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!
In both these novels, the first set in contemporary New York and Nice and the second in a hypothetical future Tokyo, an older man is looking after a young relative in less than ideal circumstances. In different ways, they illustrate generational interdependence and how the past actions, or inactions, of the older generation have brought about some of the difficulties experienced by the young.
Here are two novels inspired by classic tales: the first, a feminist retelling of Beowulf; the second, a homage to Ulysses and James Joyce. No need to have read the source material to appreciate them – I haven’t – although the first probably works better as a stand-alone than the second.
Only in court are we required to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but. In our ordinary lives, we stretch, bend and turn it inside out. Not always intentionally, or even consciously, but simply to smooth human interactions and present the best version of ourselves. In the first of these two novels, a Wild-West outlaw needs to create an alter ego to survive, while a frontiers woman needs to revise the details of a family tragedy in order to live with herself. In the second, a lie gives a teenage girl a reprieve from loneliness, and an elderly woman a chance to be heard.
Two translated novels in which the return of a beloved family member, after an unexplained absence, irrevocably alters the situation for those left behind. In the first, the wanderer is a younger brother who left Paris for Syria; in the second, it’s a father who has abandoned his son at their home on an island in the Bay of Naples. Both novels are narrated from the perspective of a motherless male.
Two novels featuring mothers who leave a child/children when they’re still quite young, following the implications over several years. In the first, the narrator doesn’t know why his mother has disappeared, or even whether she’s still alive, and claims not to miss her as his older sister fills the gap where the mother belongs. The second is a dual narrative from the perspective of both mother and daughter as each suffers, in different ways, from the mother’s decision to leave Jamaica for New York. The theme gives me an excuse to sound off about attachment and share some of my own fiction, including a new 99-word story.
Here are two novels in which the narrator looks back on past connections: the first a coming-of-age tale during Ireland’s electrification; the second a writer’s stream-of-consciousness(ish) look at her Tunisian roots. The colour-coordinated covers is pure coincidence. This week’s 99-word story in response to the prompt ‘the greatest gift’ follows my reviews.
Two novels about marginalised people, the first actually about travellers – or tinkers as the often refer to themselves in this novel – in Scotland; the second about migrants from Africa in Europe, beginning in Berlin. My reviews are followed by this week’s 99-word story prompted by the Carrot Ranch.
Two historical novels about the fight for political reform, in which a peaceful gathering of protesters is savagely put down. The first is about the Palestinian people’s struggle for independence in the years between the two world wars. The second is set in Britain a century earlier and focuses on the working-class battle for basic human rights. Of course, both are packed with interesting characters too!
Two novels – the first set in Australia, the second in Syria – in which a family marks a milestone. While in the first it’s to celebrate a birthday in a city troubled by nothing more than a refuse workers strike and in the second it’s a burial in a war zone, I found both to be honest and unflinching portrayals of today’s world, and how we got here.
It’s a touchy subject, understandably, but I think there are ‘good’ psychological reasons by some women kill their babies. But the mothers in these two novels would very much have liked to have kept theirs had circumstances allowed. In the first, set in a bruised post-war Japan, Naoko is sent to an extremely dodgy maternity home when she becomes pregnant by an American sailor. In the second, set between 1860 and 1910, the women on a Maryland plantation will do anything to avoid their children growing up as slaves.
Two gripping novels that begin with an unexpected death in the family: in the first, set in Scotland, it’s the main character’s niece; in the second, set in Australia, it’s the protagonist’s brother. In both cases, the evidence points to suicide, until the deceased’s relatives start poking around. Both protagonists discover more than they bargained for but nevertheless benefit from confronting the truth. Both novels are also about male violence and sibling rivalry.
Two novels in which a marriage of a twenty-something man and woman from superficially similar backgrounds shows early signs of strain. In the first, between Muslims in contemporary London, the politics of religion are problematic right from the start; in the second, life gets tough when a new mother follows her journalist husband to a posting in newly-independent Ukraine. All harbour secrets, communication suffers and trust is hard to find. But, with youth on their side, they’ll take something from the experience, whether or not the marriages survive.
Two novels from continental America inspired – if that’s not too optimistic a term for the subject matter – by the authors’ own challenging childhoods with parents who weren’t up to the job. Both girls had a brother, a partially-absent father, a determined mother and grandmother with whom she didn’t see eye to eye. Both learnt early about gender discrimination; both lived in relatively comfortable households on the fringes of marginalised communities (with Native Americans as neighbours in the first novel, set in Dakota, and refugees from repressive South American regimes in the second, set in Mexico). Some say a difficult childhood is the ideal apprenticeship for a writer. Read on, and see what you think!
Two novels, set primarily in the continent of Africa, in which women are separated from a child and must resort to looking on from a distance. In the first, set in Egypt, Bodour can’t admit that a famous singer is her illegitimate child. But at least they’re in the same city. And both alive. Which is not the case in the second novel, set in Jamaica, the USA and Liberia, where the deceased mother’s voice is carried on the wind. So she does get to guide her son and his two companions, all of whom have supernatural gifts. Intrigued? Read on!
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.
Two novels about girls in the painful process of growing up. For Australian Justine, in the first novel, adolescence merely exacerbates a lifetime of neglect; for Irish Lani, in the second, it’s the begins of psychological separation from her family as she falls for a local boy.
Like many words, the meaning of epic has evolved and seems to be applied to various incarnations of big. Both of these novels have been described by others (in the endorsements) as epic: the first, I think for its geographical scope (and, combined with its big brother, can be considered so in length); the second for its length and sweep of history and character.
Enid is a Scottish aristocrat who has married ‘down’; Adèle a working-class Parisian who married into the bourgeoisie. Enid considers sex a painful duty; Adèle is sex obsessed. For Enid, work is for men and servants; Adèle has a job. Born almost a century apart, the ‘heroines’ of these debuts nevertheless have similar motivations: both have been emotionally neglected by their own mothers and feel shackled by marriage and motherhood.
finding truth through fiction
events coming soon:
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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