I immensely enjoyed almost all books that I read from this year. By far, Deborah Levy’s The Man Who Saw Everything (Hamish Hamilton) was my favourite. Very close behind was Ann Patchett’s The Dutch House (Bloomsbury), which I picked after reading Cardellina’s enthusiastic comments. I’m so grateful for it because I absolutely loved it … a stunning novel.
The second book in Philip Pullman’s Book of Dust trilogy, The Secret Commonwealth (Penguin/David Fickling) picks up the story of Lyra, her daemon Pantalaimon, Malcolm and others 20 years after Lord Asriel left Lyra at Jordan College under “scholastic sanctuary”. Lyra’s adventures continue in the complex and detailed worlds Pullman has created. Beautifully written, the story brings you to tears. Eagerly anticipating the third book. IsisWalnut
This Life by Martin Hägglund (Profile) challenged my beliefs. The Swedish professor of literature outlines his philosophy of life using literary memoirs by Augustine, Proust and Knausgaard as sources. He claims that true freedom is about how we choose to spend our limited time while we are alive; contrasting this with religious ideas of an eternal afterlife that undermine the value we place on this life … Given the climate emergency, and the failure of capitalism to respond quickly enough, the time seems ripe for a radical rethink of how we live. rgilyead
No trouble making a choice this year: The Five by Hallie Rubenhold (Doubleday). It’s a remarkable, well researched and readable book about the lives of the five known victims of Jack the Ripper. It was more than time that those women were shown some respect as human beings. So much has been written about the murderer’s possible identity and the victims have been sidelined for too long. I recommend this book to anyone. Maggie B
As someone who grew up on dance music and club culture in the late 80s/early 90s, my book of the year is Join the Future: Bleep Techno and The Birth of British Bass Music by Matt Anniss (Velocity Press). Really well written and comprehensively sets the sociopolitical backdrop in Yorkshire to the most exciting five years or so in the development of British dance music. ColinKmag
Patience by Toby Litt (Galley Beggar) is a desperately beautiful, emotionally intense, and uniquely moving novel told by Elliott, a remarkable narrator who is a wheelchair user. Elliott’s greatest abilities and greatest lessons for us are to make so great an experience from so little, to examine even the most mundane and limiting circumstances for their variety, meaning and experience, to approach life with a wonderful mixture of optimism and hope while still being fully aware of its sadness and tragedy. MrBrown
Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk (translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones, Fitzcarraldo). Strange and unusual, it draws you in with its flat, brilliant sentences and brings up in a fresh, sideways fashion some crucial ideas: connection to the larger-than-human natural world; the nature of authority; economic venality; how do we know anything? (For those who might have missed it, she’s the Polish writer who won the 2018 Nobel prize in literature, which I now think was an inspired choice.) cannotlookaway
Since I tend to read either library books or secondhand ones, my reading list is a bit short on the latest bestsellers – my principle usually being if it deserves to be read it will still be good reading a year (or 20) later. But one book I did cough up for new this year was Plastic Emotions by Shiromi Pinto (Influx Press), about the relationship between Le Corbusier and Minnette da Silva, the first woman to become an architect in Sri Lanka and the first Asian woman in the Royal Institute of British Architects. Not everyone may share my enthusiasm for long discussions on modern architecture as voiced by the characters, or musings on feminism. But those interested will enjoy it. CloudyAgain
I read The Fell by Robert Jenkins (RedDoor Press) twice. Once as an all-nighter and again slowly to really appreciate the beauty and simplicity of language as we follow the teenage narrator descend into dark and magical places. The bonding and rebelliousness of the urban tribe, the love and loss, the dislocation and abandonment but ultimately the triumph and sheer delight in chaos. It saved my life and it genuinely feels like something very special has been overlooked in this book not getting mass coverage. Ulysses meets Fight Club … a Catcher in the Rye for our times but so much more. JohnnyTbetter
