To select twenty-five best reads might sound easy, but it’s really not when you’ve read over eighty books in total that year. However I always enjoy giving it a go as it’s a pleasure to re-visit the year’s finds. I also like cheating; finding ways to include more books than I’ve allowed myself! Bear with me and I hope you find something new to devour during 2020.
1.One of the books I read way back in January has stayed with me throughout the year; Wolf Border by Sarah Hall. Published in 2015, and set amidst the vote for Scottish Independence, this is a story about the re-introduction of wolves to Cumbria. It’s wonderfully atmospheric, with a great cast of characters and issues which are very much of this time.
2.Thanks to living in Edinburgh and spending most of August at our wonderful book festival, I get to see some great writers talking about their latest books. I admit I had not read any Jeanette Winterson before this year, but Frankissstein is a brilliant read; funny, dark, a modern retelling of Mary Shelley’s classic with transgender characters, cryogenics and sex bots. What’s not to like?
3.But my favourite general fiction book of the year was last year’s booker prize winner The Milkman by Anna Burns. Anyone who remembers ‘the troubles’ should read this truly authentic, chilling book.
Funniest book of the year
4 Having discovered Jeanette Winterson, I immediately bought and read Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit. I’d been put off this for years thinking it would be a harrowing read, but it’s truly not. Who would have thought a tale of being brought up in a fundamentalist Christian sect and discovering you are a lesbian could in any way be funny? This is. It’s hilarious.
5. And I also finally got around to reading Holly McNeish, No-one Told Me. This book of poetry about motherhood had me laughing so hard I cried. It’s good. It’s really good. Even if you hate poetry, you’ll love this. Plum is also great; I defy anyone to read the poem about wanking with a full bladder and not feel challenged.
6. Both of the above funnies probably also count as autobiographies in some sense, but I found myself reading several other autobiographies this year, mostly thanks to the marvellous Ullapool Book Festival. The best of these was The World I Fell Out Of by Melanie Reid. Melanie was a fit, active woman until she fell off her horse and became paralysed from the neck down. This is a moving, honest and often funny account of her coming to terms with her new life.
Best historical fiction
7. Historical fiction is not my usual genre, but again Ullapool Book Festival changed my mind. Sally Magnusson was there talking about her first novel The Sealwoman’s gift, and as this was based on a true event which had taken place somewhere I had recently visited – Vestmannaeyjar (Westman Islands) off the coast of Iceland, I was hooked. In 1627 Barbary pirates raided Heimaey and abducted 400 people to be sold as slaves in North Africa. I was particularly intrigued by this story as I knew that Westman Islands were named after Irish people enslaved by Vikings. (Ireland being west of Norway). Anyway this book is so colourful, so gripping. Told by one of the women sold into slavery, it also draws on Icelandic sagas and is very much about story-telling. Also, if you enjoy this retelling of a harsh period of Icelandic history, don’t miss Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites, a retelling of the last woman to be condemned to death in Iceland. Reading these two books close together was an interesting experience!
8. Dear Mrs Bird by AJ Pearce. This wonderful book could’ve fitted in many categories, including funniest book, but I’m putting it here because it is so evocative of London during the 1940s. A young woman who is desperate to become a proper journalist, ends up working for an agony aunt but fundamentally disagreeing with her advice. Surreptitiously she starts to give her own suggestions to the young women who write in. You know it’s all going to go horribly wrong, and of course it does. Read on to find out how it all works out in the end. It reminded me quite a bit of Transcription by Kate Atkinson, which I also read this year, but Dear Mrs Bird is, in my opinion, so much better. I usually adore Kate Atkinson, but this book just didn’t work for me – the ending was just not believable.
9. Even though this year I have, as always, read at least one Stephen King book (The Outsider) and even though his latest releases see him return to his early, concise form, my favourite horror of the year was by MR Carey, Someone Like Me. In fact in my Goodread’s review , I refer to him as ‘The new Stephen King.’ This is the second book of his where I think his child protagonist voice is really authentic. (He also wrote The Girl with All the Gifts)
10. Less horror, more creepy was the latest offering from Michelle Paver, Wakenhyrst. Her genius is in choosing seriously spooky settings; this time it’s the Norfolk Fens. (Previous books have been set in the Arctic and the Himalayas, and I mention them in my blog Time to Shiver.)
Best short fiction
11. Joe Hill is now one of my go to horror writers, but I’m not desperately fond of short stories so I wasn’t sure I’d enjoy Strange Weather. But these stories, all linked by some weather phenomenon, are all tremendously good. Rich and satisfying, as intricate as full length novels. Highly recommended.
12. I did not read as much crime this year as I usually would, and in fact the authors I read were all new discoveries (for me, anyway). Jane Harper, who sets her crime novels in the Australian outback, came to my attention last year; in fact she topped my best crime reads in last year’s list. So when The Lost Man was released I snapped it up straight away. This is her third novel, and they get better and better. Go and find her stuff if you haven’t done so already.
13. I also discovered Tana French this year, through the Wych Elm, a psychological who and whydunnit. Her Dublin Murders have just been serialised on TV so she’s obviously on the up.
