My Top Ten Favorite Novels of 2019



These are my favorite novels published in 2018. I make no effort to read a bunch of books I SHOULD read or which would make anyone else's top ten. Also, there are no non-fiction or story collections.


The World That We Knew by Alice Hoffman

In Berlin, shortly before World War II, Hanni Kohn knows she must send her twelve-year-old daughter, Lea away to save her from the Nazi regime. She finds her way to a renowned rabbi, but it's his daughter, Ettie, who offers hope of salvation when she creates a mystical Jewish creature, a rare and unusual golem, who is sworn to protect Lea. Once brought to life and named Ava, she and Lea and Ettie become eternally entwined, their paths fated, their fortunes linked. Lea and Ava travel from Paris, where Lea meets a young man, Julien, to a convent in western France where Ava bakes bread and dances a heron.  Victor, Julien’s older brother, leads a resistance cell. Marianne, once a servant in Victor and Julien’s house, returns to her father’s farm and guides children across the border.  Julien, having evaded the Nazis in Paris when his father bribes a guard, becomes a teacher at a château used as a shelter for Jewish children.  Meanwhile, the rabbi's daughter goes into hiding, waiting to become the better fighter than any of the boys she once wished to be.

This may not be my favorite of Hoffman's many great novels, but it is my absolute favorite of all the books I read this past year. As with some Hoffman books, it takes a chapter or two to fully engage, and there are a few sections where I wonder if it will all be worth it, once the characters begin to blossom, this novel becomes that most wonderful of books that demands a page-turning completion, but with the hope that it might continue on and on.

Filled with wondrous symbolism, emotions and desires, the resiliency of love and the nobility of sacrifice, the courage to do a right thing, it is everything a really favorite book should be.


The Bird Boys by Lisa Sandlin

After a serial killer almost murdered Delpha Wade, the hospital releases her into the hands of the Beaumont police to answer for killing the attacker. She doesn't deny she killed the man, but the problem is, she's an ex-con. Self-defense didn't keep her out of prison in 1959, when she buried a knife in the chest of a man who was raping her.  Now it's 1973, and cops are still the first judges. Her boss, private detective Tom Phelan, sends a former classmate, now a lawyer to represent her.  He has held her job for her, and soon they have a new client. Easy case: one brother looking for his long-lost other brother, but neither brother, not even their client, goes by the same name anymore.  So, running down the lost brother and whether to re-unite them is not so easy. Maybe the red-headed girl--the strange one who sometimes sees things which aren't there...yet and shadows following Delpha, can help somehow. But only Delpha is wise enough to listen.  

Sandlin's previous novel, The Do-Right, also featured Delpha and Tom, and was my top favorite novel of 2015.  Set in her childhood hometown of Beaumont, Texas, Sandlin has commented that her research indicates there are cities where you live longer, but Beaumont shaves time off your life." 

She writes with a southern colloquial style which is both sparse, but dense with atmosphere and evocation. You can feel the humidity, the smell of sweat and poorly conditioned air, the taste of blood, and the pain of heartache.  She also has an uncanny way of making you feel you know the characters, but then revealing a new facet that develops a character further, making them even more intriguing.  The plot moves along at an expected pace while the relationships between the characters take as long as they have to as in real life. 

I love the fact that Delpha is not just Tom's secretary, but with Tom's blessing because he needs the help, has begun taking on more of the investigative work.  Yet, she still lives in a boarding house and washes dishes for the cook and cleans the kitchen for extra money and, because he can't get anyone else reliable to do it.  Why should something that mundane be so important?  If that question doesn't answer itself, then read on.  There just has to be a third and forth volume in this series.

