It’s next to impossible to believe that we’ve come to the end of yet another year. 2019 has seen its share of ups and downs, without question, but while the downs have seemed overwhelming at times, there has always been the books. It’s always about the books and how much joy they bring us, and how they offer us those small quiet moments in the course of otherwise hectic days.
This year was an absolute embarrassment of riches for me. I discovered both new authors and returned to old, and I fell in love with characters I met for the first time as well as revisited those who have been familiar to me for some time now. Some of these titles I’ve already had the pleasure of sharing with Jeff Adams and Will Knauss on the Big Gay Fiction Podcast, but without further ado, here is the list in its full and fabulous glory.
Lisa’s Best of 2019
The Hanged Man (Tarot Sequence: Book Two) by KD Edwards – Edwards is such a proficient strategist and a consummate storyteller, and The Hanged Man does nothing but reinforce my belief of this. From the laying out of the history of New Atlantis, to every aspect of who Rune is, to the quest he rushes headlong into to face down an objectively evil foe. If Rune is to bring down the Hanged Man, he must not only play the game of politics but he must master it on the fly, even if it may be against the wishes of the Tower—Rune’s benefactor, surrogate father figure, and, inarguably, the most powerful and dangerous player in the game—and the author succeeds to the absolute benefit of his readers. This series encompasses a tour de force of imagination, action and danger, and it is top notch. I don’t often make such declarations because so much of the love of a book is ‘in the moment’, but this one is easily a contender for the best book I’ve read all year.
The Rational Faculty (Hazard and Somerset: The Union of Swords Book One) by Gregory Ashe – Ashe didn’t put a bright romantic spin on things in this novel, falling in love didn’t fix everything for Hazard and Somerset, and rightfully so. As a result, and as has always been the case for them, their personal struggles exist alongside the murder investigation rather than one superseding the other. The problem with attempting to write a review for a Gregory Ashe novel is the inability to find the proper words to describe the density and complexity of his storytelling. It encompasses so many aspects which all vie for equal attention—humor, pathos, suspense, action, love, murder and mayhem, danger, corruption, and on and on—yet the cumulative details never feel cumbersome or insincere or unrealistic. It’s a balancing act that is achieved, with precision, every time. These characters and the series itself are the pinnacle of the Mystery genre as far as I’m concerned, and Ashe has yet to disappoint.
Carved in Bone (Henry Rios Mysteries (Book Two/Eight) by Michael Nava – That Henry Rios was introduced more than thirty years ago, and that his character still resonates with audiences today, is a testament to the timelessness and relevance of his stories as well as to the author’s storytelling acumen and the sympathy Nava builds between reader and character. The alchemy of emotions that can change a person for better or worse are commonalities of a human condition that bridges differences. The setting of the story is an homage to a San Francisco both past and present, to her unique landscape and the diversity of her people. The Painted Ladies, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Castro, and her vibrancy come alive and provide the backdrop for a mournful time in history. A painful time that echoes across the years and lives on in the memories of those who survived and in the journals and stories of those who didn’t. Carved in Bone goes straight for the emotional jugular. And Nava’s aim is true.
Ziggy, Stardust & Me by James Brandon – Ziggy, Stardust and Me is author James Brandon’s debut novel, and it is a stellar entry that has left its mark on me in the way only a book can. Jonathan broke my heart a little on more than a few occasions, and then James Brandon put it back together again. There are so many different aspects that recommend this book on their own: the characters, their story, the healing, the setting, the author’s voice—which is expressive and so easy to become lost in. And, the fact that Brandon never forgets he’s writing the story from a teenager’s point of view was key. There is nothing that distances me from a Young Adult novel quicker than the teenage characters coming across as unauthentic and contrived; the author not only pays respect to his audience, but he does so with an attention to the integrity of the time the story takes place, and it all came together superbly.
A Crown of Iron & Silver (Soulbound: Book Three) by Hailey Turner – Any author who dedicates their word count to the fae and the old gods—and does so with an obvious appreciation for the rich robustness of the source material—gets bonus points for keeping those legends alive in all their forms. That Turner has summoned these characters into a setting that straddles the urban, the rugged natural landscapes of the isles, and the time-out-of-time Otherworld, thrusting the characters into battle scenes with creatures both dead and alive, gods and monsters alike, and that raised my blood pressure considerably, is a masterstroke of storytelling. It’s one of the feats that has been carried out so religiously through these first three novels, this knack for drawing readers into adrenaline-pumping situations while simultaneously exploring the characters and their relationship to each other in a way that means bonds and found family and, of course, love and affection and loyalty and trust. Hailey Turner gives such great diction. Every scene manifests into something beautiful, and that’s wholly attributed to her ability to turn a phrase. A Crown of Iron & Silver is a must-read book in a must-read series.
