The Best 15 Books I’ve Read (and Reviewed) in 2019
I love reading and often share my favorite books with you, sometimes along with an interview with the author. This is my best of the best list! Some of these were released in 2019 but many of them are slightly older books that I finally had the chance to enjoy. If you’re looking for a treat for yourself or a good bookish gift, this list has something for everyone.
BEST PICTURE BOOK
CJ rides the bus with his grandma on a lovely bus trip down Market Street from Sunday church to the soup kitchen where they volunteer. The details of the neighborhood, the people on the bus and the street, and the questions CJ asks along the way make this a sweet, sweet story. Winner of the 2016 Newberry Medal, 2016 Caldecott Honor Book, 2016 Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor Book and many more awards.
ABOUT "LAST STOP ON MARKET STREET"
Every Sunday after church, CJ and his grandma ride the bus across town. But today, CJ wonders why they don't own a car like his friend Colby. Why doesn’t he have an iPod like the boys on the bus? How come they always have to get off in the dirty part of town? Each question is met with an encouraging answer from grandma, who helps him see the beauty—and fun—in their routine and the world around them. This energetic ride through a bustling city highlights the wonderful perspective only grandparent and grandchild can share, and comes to life through Matt de la Pena’s vibrant text and Christian Robinson’s radiant illustrations.
BEST MIDDLE GRADE BOOKS
The Griffins of Castle Cary by Heather Shumaker is a delightful ghost story with high stakes for the characters that I love in a middle-grade tale. A trio of American siblings travel to the English countryside to spend a week with their aunt who lives in a small cottage on the grounds of a Mendip Manor and the ruins of Castle Cary—long believed to be haunted. As they explore their temporary home and make some new (rather odd) friends, strange happenings put everyone on edge. The climatic moments of this story are fabulously told! (But I won’t give anything away!)
Kudos to Shumaker for not shying away from the scary parts that keep everyone (even adults) turning the page. I adore the characters in this story from big sister Meg, to middle-sibling Will and younger sister Ariel. They are presented to the reader with such clear description and emotion that I was drawn in from the very start. The adult characters are equally fun. (Personally, I want an Aunt Effie now, too!) This would be a great addition to any middle-grade collection. Read the interview with the author HERE.
ABOUT "THE GRIFFINS OF CASTLE CARY": A charming, adventure-filled debut novel that’s perfect for fans of The Penderwicks series. Siblings Meg, Will, and Ariel Griffin are off on an adventure! They can’t wait to spend a week visiting their eccentric aunt and her giant, tongue-drooling Newfoundland dog in England. But when they finally arrive, they’re faced with a few local secrets that stir up more than a little trouble. Add in some very peculiar lights, strange new friends, a police chase and some stampeding sheep, and the Griffin kids are in over their heads—literally. Apparently, this town has a ghost problem and the three children must race to solve the mystery before the ghosts take something that doesn’t belong to them.
Meena Meets Her Match by Karla Manternach is a sweet treat of a read that I highly recommend for young readers and their parents. Meena is a relatable main character with her own set of quirky traits that make her instantly likable. From the ups and downs of friendship and the misunderstandings of elementary school to an even bigger worry, this story takes us on Meena’s journey in a skillfully written way. The vivid descriptions will transport grown-ups back to the classroom! The illustrations of Rayner Alencar give us Meena in her full-color glory and add a flair that makes this book an extra-special kind of fun. Read the interview with the author HERE.
ABOUT "MEENA MEETS HER MATCH": Meena’s life is full of color. She wears vibrant clothes, eats every shade of the rainbow, and plucks eye-catching trash from the neighborhood recycling bins. But when Meena’s best friend, Sofía, stops playing with her at recess and she experiences an unexpected and scary incident at breakfast, nothing can fight off the gray. That’s when Meena comes up with a plan to create the BEST and most COLORFUL Valentine’s Day Box in the class. With the help of her cousin, Eli, and her stuffed zebra, Raymond, Meena discovers that the best way to break through the blah is to let her true colors shine.
