Whether you experience stressful days due to your professional position, your demanding family, or simply the barrage of never-ending depressing news, there is often no better way to unwind than with a good book. Letting your imagination wander into a new world unlike your own can be exciting, it can be thought-provoking, but perhaps most importantly it can be distracting.
With that in mind, Variety has selected some of the best books of 2019.
“Annelies: A Novel”
by David R. Gillham
What if Anne Frank hadn’t died during the Holocaust? That’s what this novel endeavors to consider, painting a rich picture of survivor’s guilt and PTSD after the trauma of living through imprisonment in a concentration camp and watching her sister die by her side. It’s not the easiest of reads, given the emotionally raw subject matter, but it is a fascinating experiment in alternate history.
“The Collected Schizophrenias: Essays”
by Esmé Weijun Wang
“The Collected Schizophrenias” is a firsthand account of living with schizoaffective disorder, revealing the rocky road to reaching a diagnosis and the questions that arise after receiving one. Wang’s collection of essays seamlessly switches between powerful and poignant memoir and a needling examination of psychosis — its history, explanation and analysis.
“Dear Girls: Intimate Tales, Untold Secrets & Advice for Living Your Best Life”
by Ali Wong
Ali Wong is entirely candid in her memoir of essays that are written as life lessons for her own children but serve as advice for a much wider audience. Detailing everything from getting to know her Vietnamese side a little bit better to dating horror stories that deal with a surprising amount of erectile dysfunction to the early days of her relationship with her husband, Wong’s voice rings out loud and clear in a mix of wit, humor and heartfelt honesty.
by Julia Phillips
Julia Phillips’ debut novel starts with the disappearance of a pair of sisters on the Kamchatka peninsula. The subsequent chapters, which go month by month, turn the focus to yearning women, young couples, grieving widows, and broken and unbroken families and examine the common thread that unites these seemingly random stories. Part mystery, part meditation on the human — and female — condition, the book is a must read with a deeply satisfying ending.
“The Grace Year”
by Kim Liggett
Dystopian dramas are still all the rage, as proven by the fact that this story has already been optioned by Universal to be made into a feature film. In a small county during an unknown time, young girls are taught they have a magic power inside of them that they need to expel before being pure enough to get married. Just ahead of their 16th years, the girls are banished into the woods to survive on only their solitary wits — because many of them see each other as competition and would not mind if many did not survive the year to return. The protagonist is different, of course, and following her means veering off course from a typical girl’s titular grace year to explore the presumed threats (such as the poaching community) as well as the psychological ones.
by Stephen Chbosky
There are a lot of Stephen King-esque elements in this supernatural story about a seven-year-old boy determined to build a treehouse in the woods to help his titular imaginary friend stop the hissing lady from snatching children from the real world into hers. This boy was hardly the first to attempt such a feat, and the failures of another way heavily into the story, setting up the stakes not only for the child himself but also his loved ones who risk losing him. But it’s not just horror that Stephen Chbosky is tackling: it’s religion, too. The true identities of the beings the boy is encountering have biblical roots, which complicates matters immensely and makes the world-building all the more richer. At more than 700 pages it is not a light read, but it is a thrilling one.
by Stephen King
No one tells stories about the power of children coming together as a community to take down evil better than Stephen King. Here, the action starts with an exceptionally smart young boy named Luke being taken from his home in the middle of the night and imprisoned in the titular institute, which is a testing facility for kids with special abilities. As he adjusts to his new surroundings, readers learn about sinister plans for kids who can move objects with their minds or read each others’ minds. Luke spends his time at the front part of the Institute, which on its best days resembles a dorm, but as more and more are moved to the Back Half to never be heard from again, it becomes clear these kids have to combine their powers to overthrow their captors. David E. Kelly, who has an adaptation of King’s “Mr. Mercedes” at Audience Network, already optioned this new book for a limited series.
by Samira Ahmed
With reports of illegal immigrants being rounded up and kids being put in cages flooding our news cycle, this novel about Muslim American internment camps feels a stone’s throw away. But although the situation in the story is heinous, the tone is not all doom and gloom. Centering on a teenager named Layla who has the courage of such previous YA heroines as Katniss Everdeen and Beatrice Prior, the story tells a tale of resilience from those wrongfully imprisoned in their home country, unexpected alliances and a hopeful resolution. While some actions within the story may seem hard to believe, the message about standing up to injustice is inspiring.
“Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls: A Memoir”
by T. Kira Madden
T. Kira Madden’s debut memoir is a gorgeous account of growing up biracial in a turbulent family fueled by addiction, experiencing a sexual awakening and coming into one’s own. It is fully shocking that this is Madden’s first collection of essays; she writes with the mastery of a seasoned pro.
“Maybe You Should Talk to Someone”
by Lori Gottlieb
This book is inception, therapy style. Therapist Gottlieb chronicles sessions with her clients, the insight she offers them, her private thoughts and judgments and her sessions as a patient under the care of therapist “Wendell.” The accounts interweave, and what’s left is a kaleidoscope of stories about the human condition, love, loss, and how we can all learn from each other.