The Giver of Stars by JoJo Moyes (Penguin) is about the horseback library women in Kentucky in the 1930s, who brought books to the desperately poor families in the backwoods and hills, in a scheme begun by Eleanor Roosevelt. It’s a lovely novel, full of beautiful description and memorable characters, and the overriding theme – the value of stories and literature – is one very close to my heart. elfwyn
After thoroughly enjoying Natalie Haynes’s The Children of Jocasta, I was not disappointed with her 2019 book A Thousand Ships (Mantle). I’m still enjoying Julie Armfield’s collection of short stories, Salt Slow (Picador). As for non-fiction, McKenzie Wark’s Capital Is Dead. Is This Something Worse? (Verso) is an excellent critique of lazy left thinking on the inevitability of capitalism, the “sacralisation” of Marxisant thinking and the need to think creatively about social life. She never disappoints. tony2014
Middle England by Jonathan Coe (Viking), a fictionalised account of Britain from 2010-2018 as seen through the experiences of the Trotter family and friends; the third book in the series. Insightful and humorous. Whimsy2015
In the last couple of months, I’ve been very impressed by Yōko Ogawa’s The Memory Police (translated by Stephen Snyder, Harvill Secker), an extraordinary meditation on the nature of memory that is, at the same time, proof that dystopian fiction can be beautifully written.
And with an eye on global climate change, Cynan Jones’s Stillicide (Granta) is a little similar in style to Reservoir 13, in that a whole community emerges through a series of more or less oblique, more or less self-contained chapters (in this case, originally written as 15-minute stories for broadcast on BBC Radio 4). I was alerted to it by a fine review in the Guardian by Nina Allen, whose superb The Rift I had just finished reading, and whom I am fast coming to consider as a reviewer of comparable stature to John Burnside or M John Harrison. robjam
10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World by Elif Shafak (Penguin) is a splendid book. It was so full of everything: history, geography, love and friendship, family. It was serious and comic … just a beautiful book. VignolesView
The Wall by John Lanchester (Faber) is a fascinating and chilling story of Britain after “the Change”, which is the catastrophic consequences of global warming. All we really learn about that is that sea levels have risen. Britain is now surrounded by a wall built to keep the Others out. The narrator is a guard on the wall and the author brilliantly relates his story of long periods of boredom disrupted by the sudden violence of attacks by the Others. The story is, however, curiously ethnocentric and you are left wondering what happened to the rest of Europe and the world. Still, a thrilling and thought-provoking read. Buddha_indeed
Fighting the People’s War by Jonathan Fennell (CUP) draws on army censorship reports to paint a picture of the morale and motivation of British and Commonwealth armies in the second world war and shows that the citizen soldiers required more complex motivation to make them fight than “for King and Country”. It covers the efforts that the allied armies used to improve the morale of their soldiers and highlights the role of one of the forgotten heroes of the war, General Sir Ronald Adam, Adjutant-General of the British army, whose job it was. SackTheJuggler
I read The Anarchy: The Relentless Rise of the East India Company by William Dalrymple (Bloomsbury) two months ago after reading this review in the Guardian. It did not disappoint. It is beautifully written. It has a superb cast of characters. It is driven by a strong narrative. It is related to our times with its focus on ruthless corporate greed and corrupt politics. The illustrations are gorgeous. theupsetappletart
I’m nominating The Carer (Headline) by that writer’s writer Deborah Moggach. It’s a wryly humorous comedy of manners, though you might not expect it from an initial plot summary. James, retired from his position as an eminent academic and living in the family’s former holiday cottage, is not coping well after his wife dies. After he has a fall his children, who have the usual mid-life problems, decide he needs live-in care.
Eventually they engage frumpy-but-cheerful Mandy, but then start to worry about her influence as the old man’s behaviour changes radically. And no, it’s not what you (and they) initially think. And yes, it should generate discussion about parents and children, relations between men and women, social expectations and obligations, keeping secrets and telling the truth. Magrat123
• What were your favourite books of the year? Keep sharing them with us in the comments.