The Books

Our 2019 Contenders

Here’s a spreadsheet of the shortlist titles, if you’re into that kind of thing. We get a cut from any purchases made through the list links. Book descriptions are excerpted from publishers’ summaries and edited for length.


America Is Not the Heart by Elaine Castillo

Play-in competitor: How many lives fit in a lifetime? When Hero De Vera arrives in America—haunted by the political upheaval in the Philippines and disowned by her parents—she’s already on her third. Her uncle gives her a fresh start in the Bay Area, and he doesn’t ask about her past. His younger wife knows enough about the might and secrecy of the De Vera family to keep her head down. But their daughter—the first American-born daughter in the family—can’t resist asking Hero about her damaged hands. (Amazon / IndieBound / Powell’s)


Call Me Zebra by Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi

Zebra is the last in a line of anarchists, atheists, and autodidacts. Alone and in exile, she leaves New York for Barcelona, retracing the journey she and her father made from Iran to the United States years ago. Books are her only companions—until she meets Ludo. Their connection is magnetic, and fraught. They push and pull across the Mediterranean, wondering if their love—or lust—can free Zebra from her past. (Amazon / IndieBound / Powell’s)


Census by Jesse Ball

When a widower receives notice from a doctor that he doesn’t have long left to live, he is struck by the question of who will care for his adult son—a son whom he fiercely loves, a boy with Down syndrome. With no recourse in mind, and with a desire to see the country on one last trip, the man signs up as a census taker for a mysterious governmental bureau and leaves town with his son. (As the winner of the 2018 Rooster Summer Reading Challenge, Census receives an automatic berth in the 2019 Tournament of Books.) (Amazon / IndieBound / Powell’s)


The Dictionary of Animal Languages by Heidi Sopinka

Born into a wealthy family in northern England and sent to boarding school, Ivory Frame rebels. She escapes to interwar Paris, where, torn between an intense love affair with a married Russian painter and her ambition to create, Ivory’s life is violently interrupted by the Second World War. She flees from Europe, leaving behind her friends, her art, and her love. Now over 90, Ivory labors on her last, greatest work—a vast account of animal languages. And then unexpected news from the past arrives: She has a grandchild, despite never having had a child of her own. (Amazon / IndieBound / Powell’s)


The Golden State by Lydia Kiesling

Daphne, a young mother on the edge of a breakdown, flees her sensible but strained life in San Francisco for the high desert of Altavista with her toddler, in hopes the quiet will bring clarity. Then Daphne meets Cindy, who is active in a secessionist movement, and the elderly Alice, who has traveled to Altavista as she approaches the end of her life. When her relationships with these women culminate in a dangerous standoff, Daphne must reconcile her inner narrative with the reality of a deeply divided world. (Amazon / IndieBound / Powell’s)


The House of Broken Angels by Luis Alberto Urrea

In his final days, beloved and ailing patriarch Miguel Angel de La Cruz has summoned his entire clan to San Diego for one last legendary birthday party. But as the party approaches, his mother dies, transforming the weekend into a farewell doubleheader. Across two bittersweet days, the revelers celebrate the lives of Miguel and his mother, recounting the many inspiring tales that have passed into family lore, the acts both ordinary and heroic that allowed them to flourish in the land they have come to call home. (Amazon / IndieBound / Powell’s)


The Italian Teacher by Tom Rachman

Conceived while his father, Bear, cavorted around Rome in the 1950s, Pinch learns quickly that Bear’s genius trumps all. After Bear abandons his family, Pinch strives to make himself worthy of his father’s attention—first trying to be a painter himself; then resolving to write his father’s biography; eventually settling, disillusioned, into a job as an Italian teacher in London. But when Bear dies, Pinch hatches a scheme to secure his father’s legacy—and make his own mark on the world. (Amazon / IndieBound / Powell’s)


The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner

It’s 2003 and Romy Hall is at the start of two consecutive life sentences at Stanville Women’s Correctional Facility, deep in California’s Central Valley. Outside is the world from which she has been severed: the San Francisco of her youth and her young son, Jackson. Inside is a new reality: thousands of women hustling for the bare essentials needed to survive; the bluffing and pageantry and casual acts of violence by guards and prisoners alike; and the deadpan absurdities of institutional living. (Amazon / IndieBound / Powell’s)


Milkman by Anna Burns

In an unnamed city, middle sister stands out for the wrong reasons. She reads while walking, for one. And she has been taking French night classes downtown. So when a local paramilitary named Milkman begins pursuing her, she suddenly becomes “interesting,” the last thing she ever wanted to be. Despite middle sister’s attempts to avoid him—and to keep her mother from finding out about her maybe-boyfriend—rumors spread and the threat of violence lingers. (Amazon / IndieBound / Powell’s)


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My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite

