Tag Archives: Books of the Year 2019

Books of the Year 2019: Part Four

We’re on the home stretch, now, heading towards the end of 2019, and already anticipating the shiny and new in 2020. September, which I like to call late summer stretching that in to October weather permitting, began with Etgar Keret’s Fly Already a collection of twenty punchy, inventive short stories, some no longer than a page or two. A few of Keret’s pieces are disconcerting – more than a little wacky – others are pure comedy, often using humour to make a point, but all are memorable. The complications of humanity are sweetly satirised and even the rich, who come in for some thoroughly justified lampooning, are treated with a sympathetic understanding. It’s a hugely enjoyable collection, full of surprises. I’d not heard of Keret before although I gather he’s acquired an international reputation. Richly deserved, if Fly Already is anything to go by.

October saw two novels that exemplified beautifully crafted, immersive storytelling, the first of which was Ann Patchett’s The Dutch House. It’s the story of an unusual house, almost a work of art, and the obsessions it sparks. It’s also the story of the Conroys, the family whose history is indelibly marked by this house whose huge glass windows leave them exposed to the world. Patchett’s writing is smoothly polished but it’s her storytelling, laced with an elegant wit, that kept me gripped, wondering what would happen to these characters whose lives are hedged around with secrets and silence, who seem to fall under the influence of this house even when trying to resist it. Altogether a treat: a book to curl up with, well turned out, absorbing and satisfying. I would love to have seen it on the Booker longlist, at the very least.

I’m sure the Conroys’ house was as important to them as the eponymous work in Neil Hegarty’s The Jewel was to its creator. Ostensibly the story of an art heist, Hegarty’s novel explores a multitude of themes through the stories of the theft’s three principle players – the thief, the art historian charged with displaying the piece and the specialist called in to help solve the crime. The result is a richly textured novel whose astutely observed characters have all endured tragedy and misfortune. This is Hegarty’s second novel and it did that rare thing: exceeded theCover image high expectations raised by his fine debut, Inch Levels. I’m already looking forward to his third.

November’s favourites were heralded by a book for which I had even higher expectations, and once again they were fulfilled. This year saw the return of the irascible yet essentially warm-hearted Olive Kitteridge, familiar to fans of Elizabeth Strout’s eponymous Pulitzer Prize-winning book published in 2008. Olive, Again takes the same form, comprising thirteen closely-knit short stories in which Olive is often the central character, sometimes a co-star and occasionally a bit-player. Ordinary everyday day life is filled with events unremarkable to others but extraordinary to those who live through them. Epiphanies are had. Time passes. Olive grows old but not always alone. It’s a triumph. I’m deeply suspicious of sequels but delighted that Strout took me back to Crosby to meet Olive again. My hope is that Frances Mcdormand, who was such a thoroughly convincing Olive in HBO’s miniseries, is already practicing her lines.

Karina Sainz Borgo’s It Would Be Night in Caracas tells the story of a woman in a very different set of circumstances. Now middle-aged, Adelaida grew up against a backdrop of the Bolivarian Revolution. Food shortages have become starvation for many and a source of wealth for others. Abductions are commonplace, gunshot frequent, medicine hard to come by and expensive. When an opportunity presents itself, Adelaida finds herself engaged in the unthinkable in a determined effort to escape the city’s mayhem. Borgo’s novel effectively humanises the horrors taking place on the streets of Caracas through the story of one woman. Publishers’ lists are full of dystopian fiction, often depicting post-apocalyptic events, but if you want to see what a real dystopia looks like, this is it. In the here and now

Rather fittingly, given that I’ve read so many of them over the past few years, I’m bringing 2019’s favourites to a close with a novella. Written in clean bright prose Hanne Ørstavik’s Love tells the Cover imagestory of a mother and her son on the eve of his ninth birthday, a milestone she’s forgotten and he’s convinced she’s secretly planning to celebrate. Over the course of a frigid Norwegian night – each of them outdoors, unbeknownst to the other – their paths will almost cross several times, both returning home to a day which will be far from what either of them might have anticipated. Altogether a very polished, powerful piece of writing, beautifully expressed.

