Top Ten Books of the Year: 2019

I’m currently reading the 740-odd page chunkster that is the seventh book in the Wheel of Time series and it’s New Year’s Eve.  That means I can finally call it – the ten best books I’ve read in 2019! There’s a bit of a mixture of genres on the list, which I’m really happy about and reflects how I feel my reading year has been.  I’ve re-jigged these about 20 times now and I’m fairly sure that they’re in reverse order of preference. For today anyway!

The first five entries in my top 10 were ones that I gave 4 stars when I read them so weren’t my absolute favourites but that are still getting a mention because I like ‘top tens’ and because they’re the ones that were really 4.5 anyway and have stuck with me.

10.  We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson (Finished: 16 February) – I loved The Haunting of Hill House when I read it a few years ago but hadn’t then got round to picking up anything else by Shirley Jackson, despite having bought this one not long after finishing Hill House.  As ever, when I read it, I realised that it having languished there was ridiculous.  It follows three characters, Merricat, Constance and their Uncle Julian, leaving an isolated life in an old manor house, cut off from the nearby village following the mysterious deaths of the rest of their family.  Constance was tried for but acquitted of their murders but the village still believe that the family is wrong. As ever with Jackson, the writing creates an atmosphere that just feels wrong. The way the characters think and talk in Castle is a little off the wall, but in a way that feels entirely real for young people who have grown up with just themselves for company. I wasn’t surprised by some of the later events because the hints are so heavy early on but I was surprised by how much my heart broke for the sisters.  Definitely recommended.  Let’s assume that from here onwards…

9.  My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite (Finished: 09 April) – I don’t feel like this needs much introduction given its stellar turn in the bookish awards for 2019.  I listened to the audiobook of Braithwaite’s novel of a woman trying to prevent her sister from being outed as a serial killer while trying desperately to stop the man she loves falling victim to her charms and it is fabulous.  It manages to have both the tension of a thriller and to be very funny (the latter enhanced greatly by the superb audiobook).  There are also some wonderfully poignant moments about the sisters’ relationship and their lives together that are so cleverly woven throughout the narrative of their present day exploits.  It’s only short and more than worth the few hours you’ll spend reading it. The hype is justified.

8.  Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel (Finished: 30 September) – Another one that probably doesn’t need any introduction! The first in Mantel’s trilogy telling of the rise of Thomas Cromwell and his relationship with Henry VIII. I did a very niche A-level in Tudor History so it’s a period that I know relatively well. I know that it’s a bit of a cliché but Mantel really does do an incredible job of bringing the period to life. I can only imagine the amount of hard work and research that must have gone into making the story seem so effortless. The writing took me a bit of getting used to (Cromwell is rarely referred to by name and mostly as ‘he’, which can be a bit confusing at first) but once I did, I was obsessed. I read it during the second week on a two week holiday in Greece in September and I’m so glad I devoted the attention to it that it deserves. I’ve owned it for maybe 7/8 years and I’m kicking myself a bit for not having read it before. Plenty of time before the release of the final instalment in March if you’re like me and haven’t tackled it yet!

7.  Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes (Finished: 09 April) – A bit of classic science fiction up next! It’s the story of a young man, Charlie Gordon, who has an incredibly low IQ but is given the opportunity to participate in an experiment with a treatment that is expected to vastly increase his intelligence.  In a relatively short space of time, Charlie becomes a genius. I actually wrote a review of this at the time that you can read here.  It’s such a moving novel and thinking of it still makes me a little bit sad.  An oldie but a goodie.

6.  Before the Coffee Gets Cold by Toshikazu Kowaguchi (Finished: 16 September) – Speaking of feeling a little bit sad, Before the Coffee Gets Cold is one you should absolutely be picking up if you fancy a bit of a cry (just me?!).  It’s beautifully but sparingly written and packs so much into barely over 200 pages. It’s about a cafe where you can time travel back, only for the length of time it takes for a cup of coffee to get cold, only within the cafe and only on the strict understanding that nothing will change when you return to the present. There are a few different characters’ stories told and there is love of all different kinds (love between sisters, romantic love, lost love, parental love), tinged with sadness in some cases and hope in others. I gave it 4 stars when I finished it but I can’t for the life of me remember why I didn’t give it 5 now!

