Here in no particular order are the books I most enjoyed reading in 2019. (Although in some cases, the books that affected me most were not always enjoyable.)
The price of salt – Patricia Highsmith
I have seen the movie Carol which was based on this book, and so I couldn’t help but picture Cate Blanchett as Carol. The book was beautifully written, describing the Thereze’s dull day to day life until she meets the glamourous Carol. Thereze seems to be a guest or observer in her own life, moving on without any push or drive (although with the book being set in the 1950s, the options for women to be in the driving seat were probably few). I felt cocooned in a bubble while reading this book, a little like wearing noise reducing headphones, or being sat in a plush sofa in a very quiet, very fancy hotel.
Drive your plow over the bones of the dead – Olga Tokarczuk
Not just the motto of my employer (haha!) but also a book title. The book is set in rural Poland, in a town so remote the most reliable phone signal comes from across the border in Slovakia. In the midst of a truly bleak midwinter, people are being murdered, and it looks like the animals are responsible. Are the animals finally striking back against the hunters? Janina, a kind of literary eco-witch who lives in the village, believes that is the case. But what does she know? She’s just a crazy old woman. Or is she?
Rivers of London – Ben Aaronovitch
A kind of Harry Potter for the police – the Rivers of London series describes the workings of London Metropolitan Police’s secret division for dealing with crimes of magic. New policemen Peter Grant finds himself assigned to this division when the main witness to a murder turns out to be a ghost. Caught between evil and mystical and a battle between the warring clans of the River Thames family, this book is a good fun read. And if you like it, there’s a whole series to follow.
All the worlds a stage – Boris Akunin
If you’re a fan of Sherlock Holmes or Agatha Christie but are not familiar with Boris Akunin’s Erast Fandorin mystery series, then you should be. After a few recent books in the Erast Fandorin series not living up to expectations, All the worlds… follows on from The Diamond Chariot to demonstrate that Akunin has clearly got his Fandorin mojo back on track, as Fandorin finds himself embroiled in a murder at the theatre, and – perhaps ruinously – in love with the leading lady. Twists and turns of plot leave you unsure right to the end. With every Fandorin novel, we creep closer to the 1917 Russian Revolution – and where will that leave the clever investigator?
A little life – Hanya Yanagihara
“Don’t be afraid of the size of the book,” the man at the bookshop said when I bought it. “Once you get into it, you won’t want to put it down.” He was right. Although A Little Life is anything but little in weight, I was drawn in quickly, and once I realised that Jude was the key to the group of four friends everything became more clear. This book had me in tears more than once, so horrified by what I read that I almost felt sick, and I found myself worrying about the characters while I was at work and waiting for my evening commute so I could find out what happened next. At times difficult, at times beautifully life affirming, this book will stay with me for a long time.
Eleanor Oliphant is completely fine – Gail Honeyman
Another book that was difficult to read in parts, but which made up for it in Eleanor’s anthropologic observations of regular human interactions. Eleanor lives her life completely alone, self medicating with vodka to get through the lonely weekends. She doesn’t interact well with others – in fact she doesn’t understand many of the basics of human interaction. As the book goes on and you get glimpses of her earlier life, you understand why she is this way. And the book provides a reminder about why we should be nice to people who appear a little odd – you never know what is going on behind.
How to own the room: Women and the Art of Brilliant Speaking – Viv Groskop
A practical guide for women on how to improve your public speaking skills. Easy to read and full of useful examples and providing a diversity of public speaking women examples for you to look up. The book is targeted at those who think they can’t do it – providing stepping stones and exercises you can use to challenge yourself to improve.
West with the night – Beryl Markham
Perhaps it was because I read it in the weeks before I headed to Africa on holiday, but I really enjoyed this book. The writing style took me into another world, an African world, a colonial world. (Beryl Markham was a contemporary of Isak Dinesen of Out of Africa fame; and in fact some of her stories reference Denys Finch-Hatton and “Blix” – Baron Blixen.) A collection of stories rather than a novel, the book describes Beryl’s life in Kenya, from her days training race horses through to becoming a pilot, and all interwoven with descriptions of the African people and landscape.
The Humans – Matt Haig
An alien has been sent to earth to take over a human being with the goal of stopping this planet of violent and ignorant lifeforms from gaining more knowledge and power than they are capable of handling. But the longer the alien stays on earth, the more he is affected by these ignorant lifeforms, and the more in danger his mission becomes.
In addition to these recommended reads, I would add one book as a disappointment.
The Museum of Innocence – Orhan Pamuk
This was recommended to me as a book about Istanbul, and it is. But mostly it’s about a rich, privileged man who is engaged to a rich, privileged woman and who should go on having a rich, privileged life. Except he falls for a poor but beautiful distant relative. And his obsession with this girl then destroys everything around him. I am only halfway through this book but I am fed up with the main character’s obsession and need to have things that once belonged to his love, no matter how banal. A ruler she used in her exams, a glass she once drank tea from, a paperweight she once held in her hand while they were talking – he gathers all these things together into his “museum” and there he sits and wallows in his unhealthy obsession. Unhappily I have invested too much time in reading this book so far so be able to stop now so I will finish it some time in 2020. Maybe the second half will improve and I will stand corrected; but as things stand now, this book is definitely not recommended.