And if I had to choose? That would be a challenge I’d rather not take, but if push comes to shove I’d have to plump for The Dutch House, The Jewel and Olive, Again, although don’t ask me to rank them. As ever, the trimming down to just twenty-four was a painful process, particularly dropping Faces on the Tip of my Tongue, Lot and Echoes of the City, all of which are superb. I hope your year has been as filled with literary excellence as mine.

Just one more review to come before devoting the rest of my posting year to looking forward, previewing some of the delights publishers have in store for us in January 2020. In the meantime, all the above titles link to a full review on this blog should you want to know more, and if you’d like to catch up with the first three instalments of 2019’s favourites they’re here, here and here.

Books of the Year 2019: Part Three

Cover image This third instalment covers two months of what was a passably good summer here in the UK beginning with an unexpected treat in July. If you’ve been following this blog for a while you’ll have gathered that Kate Atkinson is one of my favourite writers. In September 2018 we were treated to Transcription then less than a year later Big Sky saw the return of Jackson Brodie after a hiatus of nine years. Jackson’s living in a cottage in his native Yorkshire looking after his teenage son while Julia, Nathan’s mother, finishes off the latest in the TV police procedural series in which she stars. It’s not long before Jackson becomes embroiled in a case that encompasses historical sex abuse, modern day slavery and people trafficking. As with the previous four Brodie novels, Big Sky tackles social issues with a sharp wit and dry humour. Fingers crossed that the BBC have Jason Isaacs lined up for an adaptation.

Rowan Hisayo Buchanan’s debut, Harmless Like You, was one of my books of 2016. I loved it for its poignancy leavened with wry humour, and for the striking images shining brightly from its pages. That same deft writing is evident in Starling Days which follows Mina and Oscar from New York to London where Oscar is hoping Mina will find some distraction from what ails her. Buchanan’s compassionate, empathetic novel explores the effects of mental illness from both sides of a relationship, switching perspectives between Mina and Oscar. It lays bare both the sheer exhaustion of living with the constant worry of what a beloved partner might do to themselves and the relentless debilitation of a disordered mind. Achingly sad at times, it’s an affecting, clearly heartfelt piece of fiction. Fingers crossed it will win the Costa Novel Award for which its been shortlisted.

Four August favourites, the first of which is set against the backdrop of the Bauhaus, the German art school whose designs I’ve long admired and whose centenary year this was. Naomi Wood’s The Hiding Game begins in 1922 with the admission of six students whose lives will become inextricably bound, telling theirCover image story through Paul whose memories are brought vividly into focus by the death of Walter, both friend and enemy. Written in the form of a confessional, it’s a story fraught with betrayal, jealousy and a tortured form of love, a tragedy in which the appalling events of Nazi Germany are personalised. It’s a smart, accomplished piece of fiction, through which Wood lightly weaves her meticulous research.

The next three novels are all published by small publishers although Paul Lynch’s Beyond the Sea is from Oneworld who’ve  bagged not one but two Booker Prizes in the last few years. Written in that spare, pared-back style which I so admire, this intense novella explores themes of faith, madness, survival and existential crisis through the story of two fishermen cast adrift after a dreadful storm. Hector and Bolivar are thrown upon themselves and each other in order to survive. As a bond forms between them, each begins to tell the other about their lives, their secrets and their fears but while Hector sees faith as their saviour, Bolivar puts his trust in resourcefulness.