A Friend is a Gift You Give Yourself by William Boyle

After Brooklyn widow Rena Ruggiero is forced to clock her 80-year-old neighbor Enzio in the head with an ashtray when he makes unwanted advances, she believes she's killed him. Taking off in his '62 Impala, she flees to the Bronx home of her estranged daughter, Adrienne, but finds the door slammed in her face. Across the street, Lacey "Wolfie" Wolfstein, a one-time Golden Age porn star and former Suncoast grifter of gullible men with expendable cash, takes Rena in and befriends her. When Lucia, Rena's 15-year-old granddaughter, discovers Adrienne is planning to hit the road with her ex-boyfriend Richie, she decides it's time to get to know her grandmother better. But Richie has massacred a few members of the Brancaccio crime family while stealing a briefcase full of money he believes he has coming, but what else he has coming is the crime family's enforcer, Crea. Rena, Wolfie, and Lucia hide out next door with Wolfie's friend and landlord, her former porn colleague Mo whose sick mother has recently passed away so she's free to hit the road if need be. Well, need be, when Crea arrives and recognizes Enzio's classic car.
I am an easy mark for the quirky as long as the story is carried by relatable emotions, desires, and humanity.  This novel delivers on all those.  The characters and their stories are well-drawn and never quirky for quirky-sake only. As in every Boyle novel I've read so far, his characters though far from perfect, never stop being human.

Above all the crazy action and outrageous situations, the heart of this story is about an unexpected friendship between three women of diverse backgrounds but grounded in a shared bond of survival.


One Good Deed by David Baldacci 

It's 1949. When war veteran Aloysius Archer is released from Carderock Prison, he is sent to Poca City on parole with a short list of do's and a much longer list of don'ts: do report regularly to his parole officer, don't go to bars, don't drink alcohol, do get a job -- and don't ever associate with loose women. The small town quickly proves more complicated and dangerous than Archer's years serving in the war or in prison. His search for gainful employment -- and a stiff drink -- leads him to a local bar, where he is hired for what seems like a simple job: to collect a debt owed to a powerful local businessman, Hank Pittleman. Soon, Archer discovers that recovering the debt won't be so easy. The indebted man has a unwavering grudge against Hank and refuses to pay; Hank's clever mistress has her own designs on Archer; and both Hank and Archer's stern parole officer, Miss Crabtree, are keeping a sharp eye on him. When there's a murder, police suspicions fall on the ex-con, and Archer realizes he might be sent back to prison, if he doesn't track down the real killer.
 
This is a very different sort of novel than Baldacci's usual fare involving government hit men or Bureau special agents.  He transfers his considerable skills to convey an entirely different tone and style evoking the setting, tempo, and time period.
 
Archer has no intention of becoming a detective.  He is nowhere near as world weary or streetwise as one might expect of this type of story.  It was refreshing that he had to feel his way along through the worlds of crime, law, and law enforcement. 
 
His wits are about him, but he must learn as he goes, feeling his way along, tucking away lessons learned from the good guys and the bad guys.  He is never quite certain which of them, if any, have his interests at heart.
 
This ended as if it might be another series for Baldacci.  If so, I'll be scooping as soon as it's available.


The Hiding Place by C.J. Tudor

Joe Thorne, a teacher with a hidden agenda returns to settle scores at a school he once attended, only to uncover a darker secret than he could have imagined. Joe never wanted to come back to Arnhill. After the way things ended with his old gang--the betrayal, the suicide, the murder--and after what happened when his sister went missing, the last thing he wanted to do was return to his hometown. But Joe doesn't have a choice. Because judging by what was done to that poor Morton kid, what happened all those years ago to Joe's sister is happening again.  And only Joe knows who is really at fault. Finessing his way into a teaching job at his former high school is the easy part. Facing off with former friends who are none too happy to have him back in town--while hiding from new enemies he's made in the years since--is tougher.  Because for Joe, the worst moment of his life wasn't the day his sister went missing. It was the day she came back.
 
This one ends up being a gut punch.  As spine-tingling and edge-of-your-seat thriller many of the sections are, the final chapters are gripping and down-to-earth appropriate for the story.
 
Tudor is the author of The Chalk Man, a novel I enjoyed but didn't quite come together in the end.  This one is as intriguing if not more so, and absolutely pays off in the end.  She has a way of making all the emotional threads, some undetected, rise to a crescendo, but then not seem as crucial, as they wouldn't be, as the characters must carry on with their lives.
 
I will definitely go on such a ride again in her next novel.


Miraculum by Steph Post

The year is 1922. The carnival is Pontilliar's Spectacular Star Light Miraculum, set up on the Texas-Louisiana border. One blazing summer night, a mysterious stranger steps out onto the midway, lights a cigarette, and forever changes the world around him.  Tattooed snake charmer Ruby has traveled with her father's carnival for most of her life and, jaded though she is, can't help but be drawn to the tall man in the black suit who joins the carnival as a geek, a man who bites the heads off live chickens. Mercurial and charismatic, Daniel Revont charms everyone he encounters, but his manipulation of Ruby becomes complicated when it no longer becomes clear who is holding all the cards. For all of Daniel's secrets, Ruby has a few of her own.

