Finally, some time to catch up on the year's finest fiction.
This ought to be a longer reading list. After all, there have been plenty of amazing works of fiction that came out in the past year. However, when writing a list of the best fiction books of 2019, I can only draw from my own reading habits. Which, admittedly, can improve by a whole lot.
However, since Christmas is fast approaching, and many of you are finally going to have time to catch up on some reading, I’ve decided to whip his list up.
From Stephen King to Colson Whitehead, I’ve listed 11 of the best fiction books of 2019.
1.) The Farm by Joanne Ramos
Joanne Ramos’ dystopic vision feels appended to her most obvious inspiration—Margaret Atwood (who, interestingly, has a title in this list!). And that’s a good thing. Like Atwood, Ramos’ novel unravels like it is far ahead of its time yet grounded in that its very essence isn’t too far from what we’re living now.
In the book, an evil corporation sees to the welfare of fertile young women, who would later act as surrogates to the filthy rich. With this, Ramos touches on things beyond misogyny: pure-green capitalism, economic displacement, and Filipino diaspora.
2.) The Testament by Margaret Atwood
Indisputably one of if not the best novel of the year, Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments is the equally beguiling sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale. It’s released thirty-four years after the original first gave publishers, critics, and readers all alike whiplash with the contents of its text—a shocking, subversive tale of a funhouse-mirrored society where (disenfranchised fertile) women are peddled as breeding stock.
The new book is set fifteen years after its predecessor, and it snaps back its leers into razor-sharp focus. Aunt Lydia returns and finds an unwieldy ally in Commander Waterford, a Trumpian figure minus the funny hair and the funnier enunciations.
3.) The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead
One of my favorite authors working today. Colson Whitehead, whose last novel received a Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award, returns with The Nickel Boys, a lateral step after Underground Railroad.
Set in the Jim Crow era, the new book finds a pair of young black men who are sent to a juvenile reformatory called the Nickel Academy. There, the two boys must endure a brutal, most vicious environment where boys like them are physically and sexually abused…if they’re lucky.
4.) On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong
I knew very little about Ocean Vuong when I read his debut novel. I’m kind of glad that I didn’t know a lot. Revered by the literati as one of the greatest poets of our time, Vuong frames his novel as a young Vietnamese man’s letter to his mom, who’s illiterate.
What unfolds is a searing regurgitation of familial and cultural history, one that I find is best surmised by a stanza written in the author’s 2017 T.S. Elliot prize-winning collection, Night Sky with Exit Wounds: “An American soldier fucked a Vietnamese farmgirl. Thus my mother exists. Thus I exist. Thus no bombs = no family = no me. / Yikes.”
It’s a precious little novel, one that I was happy I opened with no expectations at all.
5.) The Topeka School by Ben Lerner
I’ve heard from a friend that this one might be an acquired taste, but boy was I hooked. Not that white sad boy poets are my thing, let the record show.
The Topeka School—obviously a work cut above many coming-of-age novels—can sometimes ponder in its own rhetoric (often to overindulgence). But then something snaps when you read Lerner’s prose, and it’s hard to not grow an affinity with its characters in the way you first do with Holden Caulfield in The Cather in the Rye.
A great read that I’ll probably remember for a very long time.
6.) The Institute by Stephen King
Between acclaimed television and film offshoots, Stephen King is having quite a year. There’s absolutely no reason to stop. And that’s what he does with The Institute, a classic King story of good-versus-evil if it was nudged (nay, bloodshot-eyed angered) by Trump’s America.
The book, in true King form, features child characters as its heroes. It’s set in the eponymous lockdown place, in which young telekinetics are abused, then later discarded.
7.) Patron Saints of Nothing by Randy Ribay
Nominated as of press time for a National Book Award, this teeming, red-eyed outside-looking-in depiction of Rodrigo Duterte’s tyranny is a gift to Filipinos—those in the country and those who are there in spirit—should they choose to accept it.
It’s centered around a young Filipino-American who learns of his cousin’s murder in the midst of Duterte’s War on Drugs. What follows is one harrowing truth unraveling after the next, with Ribay’s protagonist (a surrogate to his own, I imagine) constantly grappling with faith, guilt, and identity.
8.) The Need by Helen Phillips
If you haven’t noticed yet, I’m big on speculative fiction. At least half of this list is. This one, while certainly tipping over to said territory, is more of a domestic thriller. In fact, it opens with a masked intruder invading the protagonist’s home.
Interestingly, that character is a paleobotanist. And it is in her workplace where things pick up from airport sci-fi thriller to a lyrical portrait of modern womanhood.
9.) Exhalation by Ted Chiang
Denis Villanueve’s Arrival is one of my favorite science fiction films. The Ted Chiang novella from which it was borne, titled Story of Your Life, is a different head trip. I read it in one sitting, got completely enamored, and naturally, wanted more.
Well, finally there’s more. In his short story collection Exhalation, Chiang shares nine stories, two of which are brand-new. Each story brims with the same brilliance as his previous works; anyone who tells you otherwise is completely baked.
Shout out to @geoff for getting me my copy.
10.) Imaginary Friend by Stephen Chbosky
Remember The Perks of Being a Wallflower? I do. It’s been twenty years since that book came out. And the author’s only other book after that is here. The kicker is that it’s wildly different from Wallflower. So far, in fact, that it reads less like Chbosky (then again, how do we know after just one book?) and more like the book’s most immediate forebear—Stephen King.
All the ingredients are here: gifted children, a battered wife fleeing her domestic nightmares, and a thick layer of dread permeating from the pages. Speaking of pages, this book has 700+ of it. Make sure you’re in a reading mood when you pick it up for the holidays.
11.) Growing Things by Paul Tremblay
The title story of Paul Tremblay’s collection, Growing Things, doesn’t exclusively speak of the fatal vines enveloping the world. The “growing things” are stories, ones that propagate from one mouth to the next ear. It’s a running theme that exists in most if not all of the stories in this collection.
For a horror hound like myself, I find the book to be a treasure trove of echoes from horror authors I loved (and presumably Tremblay too). There are callbacks to Rice, Danielewski, and of course, King.