And now, conveniently enough, the five books I gave five stars at the time of reading this year! Three have actually held their spot since the middle of the year so I’m pretty happy that my love for those wasn’t short lived. Strangely, I seem to have real hotspots! I read a fairly weighty 3 of these books in September and another 3 in April. Either I’m more generous in those months or lucky!

Onto the top five…

5.  Days of Blood and Starlight by Laini Taylor (Finished: 27 April) – YA gets a bit of a battering sometimes, with YA fantasy coming off particularly badly. It would be doing Days of Blood and Starlight a bit of a disservice then to just say that it’s good YA fantasy. Because honestly, it’s just good! The series is about a huge war between angels and ‘revenants’/demons, with necromancy, torture and other horrors thrown in for good measure. There’s a romantic sub-plot that’s tangled and not the usual YA boy-meets-girl-instalove and the way Taylor writes friendships is just fabulous. It’s a far cry from the YA fantasy of the early 2010s and writing this makes me realise how ridiculous it is that I still haven’t finished this series!

4.  Wakenhyrstby Michelle Paver (Finished: 07 September) – Paver is one of my auto-buy authors and Wakenhyrst did not disappoint. A looming, deteriorating mansion on the Fens, creepy goings on, the religious ramblings of a man whose sanity we rapidly start to doubt and a young woman at the middle of the story that is hard not to sympathise with. Who doesn’t like a sinister story set in a crumbling old house with supernatural undertones and secrets galore in the winter?! I’m not sure that I’d go so far as to call it a ghost story but if you like ghost stories, I’m sure you’ll love this.

3.  The Fifth Season by N. K. Jemisin (Finished: 11 August) – I seem to have read and loved a lot of crowd pleasers this year! The Fifth Season is the opening novel in Jemisin’s seemingly much-loved and hugely successful Broken Earth trilogy. The world that this trilogy is set in is tumultuous and prone to being ripped apart by huge natural disasters. Orogenes, those that have some power over the earth, are feared and enslaved, ‘protected’ by Guardians. When you look at it from afar, the picture that Jemisin is painting of race and slavery is fairly clear but it doesn’t feel heavy handed or clunky while you’re reading. Quite the opposite. The pacing is fantastic and the three storylines woven together perfectly. I personally didn’t see the ending coming and I did a fair amount of shock faces while it all played out. I’m really looking forward to getting to the next 2 books for 2020!

2.  The Wicked Cometh by Laura Carlin (Finished: 19 January) – The oldest entry to the list at only the fourth book I read this year. When I included it in my mid-year favourites list, I thought that it was fairly noteworthy that it had hung on until July. That I still remember it so clearly, and still love it as much, easily earns it a second spot on this list. If you’re a historical fiction fan, this should be on your to read list. It’s gothic and gloomy and atmospheric and everything you could possibly want from a novel set in 1830s London.

1.  Exit West by Mohsin Hamid (Finished: 22 June) – In a way, I wish that this book still didn’t feel quite so relevant. And yet, six months after I’ve finished it, it still feels like a book that everybody should be required to pick up. The writing is just stunning. Sparse and simple but absolutely flooring. If you somehow still haven’t heard of it, it recounts Nadia and Saeed’s decision to leave their increasingly war-torn home country and the pain it causes them, following them as they struggle to find a new country to call home. The challenges they face in their potential new communities were disappointingly familiar but what really struck me was how well Hamid relays the small struggles that his characters face. The simple pleasure of a hot shower in a private room with a soft towel. The grief of thinking you’ve found a home only to be forced to move on again by small-minded locals. The power of the smell of familiar cooking when you’re far from what you know. It’s beautiful and crushing. My copy got wet when a bottle of water leaked on it in a backpack while we were on holiday and I still couldn’t bear to throw it away. Nor will I ever.

And that’s it! The ten best books I’ve read in 2019! I hope you all had an amazing reading year. Let me know your favourites in the comments so I can hopefully pick up some recommendations for 2020.

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