My second small publisher, Charco Press, is a comparatively new kid on the block, set up to champion Latin American literature in the English-speaking world. Argentinian writer Selva Almada’s The Wind That Lays Waste is the tale of an encounter between a charismatic evangelist and the mechanic who spends much of a long hot day mending his car. Pearson and Gringo are each other’s antithesis: one a passionate believer in God and himself as God’s instrument; the other an atheist, dismissive of religion. As the day wears on, Pearson spots an opportunity resulting in a confrontation which reaches its climax as the skies crack open and the storm breaks. Almada unfolds her story in short chapters written in plain yet evocative often poetic prose, anchoring it in the parched Argentinean outback. The result is a striking, thought-provoking piece of fiction

High summer finished with a collection of short stories whose lovely jacket caught my eye on Cover imageTwitter. Comprising seventeen pieces, Chloe Turner’s Witches Sail in Eggshells is about relationships – with partners, exs and partners of exs, rivals and even old schoolmates – some with disturbing undercurrents, all delivered in nicely polished, insightful prose. There’s not one dud amongst them but you don’t have to take my word for it: the tiny Reflex Press have cleverly put one of Turner’s stories, ‘The Hagstone’, on their website for all to read.

Sadly, the end of my literary summer’s on the horizon and with it the advent of winter although autumn offered some gorgeous colours to distract me from the inevitable. The last quarter of 2019 turned up some of the best titles of the year for me including the story of a family told through the history of their house, the welcome return of Olive Kitteridge and an art heist which is very much more than that. All the above titles link to a full review on this blog should you want to know more, and if you’d like to catch up with the first two quarters they’re here and here.

Books of the Year 2019: Part Two

Cover imageEarly summer, which seems so very long ago now, was packed with literary goodies for me, particularly May which began with A Stranger City, Linda Grant’s portrayal of a post-referendum London through a set of disparate characters brought together by their connection with a woman whose body has been pulled from the Thames. Each character’s story is subtly woven through the others’ into a bright tapestry – some of it ragged and frayed – of a city Grant clearly loves but about which she’s deeply concerned. Her book reveals a London which is always in flux, shaping and reshaping itself to fit the constant flow of people drawn to it – a Brexit novel if ever there was one. I ended Part One by saying I’d try to avoid politics in the next instalment but as you can see, I’ve already failed.

Flotsam, May’s second favourite, is by Meike Ziervogel, the founder of Peirene Press. Set on the German coast in the 1950s, this strange, unsettling book is a beautifully expressed exploration of the legacy of war and the grief it brings through the story of a young girl and her mother. Told in often lyrical yet spare, clean prose, first from Trine’s perspective then Anna’s, it’s the briefest of novellas yet it provokes more thought than many books three times its length. Far from an easy read but certainly a rewarding one, Ziervogel’s book leaves much for readers to deduce and is all the better for it.

Vesna Main’s Good Day? sported the second jacket I fell in love with this year, fitting its book as perfectly as the gloriously pink cover of Aylet Gundar-Goshen’s Liar, which popped up in Part One. Always a joy when publishers use an image which is both strikingly original and appropriate. Main’s Good Day? recounts a daily conversation between a Writer and her Reader, who is also her husband, describing the progress of her novel about a couple whose marriage is strained to breaking point. It’s such a clever piece of writing and a daring one, too. To write a novel almost entirely in dialogue and carry it off as well as Main does requires quite a degree of chutzpah. Thoroughly deserving of its place on this year’s Goldsmiths Prize shortlist.

May’s last choice is much more straightforward, a piece of fictionalised biography which introduced me to a someone I’d never come across but who turned out to be an internationally popular figure. Eva Meijer’s Bird Cottage is based on the life of Len Howard who, aged forty, threw up her life as a violinist in London and took herself off to Sussex to pursue her lifelong passion for birds, determined to devote herself to researching their habits. Using simple, clean prose, Meijer lets her subject tell own story, weaving through it observations of Star, one of Howard’s favourites. A delightful book, the story of a true English eccentric.

June began with another piece of fictionalised biography by Jill Dawson who often chooses that form for her work. When I read that The Language of Birds was based on the notorious Lord Lucan affair my heart sank but far from being a rehash of the infamous murder replete with the usual speculation as to Lucan’s fate, Dawson’s book reimagines the story from the nanny’s perspective. Her careful, compassionate and compelling novel honours Sandra Rivett’s memory, tipping the balance away from a media which reduced her to ‘the lovely young nanny’ rather than a vibrant young woman with a life of her own. For me, it’s one of Dawson’s best, and that’s saying something after The Crime Writer, a wonderful piece of literary fan fiction starring Patricia Highsmith.

