When’s the best time to share the year’s reading highlights? Too early and there’s a risk of omitting an as-yet-unread pinnacle of literary excellence; too late and the post gets lost in the Christmas excitement, panic or lethargy. Last year, I thought I’d cracked it by divvying up my nineteen favourites across four separate posts but, having been slightly more disciplined in my selection this year, I’m posting the whole feast in one go. So, whether it’s a crackerjack or a turkey of a day for social media, here are my thirteen best books of 2019. So far!
Here we have two recently published novels about women caught on camera, or doing the catching, casting a wide-angle lens on the turbulent politics of the first half of the twentieth century, with Fascism on the rise. The first zooms in on movie stars and/or makers: Anna May Wong, Leni Riefenstahl, and Marlene Dietrich. The second on Gerda Taro, a lesser-known (at least to me) feminist photojournalist, who died documenting the Spanish Civil War.
Sometimes, the covers of books I’ve paired for review are so well matched, despite differences in genre, it appears I’ve put them together for aesthetic reasons. But, while I like to dress my blog attractively, it’s the content that counts. These two translated novels fictionalise real-life historical figures who were meticulous observers of the world around them. The first is still celebrated 500 years later; the second has been forgotten in the half-century since her death.
I have no hesitation in recommending both of these literary novels, intriguing stories set against the rise of fascism leading up to the Second World War. The first is a coming-of-age story set in Italy and Libya; the second about vested interests in the art world set in Berlin.
Two novels in which a third adult joins the household of a married couple and forms a strong relationship with one or both partners. Both are set in English villages, but map very different terrain. In the first, a wife befriends a young student, but the relationship turns out not to be as innocent as it first appears. In the second, set between the two world wars, a live-in maid skilfully manages to negotiate between an artist couple’s bickering, but she can’t stop the breakup of the marriage when the husband laps up another woman’s flattery.
I’m here to introduce two novels about girls who become fixated on another girl in childhood and pick up the relationship again as young adults. In the first, set in Vietnam and the USA, the main focus is on the friendship in childhood; in the second, set in New York, the adult obsession is in the foreground. In both books, the main character has a problematic relationship with her mother: in the first, the mother is painfully distant; in the second, mother and daughter are initially enmeshed.
War orphans, bickering spouses, loneliness and our struggles to connect: The Narrow Land by Christine Dwyer Hickey
I wondered, initially, whether the fact that these two short novels include images would be sufficient reason to pair them in a post. But, while different in style, they’re both about identity (among other matters). In the first, a young man uses photographs he has inherited to try to understand the woman who kept them, as his own identity seems to merge with hers. In the second, an older man finds his identity as an illustrator losing out to his role as grandfather.
Excuse me for bridging such different novels, although both are about the challenge of connection, one looking to the future and the other to the past. In the first, translated from the French, a famous artist juggles the contradictions of Christian and Muslim cultures when he’s commissioned to design a bridge between two shores of a capital city. In the second, a teenage boy more comfortable in the virtual world than the human, ends up fighting for his life when he forges stronger connections between the hemispheres of his brain.
I wouldn’t blame you if the opening has put you off my most recently published short story (or the length at over 3000 words) but, if you do choose to read it, you might be able to help me decide where, if anywhere, to take these ideas next.
Can you rewrite your own history and get away with it? That’s what Joseph Silk and Mary Holmes, lead characters in these two new novels, seem to have done. Both have been motivated to avoid traumatic memories – but there are consequences. In Joseph’s case, it’s been the impact on his family; in Mary’s, it’s a lifetime of guilt. Both novels feature a bond between young and old. Both address aspects of the Second World War: Joseph takes his suffering under Nazi-inspired racism in Hungary to his grave; far away in relatively safe Dorset, the backdrop of war pushes Mary to confess. Read my reviews and see whether you sympathise with the decisions they took.
Although I’ve never been sure about novels about writers, I was keen to read these two: the first about an unpublished novelist ghostwriting a memoir and the second about a poet anticipating a different kind of creativity with her first child. Both these fictional writers are brought into close contact with an unexpected other – for the first, the character whose memoir he is writing; the second, another poet who used to live in the town to which she’s recently moved – with life-changing consequences. Both novels explore the nature of the self and the permeability of the boundary with the other (and, incidentally, feature graphic scenes of childbirth). For another novel about a writer, see my review of My Name Is Lucy Barton.
These three novels featuring three fictional celebrities take us from the leader of an anti-establishment artists’ movement in 1930s Australia, to an Arab-Berber boxer in colonial Algeria and to a Nigerian musician and political activist in late 20th-century Kenya. Each illustrates the intertwining of social and psychological issues, and the costs and compromises of fame.
finding truth through fiction
Annecdotal is where real life brushes up against the fictional.
Annecdotist is the blogging persona of Anne Goodwin:
slug-slayer, tramper of moors,
author of three fiction books.
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Anne Goodwin's books on Goodreads
Sugar and Snails
ratings: 52 (avg rating 4.21)
ratings: 60 (avg rating 3.17)
ratings: 9 (avg rating 4.56)
GUD: Greatest Uncommon Denominator, Issue 4
ratings: 9 (avg rating 4.44)
The Best of Fiction on the Web
ratings: 3 (avg rating 4.67)