When one tragedy after another strikes the carnival, and it becomes clear that Daniel is somehow at the center of calamity, Ruby takes it upon herself to discover the mystery of the shadowy man and travels back into her past to discover the extent of her own power. Reunited with Hayden, a roughneck turned mural painter who has recently reentered her life, Ruby enters into a dangerous game with Daniel in which nothing and no one is safe and everything is at stake.

This was a captivating onion of a story with layers to pull back as fast as pages could be turned.  At the core, it is a story of Evil and Good, but the battle lines are drawn by forces beyond the characters in question so they are not always in control of their destinies.

The final act is filled with confrontation and conflagration, and leaves a sense of appropriateness, but without the smugly tied bow of a fairy tale.



The Never Game
by Jeffery Deaver


Deaver adds another intriguing series character to diverge a bit from the meticulous Lincoln Rhyme and the psychological Kathryn Dance in the guise of Colter Shaw, a tracker who survives on the rewards given to him for recovering people and things.

 
A young woman has gone missing in Silicon Valley and her father has offered Colter Shaw a reward for finding her.  He refuses to "work for" any client. The son of a survivalist family, he is an expert tracker.  What seems a simple investigation thrusts him into the dark heart of America's tech hub and the cutthroat billion-dollar video-gaming industry. When another victim is taken, the clues point to one video game with a troubled past--The Whispering Man. In that game, the player has to survive after being abandoned in an inhospitable setting with five random objects. Is a madman bringing the game to life?  Shaw finds himself caught in a cat-and-mouse game, risking his own life to save the victims even as he pursues the kidnapper across both Silicon Valley and the dark net. Encountering eccentric game designers, trigger-happy gamers and ruthless tech titans, he learns that he isn't the only one on the hunt: someone is on the trail and closing fast.
 
Deaver does a fine job of giving out just enough of Shaw's background, personality, and moral ground to make readers willing to go on the hunt, because the crux of the plot is a little obtuse and dispassionate for most people outside the micro-worlds gaming and of gaming tech business.
 
It works, ultimately because Shaw turns out to be a very interesting fellow with much more to reveal in future adventures.

The Whisper Man by Alex North

After the sudden death of his wife, Tom Kennedy believes a fresh start will help him and his young son Jake heal. A new beginning, a new house, a new town. Featherbank. But the town has a dark past. Twenty years ago, a serial killer abducted and murdered five residents. Until Frank Carter was finally caught, he was nicknamed "The Whisper Man," for he would lure his victims out by whispering at their windows at night.  Just as Tom and Jake settle into their new home, a young boy vanishes. His disappearance bears an unnerving resemblance to Frank Carter's crimes, reigniting old rumors that he may have had an accomplice. Now, detectives Amanda Beck and Pete Willis must find the boy before it is too late, even if that means Pete has to revisit his great foe in prison: The Whisper Man. And then Jake begins acting strangely. He hears a whispering at his window, and he's talking to a little girl who may be more than an imaginary playmate.
 
This is a well-plotted story with some surprises along the way which turn an otherwise clichéd template into something with much more investment in character and relationships.
 
Though Tom Kennedy and his son, Jake are the central focus, North does an excellent job of making the subplot a driving force with each of the detectives becoming much more than types.  Amanda Beck appears in his next book.


Mission Control by Mark Greaney

Court Gentry's flight on a CIA transport plane is interrupted when a security team brings a hooded man aboard. The mysterious passenger is being transported to England where a joint CIA/MI6 team will interrogate him about a mole in Langley. When they land at an isolated airbase in the UK, they are attacked by a hostile force that kidnaps the prisoner. Gentry, the lone survivor, is ordered to track down the assassins and rescue the asset. In Virginia, an assault on a CIA safe house leaves dead and wounded agents littering a suburban neighborhood. The object of the attack is Court's former lover, Zoya Zakharova. She escapes, but with a team of killers on her trail. Unbeknownst to Zoya, her father had faked his death to become a deep cover agent for the Russian government under the identity of English businessman David Mars.  He is planning a biological attack on the Five Eyes conference in Scotland with the help of North Korean intelligence agent Janice Won, who specializes in biological warfare and has plans of her own. Zoya and Court meet again while tracking down the story about her father.
 