BEST YOUNG ADULT BOOK
All the Walls of Belfast by Sarah Carlson is a tale of two teens who come from opposite backgrounds in Northern Ireland where walls still separate the Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods, making their developing relationship not only difficult but dangerous. The book is a well-written story that explores political themes of Ireland’s Troubles and terrorism alongside themes of independence and escape (from abusive family life). The author takes great care to build an authentic Irish experience for the reader with setting descriptions and dialogue.
ABOUT "ALL THE WALLS OF BELFAST"
The Carnival at Bray meets West Side Story in Sarah Carlson’s powerful YA debut; set in post-conflict Belfast (Northern Ireland), alternating between two teenagers, both trying to understand their past and preserve their future. Seventeen-year-olds, Fiona and Danny must choose between their dreams and the people they aspire to be.
BEST DYSTOPIAN-POST APOCALYPTIC (Young Adult)
The Rule of One by Ashley and Leslie Saunders
There was no way I could put down this story once I’d read the first couple of pages! A world that’s designed to make one twin’s existence illegal, these sisters are forced into a terrifying escape into the unknown with only a series of safe houses mapped out. Their journey reveals more and more about both their deceased mother’s life as well as the what their captured father may be enduring. This is an incredible coming-of-age story set within the most difficult set of circumstances imaginable. Book two, The Rule of Many, is on my reading list.
ABOUT "THE RULE OF ONE"
In their world, telling the truth has become the most dangerous crime of all. In the near-future United States, a one-child policy is ruthlessly enforced. Everyone follows the Rule of One. But Ava Goodwin, daughter of the head of the Texas Family Planning Division, has a secret—one her mother died to keep and her father has helped to hide for her entire life. She has an identical twin sister, Mira. For eighteen years Ava and Mira have lived as one, trading places day after day, maintaining an interchangeable existence down to the most telling detail. But when their charade is exposed, their worst nightmare begins. Now they must leave behind the father they love and fight for their lives. Branded as traitors, hunted as fugitives, and pushed to discover just how far they’ll go in order to stay alive, Ava and Mira rush headlong into a terrifying unknown.
THE BEST HISTORICAL FICTION BOOKS
The Flats Junction Series
Wisconsin author Sara Dahmen has penned a series of book set in the fictional Dakota Territory town of Flats Junction. (I’ve been lucky enough to read some of these books in their beta form—so I know what’s yet to come, and let me tell you, it’s excellent storytelling!) You can check out the series website HERE. So far there are two books released.
This book has a wonderful and rich cast of characters (some who will recur in the following books). You’re rooting for everyone from the very beginning, through heartbreak and tragedy we’re on the journey with them. I loved the details of the tinsmith trade, including the illustrations and definitions at the back of the book. This attention to detail makes all the difference for the reader. I was not surprised to learn that the author is a tinsmith/coppersmith herself. I love learning new things through story—and what a heartfelt, lovely story it is!
ABOUT "TINSMITH 1865"
When her tinsmith father and brothers head West, Polish immigrant Marie Kotlarczyk has no choice but to go along. Family, after all, is family. The Dakota Territories are anything but welcoming to the Kotlarczyks, and as the months trip by, Marie must pick up the hammers she’s secretly desired but also feared. When she faces the skeptical people of Flats Town, the demands of the local Army commander, and her public failures, her inner voice grows destructively, forcing Marie to decide exactly who she is and what it means to be a woman smith.
The second book in the series brings back a number of the characters we first met in Tinsmith but focuses on the town doctor’s new housekeeper. This is a wonderful western romance novel that is in no way formulaic. The unexpected twists and turns as well as the rich description of a western frontier town and the people who inhabit it made this a page turner. This author has also taken her research into vintage cooking implements to a new level by starting her own cookware company.
