The Best Books We Read in 2019

From literary fiction to graphic novels, we love to read at Duke University Press! In this post, our staff members share their favorite reads from the past year. We hope you enjoy their suggestions and maybe find a few gift ideas for the holiday season.

Courtney Baker, Book Designer, recommends Delores Phillips’s only novel: “The Darkest Child is a haunting, beautifully crafted story about love, loss, survival, and redemption. This story masterfully weaves together themes of mental health, racism, and poverty, and leaves you wishing there were 50 more chapters to know that it ‘all turns out okay,’ despite knowing the Quinn children will never, ever be okay. I could not put it down and finished it only days after starting it. It’s a difficult read, but worth every minute.”

Charles Brower, Senior Project Editor, recommends the winner of the 2019 Orwell Prize for Political Writing: “My favorite nonfiction book of the year, hands down, is Patrick Radden Keefe’s Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland, which starts as an investigation of a Belfast mother of ten’s disappearance in 1972 after being kidnapped in the middle of the night and dilates to become a history of the Troubles and some of its most striking personalities on all sides. It’s hugely informative but also as gripping and as full of memorable characters as any novel could be.”

Patty Chase, Digital Content Manager, recommends a writer’s yearlong experiment: “Ross Gay’s exquisite collection of short essays The Book of Delights delighted me repeatedly. I strive to express joy and gratitude in as wanton and unabashed a manner as Ross Gay has done in this book’s pages. In the world we live in, I think we could all use a little more delight. I’ll be keeping this book close.”

Jocelyn Dawson, Journals Marketing Manager, recommends two books: “This year I read both of Celeste Ng’s books, Little Fires Everywhere and Everything I Never Told You. Ng’s characters are vividly drawn and the books have a quiet, muted tone but are so absorbing you won’t want to put them down. Highly recommended.”

Joel Luber, Assistant Managing Editor, recommends two graphic novels: “Two of my favorite books this year were the two most recent graphic novels from Tillie Walden, On a Sunbeam and Are You Listening? Both books follow women on fantastical journeys—the first through space in flying fish rockets ships, the second across West Texas chasing magical cats—and ask, ‘Who is family?’ and ‘How are those bonds created?’ At the age of twenty-three, Walden has already written three full-length graphic novels and is the leading voice in a new generation of young graphic novelists who have grown up entirely outside the influence of the super-hero comic book industry. I’m looking forward to what she does next.”

Chris Robinson, Copywriter, recommends a work of historical fiction: “Out of all the books I read this year, the one that stayed with me the most after I finished it was A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James. It’s a massive, sprawling novel that takes on Jamaican social and political history in the ’70s and ’80s—everything from the rise of Bob Marley, gangs, and national politics to the CIA’s covert operations in the Caribbean and Latin America, bauxite mining, and the crack epidemic in NYC in the ’80s. It’s not an easy read—it’s violent, and it teems with characters and unfamiliar slang, but it was so good it ruined the next couple novels I read.”

Dan Ruccia, Marketing Designer, recommends a sci-fi trilogy: “My favorite book(s) of the year were N. K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth Trilogy (The Fifth Season, The Obelisk Gate, and The Stone Sky). She’s a master world-builder, so these books brim with fantastic details that enrich the story. Her narrators are super-conversational, which seems so much like an exception in the fantasy realm. And I loved the way in which she twists and contorts narrative threads in entirely unexpected ways. I devoured all three books in a matter of weeks.”

Nancy Sampson, Production Coordinator, recommends a memoir: “I enjoyed a book from another small publisher called Bobby in Naziland by Robert Rosen. (Full disclosure, he’s a friend of mine.) Rosen applies his dark but sentimental sense of humor to tell tales from his childhood. Rosen shares how his perspective was influenced global and local historic moments during the mid-1950s while he and his family lived in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn, NY.”

Danielle Thibault, Library Sales and Digital Access Coordinator, recommends a New York Times bestseller: “My favorite book I read this year was Mostly Dead Things by Kristen Arnett. A woman in Florida inherits her father’s taxidermy business following his suicide. As her mother begins making lewd taxidermy sculptures and her brother completely withdraws, Jessa-Lynn is forced to grapple with the realization that she doesn’t really know her family. An Entertainment Weekly review called it ‘very Florida, very gay, and very good,’ and I agree!”

Erica Woods, Production Coordinator, recommends a mystery novel: “This year’s favorite for me was Heaven, My Home by Attica Locke. It’s a sequel to her 2017 bestseller Bluebird, Bluebird. Both are fantastic mysteries, yet the real beauty of Locke’s books is how she uses language to describe East Texas. You can’t help but be pulled into the actions and thoughts of Darren Matthews, her very flawed Texas Ranger, who’s trying to stop a race war in small town that barely exists on any map. Definitely go pick it up!”

Thanks to our staff for another year of great reads and recommendations! We look forward to expanding our collective literary minds in 2020.

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