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!
My first read of 2019, Sam Taylor’s translation from the French of Retribution Road by Antonin Varenne, and published by MacLehose Press, was a long read which didn’t initially look like my kind of book. But it turned out to be a page-turning treat, encompassing mid-nineteenth century global history, adventure, suspense, the psychology of the impact of trauma and the sociopolitics of the symbiotic relationship of commerce and killing.
Published by Riverrun, A River in the Trees by Jacqueline O’Mahony is another novel with a historical strand; in this case the conflict is the Irish War of Independence. There’s also the contemporary thread about a woman at a crossroads in her life toying with returning to her roots. I loved it for the moral issues (subtly explored) in fighting for freedom and for the beauty of the writing.
History again for Louisa Hall’s Trinity, published by Corsair, is a beautifully written meditation on bombs and betrayal, patriotism and paranoia around the development, deployment and aftermath of the original weapon of mass destruction.
I selected a further two novels about contemporary hostilities, in which a young person convinces herself she can make a helpful contribution:
The Far Field by Madhuri Vijay, published by Grove Atlantic, is a beautifully narrated debut about a privileged young woman who has her fingers burnt by turbulent politics when she travels to a remote part of Kashmir in a vain attempt to recapture the essence of her recently-deceased mother.
Three novels set in the art world, two about painters and a third about cinema and photography:
In the Full Light of the Sun by Clare Clark and published by Virago, is based on real events concerning the possible forgery of van Gogh paintings, is a beautifully written and poignant tale of self-delusion within the art world set in Berlin, with fascism on the rise.
At a party in Berlin, a photographer captures Anna May Wong, Leni Riefenstahl and Marlene Dietrich in the same frame. In her beautifully accomplished debut, Delayed Rays of a Star, published by Bloomsbury, Amanda Lee Koe presents the personalities behind the performance, entwined with the politics of prejudice and the murky world beneath the cinema glitter.
Three novels about family and childhood:
Sally Piper’s debut novel, Grace’s Table, published in the UK by Legend Press, is a gem: developing from pleasurable but undemanding read to an insightful exploration of family dynamics and how past hurts influence our present-day interactions, as our previous selves live on inside us like matryoshka dolls.
A feminist retelling of Beowulf, The Mere Wife, by Maria Dahvana Headley and published by Scribe, is about the light and dark sides of mothering, and how the threat of losing what we cherish can make monsters of us all.
My final pair also feature childhood and family, but in particularly gruelling circumstances:
The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead, and published by Fleet, is a harrowing story of black lives wasted in a brutal reform school in 1960’s Florida, with a surprise ending that packs an emotional punch.
A different kind of harrowing in Beneath the Lion’s Gaze by Maaza Mengiste and published by Vintage: an unflinching, compassionate and heart-rending novel about the impact on, and reaction to, the 1974 Ethiopian revolution in one middle-class family in Addis Abada and their friends and neighbours.
What do you think of my choices? Have you read any of these novels? If so, what did you think? If not, do any take your fancy?
I’ll be back around the end of the year with an overview of the entire year’s reading, but you can sneak a preview via my Goodreads page.
The day after the shock results of the UK general election, I wasn’t in a great place psychologically as I headed off for the Writers’ Studio Christmas Fair. But reading my work, listening to others, selling a few books and being with a great bunch of readers and writers put me in a much better frame of mind.
We each had two five-minute reading slots, for which I chose a short story from my identity-themed collection, Becoming Someone, and a non-glitzy Christmas scene from my second novel, Underneath, about a man who seeks to resolve a relationship crisis by keeping a woman captive in a cellar.
Reading alongside poets inspired me to put a little more performance into my presentation and I was pleasantly surprised how much the audience seemed to enjoy the scene from my creepy character Steve’s childhood when the kids in the school playground are debating whether Santa exists. Maybe, just maybe, I could graduate to open mike.
The authors of Anne’s books of the year take the stage
Furrowed foreheads. Downturned mouths. And not a murmur from the audience as my chosen authors read.
Individually, they were magnificent. Why hadn’t I considered the cumulative effect? People came to enjoy themselves. They didn’t want politics, torture and weapons of mass destruction on a night out.
Hoping to numb the guilt and embarrassment, I sipped my beer. They’d never allow me and my friends onto the open mike stage again.
The final “Thank you!” and the gathering rose to its feet. Thundering applause. Calls for more.
The promoter came over, beaming. “Perfectly pitched! The Resistance movement starts right here!”