The 10 best books of 2019…so far


The Halfway Mark 

Illustration by Jorge Colombo for EW

A candlepin bowling alley owner. An investigator solving a decades-old crime. An extraordinary, ordinary couple. EW book critics David Canfield and Leah Greenblatt pick titles from 2019’s first half that are populated by distinctive characters and unforgettable stories. (Cutoff: May 31)

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Bowlaway, by Elizabeth McCracken

Leave it to McCracken to flip the epic family saga on its head. Her first novel in nearly two decades, Bowlaway covers a century through its infectiously bizarro portrait of a small New England town, where one indefatigably unusual woman by the name of Bertha Truitt arrives, seemingly from out of the sky, and opens up a candlepin bowling alley. The alley hosts strange but poignant tales of life, death, and love — and sets the stage for a deeply, uniquely American story of rebirth. —David Canfield

Disappearing Earth, by Julia Phillips

In her elegant, ingeniously interwoven debut, Phillips alights chapter by chapter on the various residents of a remote Russian peninsula where two little girls have inexplicably gone missing. As a series of character studies, it’s brilliant: needy tweens, restless young mothers, conflicted lovers. But Phillips never stops tracing Disappearing Earth’s arc, tilting her tapestry toward a singularly satisfying ending to the story’s central mystery. —Leah Greenblatt


Exhalation, by Ted Chiang

Exhalation is science fiction for the purist, placing familiar problems and questions against other­worldly backdrops in an effort to confront some of humanity’s biggest mysteries. But then, that’s what has long made Chiang (the mind behind the film Arrival) such a master of the form. His new collection of nine stories — theming free will and choice, virtual reality and regret — is so provocative, imaginative, and soulful that it makes Black Mirror look drab and dull by comparison. —DC

The Light Years, by Chris Rush

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

You don’t need to have led a fascinating life to write a great memoir. But God, does it help: The Light Years is a lot of things — queer coming-of-age, clear-eyed portrait of a damaged family, Technicolor dive into the depths of ‘60s counterculture — though what beats beneath every disparate thread is the thrum of Rush’s wild, incandescent heart. —LG

Lost Children Archive, by Valeria Luiselli

If the children are our future, what lies ahead for a country that fails them? Luiselli initiates a reckoning in her new novel that pulses with urgency and lingers with timelessness. In experimentally tracing a family road trip to the Southern border, the author audaciously stretches the bounds of storytelling. But Lost Children Archive’s two kids — among the most tenderly, realistically drawn in American fiction — are who make this book unforgettable, down to its explosive final sentence. —DC



Lot, by Bryan Washington

Allow Washington to (re)introduce the city of Houston. At the center of his sprawling literary debut is a young boy: Afro-Latino, struggling with his sexuality, his family barely getting by. He grows up in a place that emerges vibrantly in stories ranging from harrowing to crude to comic. Lot tackles a host of timely issues — gentrification, structural poverty, racism — by illuminating a fresh cast of characters and allowing them to be their full, imperfect, fascinating selves. —DC

Normal People, by Sally Rooney

The advent of a true new literary star is nearly as rare as a comet — and about as dazzling as the impact the 28-year-old (can any mention of her not include that qualifier?) novelist has had on the book world over the past two years. The bones of her sophomore effort are simple: a boy, a girl, the messy dance between them. But the stark intimacy of Normal People’s prose feels like a jolt straight to the solar plexus: astonishingly vivid and real. —LG

Say Nothing, by Patrick Radden Keefe

New Yorker writer Keefe investigates the mechanics of secrecy in Northern Ireland, with the stench of the killings and betrayals of the Troubles still looming over entire communities. Keefe sets out to solve the mystery of what happened to one woman who was abducted in 1972 — and, miraculously, he does — but in the process, through incredible reporting and interviews, Say Nothing also gives readers intimate access to a half century of national conflict and trauma. —DC


Trust Exercise, by Susan Choi

The fever of a first romance; the intoxicating pull of a charismatic teacher; the powder keg of adolescent feeling: Pulitzer Prize finalist Choi (American Woman) captures them all in her tricky, cleverly constructed story of a suburban high school theater troupe and the secrets and lies they tell one another to get by — then undoes half its “truths” in a narrative whipsaw you’ll never see coming. —LG


Vacuum in the Dark, by Jen Beagin 

The heroine of Jen Beagin’s gloriously kooky debut, Pretend I’m Dead, returns — still a house cleaner with severe boundary issues and a penchant for impossible men, now wielding her Windex in Taos, N.M. Mona dreams of more than clearing strangers’ clogged drains and stripping their dirty bedsheets; the Cindy Sherman-esque portraits she takes in her unwitting clients’ homes hint at an artist’s soul. Mostly, though, she’s too busy making her own fantastic mess — one you’ll want to suck up like a, well, you know. —LG


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