ABOUT "WIDOW 1881"
Proper Boston widow Jane Weber moves to the Dakota Territories under layers of lies to save her reputation. Stirring up controversy, Jane rooms with the last Blackfoot Sioux in town while navigating a mercurial friendship with the fiercely independent town grocer. In Flats Junction, though, everyone has an untold story. Battling her shortcomings, falsehoods, and swallowing her inherent curiosity, Jane must choose how she will truly reinvent herself, and where she belongs.
Empty Chairs by Anne Davidson Keller is a story of love and loyalty that you will immediately sink into! A skillful portrayal of one North Carolina farm family’s struggles in the 1940s as teen children make their way into a life away from the farm with sometimes disastrous consequences for those that remain. The author has created a complex heart-tugging story with multi-layered characters that is a joy to read.
ABOUT "EMPTY CHAIRS"
In this story of family, love, and interwoven connections, the McDowells struggle to survive on their family farm in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Joe, the youngest sibling, steals coins from his mother's purse, knowing he can never have things he really wants. After his older brother is drafted to World War II, Joe and his family must confront an avalanche of crises, learning what means most in each of their lives. Joe will have to choose whether to become the man on the farm, or to follow his dreams. In a surprise turn of events, the women in his family show strength they didn't know was theirs. Love and tolerance become the keys to overcome the challenges facing Joe and his family.
BEST WOMEN’S FICTION (COMBINED WITH SUSPENSE)
True Places by Sonja Yoerg is one of my favorite books EVER. I seriously cried my way through parts of this book. Could not put it down. The story begins with an overburdened mother, wife, volunteer to all causes (can any of us relate?) temporarily shirking her duties by taking a drive out of town where she finds a teen girl collapsed on the side of the road. Bringing her to safety is only the first step in lives that become linked. I won’t give away anymore. You’re going to love this book!
ABOUT “TRUE PLACES”
A girl emerges from the woods, starved, ill, and alone…and collapses.
Suzanne Blakemore hurtles along the Blue Ridge Parkway, away from her overscheduled and completely normal life, and encounters the girl. As Suzanne rushes her to the hospital, she never imagines how the encounter will change her—a change she both fears and desperately needs.
Suzanne has the perfect house, a successful husband, and a thriving family. But beneath the veneer of an ideal life, her daughter is rebelling, her son is withdrawing, her husband is oblivious to it all, and Suzanne is increasingly unsure of her place in the world. After her discovery of the ethereal sixteen-year-old who has never experienced civilization, Suzanne is compelled to invite Iris into her family’s life and all its apparent privileges.
But Iris has an independence, a love of solitude, and a discomfort with materialism that contrasts with everything the Blakemores stand for—qualities that awaken in Suzanne first a fascination, then a longing. Now Suzanne can’t help but wonder: Is she destined to save Iris, or is Iris the one who will save her?
Saving Arcadia by Heather Shumaker is a surprisingly suspenseful nonfiction book about preserving a beautiful section of Lake Michigan coastline. I say surprisingly because I didn’t expect that a nonfiction account would have me hurriedly turning pages to find out whether the team met their fundraising goals or what legal shenanigans they would be up against next. Shumaker is a first-rate writer who is also an integral part of the story. Her ability to detail both the people who were part of this effort along with the more in-depth description on the structure of land preservation brought this story to life. When I finished it, I immediately wanted to book my Manitowoc to Ludington ferry trip to see Arcadia for myself!
