambers, Becky
Call Number: SF

If fortunate, the characters in this novel have already sacrificed and risked so much for the opportunity to explore outer space. When communications with Earth break down, and the vagaries of alien planets grind them down, they have to decide who they, and by extension the humanity they represent, are in the face of the unknowable vastness of space. 

An unconditional freedom
Cole, Alyssa,

Daniel Cumberland was a free Black man studying law in Massachusetts when he was kidnapped and sold as a slave in the South. Unable to settle into his old life after a friend buys his freedom, he becomes a Loyal League operative, fighting undercover. Janeta Sanchez is a proud Cubana living with her father in Florida until he is arrested, and she believes that she can secure his release by gathering information for the Confederacy from the Loyal League. This unlikely pair is forced to work as a team, and their prickly relationship is complicated by their growing attraction to each other.


Thomas, Scott

This is a story that is a bit difficult to pin down. Part of it is about tragedy and grief. Part of it looks at parenthood and how the stakes can be raised on one parent when the other leaves, whether or not by their own choice. And part of it is a horror story set in a small town, filled with memorable residents and a sense of foreboding that settles over everything like a shroud. 

Wastelands : the new apocalypse
Call Number: SF

This collection of post-apocalyptic short stories is by far the best book I have read all year. Phenomenal writing by some of the best modern writers out there. 

A woman is no man : a novel
Rum, Etaf.

An unflinching and extremely difficult look at the lives of three generations of Palestinian women, the horrific spousal abuse they endure, and the sacrifice it takes for one of the women to break the cycle of abuse.

Women talking : a novel
Toews, Miriam, 1964-

The women of an isolated Mennonite colony discover that for some time, they and their children have been drugged and raped by some of the colony’s men. In response, the women undertake extended discussions about how to react: stay and do nothing, stay and fight, or leave. The nuanced talks revolve around their faith, and in that context, the extent of their right to think, act, and protect their children. Based on a fairly recent true story, this novel is extraordinarily intelligent and compelling in both content and structure.