Ayoola’s third boyfriend in a row is dead. Thankfully her sister, Korede, knows the best solutions for cleaning blood, has a car with a trunk enough for a body, and keeps Ayoola from posting pictures to Instagram when she should be mourning her boyfriend. Korede has long been in love with a doctor at the hospital where she works. But when he asks Korede for Ayoola’s phone number, she must reckon with what her sister has become and how far she’s willing to go to protect her. (Amazon / IndieBound / Powell’s)


The Overstory by Richard Powers

An Air Force loadmaster in the Vietnam War is shot out of the sky, then saved by falling into a banyan. An artist inherits a hundred years of photographic portraits, all of the same doomed American chestnut. A hard-partying undergraduate in the late 1980s electrocutes herself, dies, and is sent back into life by creatures of air and light. A hearing- and speech-impaired scientist discovers that trees are communicating with one another. All, summoned in different ways, are brought together in a last and violent stand to save the continent’s few remaining acres of virgin forest. (Amazon / IndieBound / Powell’s)


The Parking Lot Attendant by Nafkote Tamirat

On an island where the narrator and her father are the two newest and least liked members of a commune, it quickly becomes clear life here is not as harmonious as the founders intended. Our young heroine takes us back to Boston to recount the events that brought her here. Though she and her father belong to a wide Ethiopian network in the city, they mostly keep to themselves, which is how her father prefers it. This detached existence only makes Ayale’s arrival on the scene more intoxicating. Ostensibly a parking lot attendant, he soon proves to have other projects in the works. (Amazon / IndieBound / Powell’s)


So Lucky by Nicola Griffith

Mara Tagarelli is, professionally, the head of a multimillion-dollar AIDS foundation; personally, she is a committed martial artist. But her life has turned inside out like a sock. She can’t rely on family, her body is letting her down, and friends and colleagues are turning away. She needs to break that narrative: build her own community, learn new strengths, and fight. But what do you do if those around you don’t have your best interests at heart? Mara makes a decision and acts, but her actions unleash monsters aimed squarely at the heart of her new community. (Amazon / IndieBound / Powell’s)


Speak No Evil by Uzodinma Iweala

Play-in competitor: Bound for Harvard in the fall, Niru has a secret: He is queer—an abominable sin to his conservative Nigerian parents. No one knows except Meredith, his best friend. When his father discovers Niru is gay, the fallout is brutal and swift. Coping with troubles of her own, however, Meredith finds she has little left emotionally to offer him. As the two friends struggle to reconcile their desires against the expectations and institutions that seek to define them, they find themselves speeding toward a future more violent and senseless than they can imagine. (Amazon / IndieBound / Powell’s)


A Terrible Country by Keith Gessen

Play-in competitor: When Andrei Kaplan’s older brother Dima insists that Andrei return to Moscow to care for their ailing grandmother, Andrei sublets his room in Brooklyn and moves into the apartment that Stalin himself had given his grandmother. Over the course of a year, as his grandmother’s health declines, Andrei learns to navigate Putin’s Moscow. When he becomes entangled with a group of leftists, Andrei’s politics and his allegiances are tested, and he is forced to come to terms with the Russian society he was born into and the American one he has enjoyed since he was a kid. (Amazon / IndieBound / Powell’s)


There There by Tommy Orange

As we learn the reasons that each person is attending the Big Oakland Powwow, momentum builds toward a conclusion that changes everything. Jacquie Red Feather is newly sober and trying to make it back to the family she left behind in shame. Dene Oxendene is pulling his life back together after his uncle’s death. Opal Viola Victoria Bear Shield has come to watch her nephew Orvil, who has taught himself traditional Indian dance through YouTube videos and will to perform in public for the very first time. There will be glorious communion. And there will be sacrifice, and heroism, and loss. (Amazon / IndieBound / Powell’s)


Warlight by Michael Ondaatje

In 1945, just after World War II, 14-year-old Nathaniel and his older sister, Rachel, stay behind in London when their parents move to Singapore, leaving them in the care of a mysterious figure named The Moth. They suspect he might be a criminal, and they grow both more convinced and less concerned as they come to know his eccentric crew of friends: men and women joined by a shared history of unspecified service during the war, all of whom seem, in some way, determined now to protect, and educate (in rather unusual ways) Rachel and Nathaniel. (Amazon / IndieBound / Powell’s)


Washington Black by Esi Edugyan

George Washington Black, or “Wash,” an 11-year-old field slave on a Barbados sugar plantation, is terrified to be chosen by his master’s brother as his manservant. To his surprise, the eccentric Christopher Wilde turns out to be an abolitionist. But when a man is killed and a bounty is placed on Wash’s head, Christopher and Wash must abandon everything. What follows is their flight along the eastern coast of America, and, finally, to the Arctic. What brings Christopher and Wash together will tear them apart, propelling Wash even further across the globe in search of his true self. (Amazon / IndieBound / Powell’s)