The Marked Prince (The Darkest Court: Book Two) by MA Grant – Laid out in an elegant prose, Grant draws readers into this story by the heart, gives us two heroes to support, to suffer the sting of failure with, and to celebrate with. The world-building in this series is as vital to its scenery as it is to its characterizations and the inner-workings of the Winter and Summer realms. The emotion wrung from Duine’s storyline is significant, but it does not overshadow the secrets that surround Sebastian and how his lineage influences their story. There are wins and losses, and the revelations are exquisite, rendered in sometimes excruciating but often poignant ways. In the end, there is home and people who are loyal, the alchemy of faith and a steadfast devotion, and the promise of a deep and abiding love is fulfilled.
I am utterly infatuated with this series and cannot wait for the next book, even knowing that it will be the last.
The Mysterious and Amazing Blue Billings (Black & Blue: Book One) by Lily Morton – The Mysterious and Amazing Blue Billings is an absolute flex. Lily Morton set out to do something a little different with this novel, and she succeeded in spades while still maintaining all the wonders that make a Lily Morton book a Lily Morton book. There is a plenitude of charm, cheek, humor and attitude present between Levi and Blue, as one who’s familiar with this author’s previous works would expect, but the difference-maker here is that it’s also mixed up with some seriously satisfying spooks.
There is absolutely nothing that didn’t satisfy me and my love of the paranormal in this first book of the Black and Blue series. Levi’s and Blue’s backstories come to bear on every facet of the storyline as well as, yes, that of the ghosts, as they are each integral to Levi and Blue’s relationship and to the murderous nature of the house and the secrets hidden within its framework. There are several characters I hope will make appearances in future stories, among them Blue’s best friend, Will (oh, who am I kidding, he just needs his own book), and his new employer, Tom, along with one particularly spectral character, in what promises to be a fun and now much anticipated new venture for the author.
Spellbound (Magic in Manhattan: Book One) by Allie Therin – Author Allie Therin introduces a world of magic within the mundane in Spellbound, book one in the Magic in Manhattan series, in a 1925 New York City which is alive and vibrant, a post-World War I urban landscape where underground speakeasies once skirted the prohibition laws to deliver entertainment to those who sought it out, and the city is a character in itself. Mrs. Brodigan’s antiques shop in Hell’s Kitchen provides the backdrop for the opening scene and the introduction to the supernatural elements that Therin then spends the rest of the novel building upon, through Manhattan and Central Park and Harlem and Brooklyn, until she ended up crafting the absolute perfect paranormal novel.
Spellbound not only lived up to the hype but exceeded any preconceived notions I might have had going into it. My only regret was that it ended. It is exactly my kind of perfect, its historical backdrop detailed to precision, Therin’s storytelling transportive, and its characters a diverse and delightful mix of wonderful.
Birthday by Meredith Russo – Author Meredith Russo has delivered another win with her sophomore release, a story of lifelong best friends, a coming-of-age story, a coming-to-terms story, and a story of the courage to face, and then live, one’s own truth in a rural Tennessee town. For those who have read If I Was Your Girl, let me assure you that while Birthday highlights and addresses some of the same truths about being a transgender teen just trying to live her life in an unforgiving climate, the perspective of this novel is unique to itself. It is no less gorgeous than Russo’s debut, but it is not at all a retelling of the same story.
Through years of Morgan’s rejection of her true Self—through hating the body she was born with, hating herself for the thoughts about who she truly was, punishing herself for not being the son her father wanted and her mother expected she would grow up to be, and on to realizing she’s deeply in love with Eric, this story is gorgeous and transcends the boundaries of its Teen Fiction label.
Keep This to Yourself by Tom Ryan – Set in a small coastal town rocked by a series of premeditated and gruesome murders a year ago, author Tom Ryan communicates a perceptible sense of loss of innocence and the lingering insecurity born of the violence that upended the quiet and quaint lives of Camera Cove’s residents—including the four teens who have tried to come to terms with the death of their childhood best friend, Connor. The town wants, and needs, to find a new normal, to move forward rather than linger in the darkest moment in its history, but the killer was never found. Justice was never served. And closure is made more difficult without answers. At least, that’s the case for Mac Bell.
Mac’s narration and the present-tense delivery of this story offers up a sense of immediacy to what can fairly be termed his lingering obsession with Connor’s death. Keep This to Yourself is some outstanding Young Adult fiction and a fantastic whodunit.