Our talented literary critics share their top choices of the year.
The Calculating Stars, the first book in the Lady Astronaut series by Mary Robinette Kowal, won a well-deserved Hugo award last summer. This series ticks off every box for me – a strong female protagonist, the space program, alternate history, and just enough of humanity’s shadow side to create nail-biting, believable conflict. I loved The Calculating Stars so much I chose it as my own book club selection, and my widely-read, discerning pals raved about it. Most went on to read the sequel, The Fated Sky. From my book club to yours, I enthusiastically recommend it!
Wanderers by Chuck Wendig is an epic, apocalyptic tome reminiscent of The Stand. This one’s a commitment at almost 800 pages, but well-worth your time. A young woman awakens to find her sister afflicted with a strange illness. It appears she’s sleepwalking, and soon others join the group as they traipse through middle America. The CDC races to find answers to the sleepwalking phenomenon, as well as a new fungal outbreak that’s devastating the population. While the country teeters on the edge of anarchy, an extremist militia threatens both the sleepwalkers and the family and friends who keep watch over them. Timely and chilling, this one will stick with you long after the last word.
My indie pick this year is Brainstorm by our very own Amy Wilhelm. Missing orphans with extraordinary I. Q.’s, and a research think-tank with something terrible to hide provide the backdrop for this fast-paced thriller. The tight writing, strong voice, and provocative story make this a compelling debut. It’s a David Baldacci-Robin Cook mash-up that will keep you turning the page until the stunning conclusion.
From the internationally bestselling author of The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a Fuck, Get Your Shit Together, and You Do You, a new No Fucks Given Guide to help you tame your anxiety and take control of your life. Right now I am really into “anti-guru” Sarah Knight’s Calm the Fuck Down. I plan on checking out the others too!
Every once in a while you read a book that grabs your soul and doesn’t let go. The Red Rising series by Pierce Brown pulled me into its dystopic universe from the first line. The hero of the series Darrow – a Red Helldiver from the Lycos clan on Mars – is half warrior-god and half self-doubting, overly emotional human. As he attempts to rescue his enslaved people from the Golds who rule The Society, your heart rises and falls in perfect tandem with his victories and defeats. Never have I been so emotionally tied to a book. I can’t count the moments I cried and cheered throughout. At times it is emotionally exhausting, but absolutely completely worth it!
The series is extraordinarily well written and is perfect for both science fiction fans and avid readers who appreciate a good world-encompassing saga. If you’re buying for a Pierce Brown fan, pick up his newest Dark Age. For a newbie, start with Red Rising and warn your recipient to get ready to devote all of their spare time to this gripping story.
On the Come Up by Angie Thomas is awesome, which is unsurprising given the success of her debut novel, The Hate You Give. It’s about a sixteen-year-old girl named Bri from an unnamed mid-sized city who dreams of being a rapper. She’s bused to a school for the arts, but she’s unnoticed there until she makes hay at a rap battle. After she’s physically assaulted by the security guards at her school, the community rallies around her and a rap song she wrote about the incident. Soon she’s locally famous, which is what she wants, but part of her fame is due to unfair assumptions about who she is. Can Bri achieve her dream by staying true to who she is? Or will she need to take on a persona to get her come up? Once again, Thomas’ quick, contemporary prose and pacing make for a great read.
The Gifted School by Bruce Holsinger is my other recommendation for 2019. We turned it into our book club at my son’s school, and it should be an interesting meeting based on how juicy this novel is. When a public magnet school is set to open in an affluent area of Colorado, four longtime mom friends turn into their worse selves as they scheme, connive, and cheat to get their children into the coveted classes. This is an interesting look at the low-key competition among friends, the complications of adult friendships, and the upper middle class desperation to give one’s offspring an advantage. It’s a highly entertaining peek into a segment of modern American life.
The Unrepentant, by E.A. Aymar, is a gripping fiction novel about one woman’s struggle to escape the world of sex trafficking, and what happens when she decides to fight back. Told in a fast-paced narrative, The Unrepentant has two main protagonists. The story begins when military veteran Mace happens upon Charlotte’s attempted execution at the hands of her captors. Mace thwarts it, only to find himself taking care of Charlotte while running from a host of murderous thugs. Charlotte, understandably, is initially mistrustful of Mace, and the bond of friendship that slowly forms between them is one of the best parts of this story. You can read my full review here.
Kulti is a standout romance novel written by Mariana Zapata. If you’re looking for an intelligent contemporary romance about more than just steamy moments, look no further. Set against the backdrop of women’s professional soccer in Texas, this novel details the relationship that develops between forward Salome and coach Kulti, whom Salome revered as a world-renowned professional player. The emotional and intellectual development of the relationship includes plenty of sarcastic banter and teasing, and the protagonists discover that they have more in common than they originally thought, making this an absolutely perfect romance novel.