Aside from Kameron Hurley’s The Light Brigade, I had not stumbled upon much greatness in my 2019 reading, so far. I had read quite a few decent-to-good books, like Stephanie Land’s Maid , Karen Thompson Walker’s The Dreamers and Angie Thomas’ latest, On the Come Up. Unfortunately, I’d not read any of what I would call a 5-Star book in 2019 (even Hurley’s The Light Brigade only received four stars on my GoodReads).
That’s changed a lot in the past month, after hitting a hot streak of novels that has included my first three 5-Star books of 2019. The streak really began with Mike Bockoven’s FantasticLand, recommended to me by a reader Ashley B. Told by survivors in an interview format that sounds an awful lot like a podcast if you’re listening to the Audiobook, it’s basically Lord of the Flies set in a Disney-land like amusement park. After a powerful hurricane ravages the coast of Florida, a bunch of mostly teenage employees are abandoned in Fantasticland after flooding leaves the park otherwise unreachable. Those remaining employees begin to form groups, mostly related to where they worked in the park. Alienated from the outside world, the different factions have to fight over limited resources while awaiting rescue, and naturally, they turn feral, killing each other over bottled water and corndogs. If you’re a fan of Lord of the Rings inspired stories — like The Society on Netflix — it’s a really fun and riveting horror story, and the voice cast on the Audiobook is phenomenal.
From there, I jumped to my first five-star book of the year, Taylor Jenkins Reid’s Daisy Jones and the Six, released back in March. What an intoxicatingly great book. I’d never read a Taylor Jenkins Reid book before, but this one hit me in the sweet spot. It’s another book told through the interview format, and the Audiobook includes an outstanding voice cast that includes Jennifer Beals, Benjamin Bratt, Judy Greer, Pablo Schreiber. It’s about the rise and fall of a fictional ’70s rock band. It is so good and so believable, however, that it often escaped me that it was a fictional band, and I found myself badly wanting to seek out their music, which is described in such incredible detail that I could almost hear the songs. It’s terrific, and if you’re into old-school Rolling Stone-like musical biographies, you’ll dig Daisy Jones.
In fact, I loved it so much that I immediately sought out another Taylor Jenkins Reid novel, The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, and I ended up feeling very similarly about this story of a famed actress from the 1950s until the 1980s. The story essentially tracks her career through her seven marriages, but it’s not exactly what it seems, because the real thrust of the book is about the person she never married, the love of her life.
There are a lot of similarities between Evelyn Hugo and Daisy Jones, too, that make them so compelling: They are both ambitious, driven women unafraid to use their sexuality or step on the backs of men to achieve their career dreams, and while neither feels any regret about the decisions they made to get where they are, they both at times ache for the other life they could have led. They’re remarkable books. The leads are both the heroes and villains of their own story, and I fell madly in love with both, flaws and all.
After two phenomenal novels in a row, I wanted to keep the streak going so I jumped into what is normally a reliable genre for me: The mystery thriller. I found exactly what I was hoping for in Alex Michaelides The Silent Patient (released in February), a psychological thriller about a woman who mysteriously and violently murders the husband she loves and then goes completely silent. She’s convicted of the murder and locked away in a mental hospital, where a criminal psychotherapist by the name of Theo Faber endeavors to crack the code and compel her to speak and unlock the motives behind the murder. It’s a quick-and-windy page-turner with a pretty decent twist ending.
Meanwhile, I just finished what may be my favorite book of 2019 so far, Mary Beth Keane’s Ask Again Yes, a lovely, engrossing literary fiction novel that tracks the lives of two families who live next door to each other in a quiet suburb of New York City. An act of violence ends up dividing the two families, but also bringing two of their kids together. The two have to navigate their lifelong relationship around their parents, alcoholism, and mental disease. It’s a powerful, phenomenally written book that takes exquisite care of its characters. It really is one of those books where I got so invested in the people that I was heartbroken when the novel came to an end because it meant I wouldn’t be able to spend any more time with these families.
In some ways, I reminded me of Lisa Ko’s The Leavers, another one of those family dramas that are very popular in book groups (in fact, I read it because my wife had read it in her book group). It, too, is terrific, as it tracks the life Deming Guo, a kid abandoned by his Chinese mother in NYC and adopted by a suburban white family upstate. He ends up feeling trapped between two worlds, and not fully part of either. It’s a beautifully written book, but also in true-to-life fashion, kind of a bummer, but in a very poignant way.
On Seth’s recommendation, I also read last year’s Booker Prize winner, Paul Beatty’s The Sellout, a sharply written and hilarious satire about a Black man who enslaves a former member of The Little Rascals and resegregates his small California town, which leads him on a journey to the Supreme Court. It is a brilliant, funny, and smart-ass novel that I’d probably need to read two or three times to get all the jokes and references. However, it’s also light on plot, and the characters are hard to invest in because they’re not people so much as they are vehicles for biting social commentary. Then again, it’s probably the best satire I’ve read in years.
I also read Things My Son Needs to Know About the World by my favorite author of 2018, Fredrik Backman. My all-time favorite Dad book is Drew Magary’s Someone Could Get Hurt: A Memoir of Twenty-First-Century Parenthood, and that remains true, although Backman’s book is amusing, light, and very fun to read (in fact, I read chapters of it to my kids at bedtime on a couple of occasions). However, it feels so specific to self-deprecating Dads who work from home, love Dad humor, and who also married well above their stations that I am hesitant to recommend it to anyone who doesn’t fall into that category. That said, I adored it, and it will suit almost any Dad (or parent, really) currently trying to raise infants and very young children — it brought back a lot of funny but borderline traumatic memories of a very bizarre period in the life of a parent that otherwise quickly get repressed.
I will also mention that I listened to a very short Audiobook by John Scalzi read by Zachary Quinto called The Dispatcher, about a guy in the future whose job is that of a Dispatcher — a guy who basically saves the lives of people who are intentionally killed. Somehow, if someone dies in his presence, he can reset them back alive back in their beds. It’s fine listening material while doing the weekly grocery shopping.
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