“A Nice Cup of Tea”
by Celia Imrie
“Better Things” actor Celia Imrie released her third novel in the “Nice” series this year, following five retirees who have opened a restaurant in the South of France. While there is a level of escapism to the story, this particular book doesn’t ignore hardships, including a runaway granddaughter; unwelcome blasts from the past; concerns over making ends meet to keep the restaurant afloat, let alone make it profitable; and a growing concern about a stalker. A quick and enjoyable read, it’s the perfect way to immerse one’s self in a world that feels far from your own but not far-fetched.
“The Nickel Boys: A Novel”
by Colson Whitehead
A heartbreaking look at the injustice, and at times downright abuse, young boys suffer at a juvenile reform school in the 1960s, this bestseller and Kirkus prize winner is emotional, unflinching and at times, hard to get through — but that’s also exactly what makes it so worthy of devouring. The story has a lot to say about the differences in how black and white boys were treated during this time period in history, starting with how Elwood even gets sent to the school in the first place. But it is also a tale of tense resilience, as Elwood befriends the cynical Turner, who offers a more worldly counterpoint to Elwood’s hope. While this is a novel, it is based on real-life facilities that operated for more than 150 years, shining a light on a dark part of history not often discussed.
“The Other Americans”
by Laila Lalami
On its face, there is a mystery element to this novel because the action kicks off with a hit-and-run murder of a Moroccan immigrant. But the story really is so much more, weaving together an intricate narrative about the ripple effects this death has on the man’s family members, friends and neighbors, as well as an undocumented witness to the crime. Refusing to shy away from harsh truths about assumptions made based on class, religion or race, the novel showcases the nuanced details people share in common, even as biases force them apart.
“On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous”
by Ocean Vyong
Ocean Vuong’s debut novel is a lyrical coming-of-age story that loosely takes the form of a letter to the narrator’s mother. The book is semi-autobiographical, tracing Little Dog’s family tree from Vietnam to Hartford, Conn. and back, examining what it means to be American, and to survive.
“On The Come Up”
by Angie Thomas
Thomas always paints a deeply emotional and intricate picture of race and class in her work, but she also proves she deeply understands the issues young people face when it comes to social media and cultural pressures. Here, she dives into the world of underground hip-hop when a teenage MC goes viral and is then faced with a misogynistic industry, censorship, marginalizing labels. Being a YA novel, there are lessons weaved into the story — important ones Thomas has become known for with “The Hate U Give,” such as poverty, drugs and police discrimination — but they are always organic to her protagonist’s situation and relatable to many generations.
“Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland”
by Patrick Radden Keefe
This nonfiction bestseller uses one specific crime (the 1972 kidnapping of Jean McConville, whose bones were not found until 2003) to dive into the more widely pervasive ethno-nationalist conflict known as The Troubles in Ireland at the time of her being taken. The book explores the trauma the McConville family suffered, but also what happened to the society at large — one that was in the midst of a guerilla war. Although an accord was passed in 1998, lots of lingering questions have plagued those who lived through the violent times, especially former IRA members, and this story looks at many of those questions and integral players closely.
“The Silent Patient”
by Alex Michaelides
A tale told in two timelines, this thriller follows a criminal psychotherapist who is determined to work with a famous painter who was convicted of shooting and killing her husband. The painter refused to speak after that action, never claiming innocence or trying to explain herself, and so she was locked up. But there is obviously more to her story, which the psychotherapist wants to unravel. Some readers will get ahead of the twist, but even so, when it’s explicitly revealed in the text, the psychological damage these characters carry sinks in, making it worth the wait.
by Margaret Atwood
The much-anticipated followup to “The Handmaid’s Tale” manages to continue a tale Atwood started three decades earlier but also weave in certain key elements from Hulu’s adaptation of that previous novel so that it can all feel of one larger world. Thirty years ago, Margaret Atwood wrote a cautionary tale, but as the themes from that novel inched further and further into reality, she shifted to infuse more outright hope in her storytelling. Seeing June’s sense of rebellion passed down into her children offers that, as does the introduction of the idea that not all Aunts are as evil as Lydia is depicted in the series. It’s no wonder Hulu made an adaptation deal before this even hit shelves!
“Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion”
by Jia Tolentino
Jia Tolentino has long been lauded as the second coming of Joan Didion and her debut collection of essays proves the hype. She seamlessly weaves together stories about the gig economy and Lululemon with reflections on her upbringing in a Texas megachurch. “Trick Mirror” is an up-close and critical exploration of self, self-delusion, and selfies that will surely be considered a time capsule for future generations.
“Trust Exercise: A Novel”
by Susan Choi
“Trust Exercise” follows two drama students at a performing arts high school who forge an intense connection in the classroom of esteemed theater teacher Mr. Kingsley. The shocking twist about halfway through will have readers interrogating the blurred lines of power dynamics and challenge the foundations of trust, reliability and memory.