14. I’ll just mention Louise Doughty’s Platform Seven. It’s narrated by a ghost who haunts Peterborough Railway Station and who wants to find out why she died. It’s an interesting take on the genre.
15. A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder by Holly Jackson could equally have been one of my best crime novels. I’ve always wondered if you could write a crime novel with a teenage detective without it being a bit Enid Blyton or Scooby Doo. Holly Jackson pulls it off, having a teenager investigate a murder which the police believe they’ve already solved. A serious whodunnit, with lots of jeopardy, ticking clocks, a whole host of suspects.
16. Another YA novel this year which stood out as being totally different was Orphan, Monster Spy, the debut novel by Matt Killeen. (I’m hoping to interview him early next year for my Creative Space series… watch this space!) Set during the second world war, the protagonist is Sarah, a fifteen year old German Jew turned spy who inflitrates a boarding school for the Nazi elite. I reviewed it back in April and it’s still with me.
Best middle grade
17. The lost magician by Piers Torday is a must read for fans of Narnia. It’s a homage to the Lion, Witch and the Wardrobe, only in this book you enter the alternative world through a library, where the forces of good and evil might have been fact versus fiction but in fact turn out to be ignorance versus knowledge. I also adore the tweaking of CS Lewis’s patriarchal attitudes (of his time) so that Larry (Edmund) discovers it’s ok to be a cissy… This book has such heart in it, as well as wonderful story telling and brilliant ideas, it was truly a book that will stay with me for a long time.
18. Another book which will not leave me – again full of heart, with brilliant story telling, was Wonder by RJ Palacio. Although this is marketed as middle grade, I truly think it can be enjoyed by all ages, and I defy you not to cry. Several times.
New books long awaited
19. I can’t really fail to mention The Testaments by Margaret Atwood, can I? I enjoyed this revisiting of the world of the Handmaid’s Tale. Interesting that this book, although not part of the TV adaptation, does incorporate elements from that series (Baby Nicole for instance). I think Margaret Atwood has done a really great job with this, giving us something new and fresh, and without detracting from the book or the TV series. But I also have to say that I don’t think it deserved the Booker. A good book, yes, but I fear the judges awarded the prize to the person and not the book – which goes totally against the spirit of that prize.
20. The Book of Dust Book 2: The Secret Commonwealth. Oh boy, but is Phillip Pullman a great story teller. This book is awesome. It deserves to be savoured. I was lucky to read it on holiday when I could spend all afternoon absorbing the ideas in just one small part of this huge tale. The book of dust 1 was very much a middle grade book in tone, style and content, but this, book 2, is back to Amber Spyglass complexity. However…. it does finish on not just one, but several cliff-hangers. In fact none of the multiple plot lines are resolved. My suggestion is to wait until book 3 appears before reading this as you’re only going to have to read it all over again first.
Books new to me which I should’ve read years ago
21. The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber. Ok so I adore Michel Faber. Under the Skin is one of my favourite books of all time. But I’ve put off reading this one, daunted by the length. Anyway it was historical fiction, so maybe not as exciting as his other, weirder stuff? Wrong! It’s flipping marvellous. Feminist Dickens with rude bits. Seriously though it’s a tour de force.
22. The Secret History by Donna Tartt. Yes I know. I should’ve read this one years ago. After all I’ve read the introduction several times in creative writing Classes, as a prime example of a brilliant opener. But what can I say? So many books, so little time, and if they’re huge, it requires investment. Somehow I found that time this year and am so glad I did. Try it if you haven’t; you’ll zip through it.
23. The Testament of Gideon Mack by James Robertson. Why did I put off reading this one? I adore James Robertson – And the Land Lay Still is one of my all time favourites, and To Be Continued was laugh out loud funny. I think it was the title.. and the premise…( Scottish Minister meets the Devil and has crisis of conscience) .. it didn’t appeal. But I’d put off reading The Professor of Truth until last year for the similar reasons; thinking that a book about a parent of a child killed at Lockerbie would not be my thing, but it was. So I vowed to tackle Gideon Mack this year, and I was glad I did. James Robertson is another writer who is full of heart, with genuine characters you really root for, whoever they are.
Best non-fiction/ books about writing
24. I have blogged ad infinitum this year about Save the Cat Writes a Novel by Jessica Brody, but if you are tackling a novel, this book will be a great help. My copy is full of book marks and looks decidedly worse for wear, even though it’s only a few months old.
25. I also enjoyed Jane Austen, the Secret Radical by Helena Kennedy. This is a reassessment of her life and works, showing how and why Helena Kennedy believes Jane Austen was actually a great radical thinker and writer, but the political elements of her texts have been lost through time. Whether or not it’s true, and I’m inclined to believe it, this is a great re-examination of her works.
And so… which was overall best, most awesome, book of 2019?
It’s interesting that the two books I am torn between are both theoretically books for children – The Book of Dust 2: The Secret Commonwealth and Wonder. In the end, much though I enjoyed the second of the new Phillip Pullman trilogy, the fact that it leaves nothing resolved does mar it slightly for me, and so, the winner, is Wonder by RJ Palacio.