ABOUT THE BOOK:
Saving Arcadia: A Story of Conservation and Community in the Great Lakes is a suspenseful and intimate land conservation adventure story set in the Great Lakes heartland. The story spans more than forty years, following the fate of a magnificent sand dune on Lake Michigan and the people who care about it. Author and narrator Heather Shumaker shares the remarkable untold stories behind protecting land and creating new nature preserves. Written in a compelling narrative style, the book is intended in part as a case study for landscape-level conservation and documents the challenges of integrating economic livelihoods into conservation and what it really means to “preserve” land over time. This is the story of a small band of determined townspeople and how far they went to save beloved land and endangered species from the grip of a powerful corporation. Saving Arcadia is a narrative with roots as deep as the trees the community is trying to save; something set in motion before the author was even born. And yet, Shumaker gives a human face to the changing nature of land conservation in the twenty-first century. Throughout this chronicle we meet people like Elaine, a nineteen-year-old farm wife; Dori, a lakeside innkeeper; and Glen, the director of the local land trust. Together with hundreds of others they cross cultural barriers and learn to help one another in an effort to win back the six-thousand-acre landscape taken over by Consumers Power that is now facing grave devastation. The result is a triumph of community that includes working farms, local businesses, summer visitors, year-round residents, and a network of land stewards.
BEST ROMANTIC SUSPENSE
Better Than This by Beth Flynn is another thrilling novel from this author. Her characters are always created with a unique backstory, mystery, and danger that's either intriguing or frightening, and sometimes both! This title is a gorgeous love story set inside a decades-old mystery. If you loved her Nine Minutes Trilogy and the spin-offs from that series, you’ll love this one, too.
ABOUT "BETTER THAN THIS":
Time doesn’t heal all wounds. Sometimes they just scab over. Haunted by memories of a failed marriage, trauma surgeon Barbie Anderson escapes to her hometown for a fresh start. But the quaint community of Pumpkin Rest has memories and failures of its own that should stay buried. When Barbie runs into ex-con biker Jake Chambers, he stirs up anger and resentment in her that she doesn’t want to face. He reminds her of the one man she’s never gotten over and dredges up decades-old heartache. With his rugged criminal exterior and gentlemanly demeanor, the silver fox may have the other women in Pumpkin Rest falling at his feet, but not Barbie. She refuses to let her guard down and have her heart broken again. When a series of revelations come tumbling forth, Barbie is forced to confront her past and trust Pumpkin Rest’s most sought-after bachelor where she’ll soon learn that love wears many faces. Will secrets from the past destroy their future or will old wounds finally heal, allowing her to love again?
The Mister by E.L. James
If you were not a fan of the Fifty Shades of Grey series, don’t give up on E.L. James. Her recent love story, The Mister, is an excellent romance novel woven together with a mysterious plot that makes the book far from cookie cutter. The heartbreaking tragedy of sex trafficking is incorporated into this fictional story giving it a serious tone at times. There are light and beautiful moments as well. I particularly love the inclusion of classical musical references as the main female character is an accomplished pianist. A lovely list of the pieces she plays in the book is shared at the end.
ABOUT THE BOOK
London, 2019. Life has been easy for Maxim Trevelyan. With his good looks, aristocratic connections, and money, he’s never had to work and he’s rarely slept alone. But all that changes when tragedy strikes and Maxim inherits his family’s noble title, wealth, and estates, and all the responsibility that entails. It’s a role he’s not prepared for and one that he struggles to face.
But his biggest challenge is fighting his desire for an unexpected, enigmatic young woman who’s recently arrived in England, possessing little more than a dangerous and troublesome past. Reticent, beautiful, and musically gifted, she’s an alluring mystery, and Maxim’s longing for her deepens into a passion that he’s never experienced and dares not name. Just who is Alessia Demachi? Can Maxim protect her from the malevolence that threatens her? And what will she do when she learns that he’s been hiding secrets of his own?
Trust Me by Hank Phillippi Ryan is another hard-to-put-down book from this author. She winds a tight plot that makes it hard to know who to trust. A perfect mystery! No wonder this book has won a huge list of awards! I love all of Ryan's books. She always keeps me guessing until each book's satisfying ending.
ABOUT THE BOOK:
An accused killer insists she's innocent of a heinous murder.
A grieving journalist surfaces from the wreckage of her shattered life.
Their unlikely alliance leads to a dangerous cat and mouse game that will leave you breathless.
