Best Books of 2019

I read slightly more than eighty books last year. Here are the ones I enjoyed the most and recommend to you. (A) are adult books and (MG) are middle grade books, intended for children grades 3-7. Of course, I recommend them to everyone.

Maisie Dobbs, Birds of a Feather, and Pardonable Lies, all by Jacqueline Winspear (A)
In 2019, I discovered the Maisie Dobbs historical mystery series. I’ve only read the first three because the waiting list at my library is long. Maisie was raised in poverty in London, but becomes the protegee of famed detective/psychologist Maurice Blanche. She leaves her training to work as a nurse in WWI. The first book begins with her first case after returning from the war. She is broken in ways that become clear little by little. I love the way she solves cases. Part mystery, part history, part psychology, part mysticism, all enjoyment.

Just Like Jackie by Lindsey Stoddard (MG)
Robinson lives with her grandfather, who has taught her about cars and baseball and being more like Jackie Robinson (her namesake). Still, spunky Robbie can’t seem to avoid getting into fights at school. With her grandfather’s memory becoming more and more faulty, Robbie must make some difficult decisions. A beautiful story about family and being true to yourself.

Children of God by Mary Doria Russell (A)
This is the sequel to Russell’s novel, Sparrow, in which a party of scientists are sent by the Catholic church to a planet with two sentient species. See my review of Sparrow here.
This follow-up is brilliant. Although it could probably be read on its own, I recommend reading them in order. Character development and world building are superb. They are fast-paced, exciting reads, and Russell delivers philosophical questions that force a reader to think deeply.

At the Water’s Edge by Sara Gruen (A)
World War II may be dragging Americans and the world to battle, but for wealthy New Yorkers Madeline, Ellis and Hank, life is one big, drunken party. When Ellis offends his father and gets his money cut off, he drags his wife and friend to Scotland to find the Loch Ness monster, something his father failed at years before. Their time in Scotland is nothing like they expect, and Maddie finds herself left at an isolated inn. What they learn about themselves and each other makes for a riveting read. Plus, it takes place in Scotland, and 2019 was My Year of Loving Scotland.

Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver (A)
When Willa’s magazine goes under and her husband is let go from the university where he’s taught for years, the two middle-aged, did-everything-right people find themselves without anywhere to live. Fortunately, they inherit an aunt’s house– but the roof leaks, the foundation is cracked, they have no money, and then their adult children show up, needing help. In a parallel, historical story, we learn about another family who lived in/near the house: an honest science teacher, his social-climbing family, and a renegade female scientist. Being the same age as Willa, I felt her pain and confusion in so many ways. The historical story, based on actual people and places is fascinating. This book takes a hard look at the reality of America today, but it isn’t hopeless. Parts are funny, and the characters are incredibly interesting.

All Systems Red by Martha Wells (A)
This science fiction novel is told by a relatively inexpensive “murder bot” hired by people and companies for protection, especially when exploring other planets, etc. The bot spends most of its down time watching entertainment channels, so it has an interesting take on human emotions and intelligence. This is a fast-paced thriller that is funny and surprising. I just discovered that there are more to The Murderbot Diaries series and will be downloading them soon!

A Single Thread by Tracy Chevalier (A)
Chevalier is one of the best historical novelists writing today. She can make things to which you never gave a second thought fascinating and exciting. In this novel, it is canvas embroidery (needlepoint) and bells rung by pulling a cord, as done in Winchester Cathedral. I reviewed this book for the Historical Novels Society. You can read that review here.

Lady of the Seven Suns by Tinney Heath (A)
Giacoma dei Settesoli, the lady of the title, was a noblewoman who lived in Rome in the thirteen century and was a follower of Saint Francis of Assisi. This novel tells her story, as well as shedding light and insight on the lives of her family, St. Francis, Clare of Assisi, thirteenth century Rome, and the delightful (and probably imaginary) servants of Giacoma’s household. The story is rich in detail and life; it is inspirational, educational, and gratifying.

The Overstory by Richard Powers (A)
I wasn’t sure what to expect when I began this long novel. The early chapters appeared to be short stories, unrelated, except that each of them featured a tree—in some of the stories the trees were important, in others, barely mentioned. In the middle section, the characters from the stories come together, in the Pacific Northwest in the 1980s, when activists sat in trees and peacefully (and some times violently) battled lumber companies to protect forests. The final section shows the characters today. This is a poor summary of an incredible story. I learned SO much about trees and life and the world. The Overstory is an incredibly important book that I wish everyone could read. I realize the length will turn off some—but I hope many of you will give it a chance. It changed my life because it changed how I see the world.

In the Footsteps of Sheep by Debbie Zawinski (A)
A friend gave me this book shortly after I returned from my Scotland vacation. The author decided to take a “journey around Scotland spinning and knitting the fleece of the Scottish sheep breeds in their native haunts.” She kept a diary, took pictures, and gathered fleece from remote areas in Scotland and its islands. In the rain and the cold, Zawinski camps, walks, boats and makes somewhat dangerous decisions to get her fleece. A fun, interesting, educational travel story—with knitting patterns.

The Next Great Paulie Fink by Ali Benjamin (MG)
Caitlin Breen is the new kid in a small school in rural Vermont. On the first day, her classmates are shocked to discover that Paulie Fink is no longer at their school. Caitlin hears many stories about Paulie and eventually the students decide to have a reality-show-type competition to find “The Next Great Paulie Fink,” with Caitlin as judge. During the school year, their teacher explains Plato’s allegory of the cave, and the book makes much of this philosophical conundrum. Brilliantly constructed, this is a winner.

The Bridge Home by Padma Venkatraman (MG)
Viji’s father has always beat her mother, but when he hits Viji, the eleven-year-old girl runs away with Rukku, her older, mentally-challenged sister. They take a bus to the city of Chennai, in India, and find a “home” on a crumbling bridge with two boys, who teach them how to survive while living on the streets. The story is told in the second person, Viji talking to Rukku. An exciting, heart-breaking, important story.

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