The best fiction books of 2019 end the year on a high note

Monitor reviewers share the titles that stood out, including two impressive debut novels and stories centered on global themes.  

Courtesy of Simon & Schuster and Penguin Random House
“The Island of Sea Women” by Lisa See, Scribner, 384 pp; and “Ayesha at Last” by Uzma Jalaluddin, Berkley, 336 pp.

The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead

Two boys sentenced to a reform school in Jim Crow-era Florida reveal a study in contrasts: one is cynical, the other idealistic and inspired by the words of Martin Luther King Jr. As they navigate abuse and corruption, they influence each other in ways that will alter the course of their lives.

Chances Are ... by Richard Russo

During a weekend on Martha’s Vineyard, three men meet to renew their college friendship and puzzle over the mysterious disappearance, 40 years earlier, of a young woman with whom they were all in love. Richard Russo’s storytelling, word pictures, and understanding of character and community are rich in psychological detail. 

Out of Darkness, Shining Light by Petina Gappah

Petina Gappah’s work of historical fiction delves into the story of two African servants of famed 19th-century explorer David Livingstone. After Livingstone’s death, the pair are among those who transport his body, and his notes, 1,000 miles to ensure the body’s safe return to England. The novel glows with the insightful voices of the two servants and the strength of their devotion. 

The Island of Sea Women by Lisa See

Lisa See draws readers into the fascinating history of Korea’s Jeju Island and its women divers (haenyeo) who risk danger to collect shellfish while the men raise the children. Mi-ja and Young-sook are soul sisters who find joy and heartbreak in this unforgettable epic spanning 50 years, as their culturally rich island’s legacy is forever changed by world events. Readers will witness the fortitude of these women to transcend tragedy and find forgiveness.

Strangers and Cousins by Leah Hager Cohen

What could be more romantic than getting married in your family’s ancestral home? Lots of things in Leah Hager Cohen’s timely, timeless comedy. For one, the barn is about to collapse and the house isn’t in much better shape. For two, the parents plan to sell right after the wedding. For three, their daughter is planning less a heartfelt ceremony and more “an ersatz comedy on the institution of marriage.” Then someone steals the wedding ring.

The World That We Knew by Alice Hoffman

Into the recognizable form of a Holocaust novel Alice Hoffman injects magical realism in the form of a golem, conjured from sacred Hebrew words. The golem is entrusted with the safety of a young Jewish girl. Hoffman delivers a lyrical novel that underscores what makes us human and calls out how we deny humanity in others. 

Akin by Emma Donoghue

Noah Selvaggio is a retired chemistry professor who is set in his ways. The last thing he needs is a call from social services asking him to temporarily foster his pugnacious 11-year-old grandnephew whose mother is in prison. A captivating tour of the French town of Nice follows, as they piece together a World War II-era family mystery.

The Giver of Stars by JoJo Moyes

This compelling novel is inspired by the Depression-era rural traveling Packhorse Librarians of Kentucky. It follows five remarkable women who band together to face adversities while bringing the wonder of books and literacy to their neighbors. It’s an epic feminist adventure that candidly paints a community’s soul-searching with great humor, honesty, heartache, and love.

The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Ta-Nehisi Coates brings his remarkable talent to his first novel as he tells the story of Hiram Walker, a brilliant boy who seems to possess magical gifts. Born into slavery in 19th-century Virginia, Hiram survives a near drowning, an experience that emboldens him to try to gain his freedom. 

The Unlikely Escape of Uriah Heep by H.G. Parry

A lawyer is saddled with bailing out his younger brother, a professor who brings to life characters from books by famed authors such as Dickens, Wilde, Austen, and Brontë. When a stranger with a similar gift threatens everything, wild adventures ensue in this imaginative and heartfelt novel.

The Parisian by Isabella Hammad

Isabella Hammad's first novel is not a page-turner. That’s not an insult. With historical sweep and sentences of startling beauty, she has written the story of a displaced dreamer, a young Palestinian whose merchant father sends him to France to study in 1914. Patient readers will find themselves rewarded with a new voice worth taking the time to listen to.

Ayesha at Last by Uzma Jalaluddin

Who among us doesn’t love a good update of “Pride and Prejudice”? Uzma Jalaluddin delivers with a satisfying romance full of wit and humor, set among a Canadian Muslim immigrant community navigating tradition and assimilation for its young men and women.

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