Who can you trust when you can't trust yourself? Trust Me is the chilling standalone novel of psychological suspense and manipulation that award-winning author and renowned investigative reporter Hank Phillippi Ryan was born to write.
Beneath the Flames by Greg Renz begins with one of the best first chapters I have ever read, pitching us directly into the kind of action and raw emotion rarely found in a debut novel. Our heart aches for the main character Mitch as guilt drives him to seek distraction, purpose, and redemption by joining the Milwaukee Fire Department. His life on the farm and as a small-town volunteer fire fighter hasn’t exactly prepared him to cope with the inner city. He makes enemies, mistakes, and, surprisingly, some good friends, but all of these collide in a tightly woven plot that is both simultaneously heartbreaking and uplifting.
Renz’s skill as author is evident in the depth of each character and their dialogue and mannerisms—so much so that we feel as though we’ve met them all in real life. This is a book with serious themes and subjects; suicide, racism, gang violence, domestic abuse, sexual assault, murder and more. But this is also a story about hope, love, and family. Renz handles them all with a brave pen that isn’t squeamish with the tough parts.
This is the kind of story we need in the world today—authentic and insightful. I guarantee you’ll be thinking about it long after you’ve finished reading.
ABOUT THE BOOK
BENEATH THE FLAMES is an intimate combination of love, race, and life as an urban firefighter.
A fire in a neighboring farmhouse has young farmer and volunteer firefighter, Mitch Garner, blaming himself for the tragic outcome. He loses all hope of forgiving himself. His only hope for redemption is to leave Jennie, the girl he’s loved since high school, and journey from Wisconsin’s lush farmland to the decaying inner city of Milwaukee to prove himself as a professional firefighter.
Mitch is assigned to the busiest firehouse in the heart of one of the most blighted areas of Milwaukee, the Core, where he’s viciously hazed by senior firefighters. He struggles to hold it together at horrific scenes of violence and can’t do anything right at fires. Within weeks, he’s ready to give up and quit. His salvation comes in the form of a brash adolescent girl, Jasmine Richardson. Mitch is assigned to tutor her little sister through a department mentoring program. Despite Jasmine’s contempt toward Mitch, her courage and devotion to her little sister inspire Mitch to stay and dedicate himself to helping her and the neighboring children overcome the hopelessness of growing up in crushing poverty. Trouble on the farm has Mitch torn between returning home to Jennie and staying in Milwaukee where he’ll be forced to risk his life to protect Jasmine from the leader of the One-Niner street gang.
Straight River by Chris Norbury is an extremely suspenseful, hard-to-put-down thriller. The author hooks the reader with intrigue from the early pages and never lets go. Growing up in Midwest farm country, I could see my neighbors (and relatives) in many of these characters—likable, quirky, and with their own set of faults which make them feel very real. I seriously stayed up until 2 am to finish this book. The tension level was off the charts. Norbury handles the intertwining plot with real skill and just when you think the resolution is coming, it’s not. Norbury is way ahead of most thriller writers with his complex story development. Perfect suspense!
ABOUT THE BOOK:
STRAIGHT RIVER, the prequel to the award-winning thriller CASTLE DANGER, is a mystery-thriller set during the emotional and financial aftermath of the Great Recession.
After his estranged father dies in a farming accident, professional musician Matt Lanier returns to his hometown of Straight River, Minnesota. While he’s settling his father’s estate, an old family friend and neighbor asks Matt for help. Her husband's recent death was ruled a suicide. She insists it wasn’t. If she can’t disprove that ruling, she’ll lose her farm.
The local authorities are uncooperative, so Matt turns to his ex-wife and a young computer prodigy for assistance. As he gets closer to the truth, Matt suspects both deaths are connected to a violent conspiracy with national implications. When the conspirators intensify their efforts to silence him, Matt must decide if it’s worth risking more lives—including his—to protect his friend and hundreds of other farmers from financial catastrophe.
HAPPY READING & SHOPPING! - Valerie
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