This was a bit more convoluted as Gray Man novels go, but the relationship between Court and Zoya is worth the time spent.  She is his mirror image, but her influence makes him more human, a better hero, but less ruthlessly effective in his work. Can he survive as the Gray Man if he doesn't feel so alone?  They part with the understanding that they may never see each other again, but neither sounded like they believed it.


How Not to Die Alone by Richard Roper

Andrew's day-to-day life is a little grim, searching for next of kin for those who die alone. Thankfully, he has a loving family waiting for him when he gets home, to help wash the day's cares away. At least, that's what he's led his coworkers to believe. Andrew didn't mean for the misunderstanding to happen, yet he's become trapped in the fantasy of his wife and two kids, a pleasant diversion from his lonely one bedroom with only his Ella Fitzgerald records for company. But when new employee Peggy breezes into his life like a breath, Andrew is shaken out of his routine. Andrew must choose: Does he tell the truth and start really living his life, but risk losing his friendship with Peggy? Or will he stay safe and alone, behind the facade?
 
This book explores the importance of taking a chance in those moments when we have the most to lose. Sharp and funny, warm and real, it's the kind of big-hearted story that is rare.
 
I was fascinated by the main character's job which I had never thought about before, but must have always been a thing as people die alone all the time with no one to take care of the their official affairs and as much as possible, their personal ones as well.  This story takes place in London where the position appears to be a government function, but I can only assume similar agencies exist in other countries.
 
My fascination quickly followed Andrew's life, his fake family mostly conjured to keep from having to socialize with anyone.  His model train hobby was interesting as well especially when  the hobbyists most of whom he only knew online turn out to be closer friends than he expected.
 
Episodes in the book reminded me of uncomfortable sitcom conflicts, but Roper gave his  characters enough humanity to make them tolerable and the resolutions credible.
 
Not sure, I would run out and buy the next Richard Roper book, but this one was something quite different, unique and entertaining.

Special #11:


The Border by Don Winslow

The explosive, sensational conclusion to The Cartel trilogy, Power of the Dog; The Cartel; and now, The Border.
 
Far more informative than any non-fiction expose or scholarly tome, these books are as well researched as any of those, and told with more conviction and intensity.  If you haven't read them, you should give them a shot.  I believe you will not regret it, and you'll gain valuable perspective on a problem that is often in the news but is not easy to understand.
 
For over forty years, Art Keller has been on the front lines of America's longest conflict: The War On Drugs. His obsession to defeat the world's most powerful, wealthy, and lethal kingpin--the godfather of the Sinaloa Cartel, Adan Barrera--has left him bloody and scarred, cost him people he loves, even taken a piece of his soul. Now Keller is elevated to the highest ranks of the DEA, only to find that in destroying one monster he has created thirty more that are wreaking even more chaos and suffering in his beloved Mexico.
 
But not just there. Barrera's final legacy is the heroin epidemic scourging America. Throwing himself into the gap to stem the deadly flow, Keller finds himself surrounded by enemies--men that want to kill him, politicians that want to destroy him, and worse, the unimaginable--an incoming administration that's in bed with the very drug traffickers that Keller is trying to bring down.
 
"What do you do when there are no borders? When the lines you thought existed simply vanish? How do you plant your feet to make a stand when you no longer know what side you're on? The war has come home.
 
Art Keller is at war with not only the cartels, but with his own government. And the long fight has taught him more than he ever imagined. Now, he learns the final lesson--there are no borders. In a story that moves from deserts south of the border to Wall Street, from the slums of Guatemala to the marbled corridors of Washington, D.C., Winslow follows a new generation of narcos, the cops that fight them, the street traffickers, the addicts, the politicians, money-launderers, real-estate moguls and mere children fleeing the violence for the chance of a life in a new country.

Honorable Mentions:

Never Tell by Lisa Gardner
 
The Institute by Stephen King
 
Boxing the Octopus by Tim Maleeny
 
Call Down the Hawk by Maggie Stiefvater