Cover image

The first half of 2019’s books of the year ends with Craig Cliff’s The Mannequin Makers, an inventive and imaginative piece of storytelling which takes its readers from 1902 to 1974 with a tale of castaways and mannequins, the like of which had never been seen before. Not just one story but several nested within each other, this is a novel haunted by madness and grief with more than a touch of the gothic brightened with moments of humour. Absolutely gripping – I loved it.

All of the above are linked to my reviews here if you’d like to know more. Part Three takes us into high summer with the return of Jackson Brodie after a nine-year hiatus, a tale of love, jealousy and betrayal in the Bauhaus and another beautiful jacket, perfect for its book’s contents. If you missed the first quarter on 2019’s favourites and would like to catch up, it’s here.

Books of the Year 2019: Part One

It’s that time again. Books of the year lists are being wheeled out right, left and centre. I’d love to tell you I’d managed to trim mine to a single post of gems but I’m not the Cover imagedecisive type so I’m afraid it will be the usual four, falling roughly into quarters, all with links to reviews on this blog. For those of you who think I’ve jumped the gun, I’m still a bookseller at heart, hoping to help out anyone desperate for gift ideas for their book-loving friends.

My reading year got off to a flying start with Oyinkan Braithwaite’s My Sister, the Serial Killer whose premise is irresistible. A woman is about to sit down to supper when her sister calls. She’s killed another man and needs Korede’s peerless cleaning skills. Set in Lagos where Korede is a nurse and Ayoola charms men, My Sister, the Serial Killer is a short, darkly funny novel, an enjoyable caper with a sharp edge and a page-turning pace. I was delighted when it turned up on both the Booker Prize longlist and the Women’s Prize for Fiction shortlist.

Two books stood out for me in February, each very different from the other. Given my country’s preoccupation with Brexit, Robert Menasse’s The Capital was something of a bittersweet read. This sprawling novel takes a sharply satirical view of the European Commission, exploring its many accumulated weaknesses before returning to the founding values which make me want to remain part of the EU’s flawed club. Rather like the institution it’s satirising, Menasse’s novel is not without faults but there’s much to enjoy.

Entirely different, Joan Silber’s carefully constructed Improvement reads almost like a series of tightly linked short stories which explore the ripple effectsCover image of a car accident through a range of sharply observed characters. Silber’s writing is subtly understated leaving her readers to draw their own conclusions. Sadly, Improvement is her only book published here in the UK: all I can say to her publishers is ‘more please’.

Leapfrogging March into April, Laila Lalami’s The Other Americans also explores the fallout from a hit and run accident which kills a Moroccan immigrant who had been running his restaurant in a small Californian desert town for decades. Lalami tells her story in short chapters through a diverse set of characters whose backstories are meticulously sketched in. It’s a quietly powerful novel which seemed to have had less coverage than it deserved here in the UK

The second of April’s treats is a bestseller which left me wondering why I hadn’t already read it. Paolo Cognetti’s beautifully expressed The Eight Mountains is about the friendship between two men who meet as boys when they’re eleven years old: one who has never set foot outside the mountains in which he was born, the other a city boy from Milan whose father yearns for a return to his own mountain roots. It’s a beautiful novel, a testament to friendship and a loving tribute to a challenging but gorgeous landscape.

Cover imageRounding off April’s favourites, Ayelet Gunder-Goshen’s lusciously jacketed Liar tells the story of a seventeen-year-old Tel Aviv girl who becomes caught up in a scandal after an exchange between her and a fading reality TV star is misinterpreted then seized upon by a media hungry for sensation leaving her trapped in an untruth she’s allowed to take root. A thoroughly enjoyable novel with a clear message: lies tend to lead to a deeper deception that can only end in tears. Politicians take note. Rare for a lesson in morality to be delivered with such acuity and style.

There, I seem to have ended 2019’s first quarter with politics, something which I’ve been trying (but failing) to avoid since mid-way through the year when I though I might be about to spontaneously combust with fury. Let’s see if I can stay away from it in the second instalment which will cover May and June.