Favourite Books of the Year So Far: 2019

I love the middle of the year on the bookish internet! I love seeing people’s lists of favourite reads so far and I love stat chat. I’m also curious to say which of the books I currently think of as my favourites now are still on the list at the end of the year. I actually wrote most of this post a few weeks ago, to actually coincide with the mid-point of the year but work’s been bonkers ever since so it’s a ‘better late than never’ deal today and all of the stats and whatnot are as they were as at 30th June.

I feel like I’ve had a brilliant reading year so far. I’ve been really enjoying working on reading off my shelves and reducing the number of unread books I own. I’ve only bought 28 books so far this year and I’ve borrowed 5 from the library . Now that might actually still sound like quite a lot but at the same point in 2018 I’d already acquired a ridiculous 142 books. A number that’s so stupid, I’m almost embarrassed to write it.

So far in 2019, I’ve read 40 books and 13,517 pages. I’m really pleased with how much I’ve enjoyed the books I’ve been picking up – my average star rating out of 5 for the year is 3.7. There have been more 2 star reads than I’d like but nothing I completely hated. I am a bit disappointed with the diversity of my choices, though. Of the 40 books I’ve read, 21 were written by authors from the US and 14 were written by authors from the UK. I’d hoped for far more than 5 books written by authors from countries and cultures that I’m less familiar with. Something to focus on for the remaining 5 months of the year.

On to the favourites! I’ve picked out my top 5 from the year so far, and even spent far too long putting them in reverse order of preference…

5) The Night Watch by Sarah Waters

This sat on my shelves for a completely ridiculous eight and a half years before I picked it up on holiday in June. My heart still hurts at the memory of what Waters put the characters I loved through. The novel runs backwards, with sections focusing on four characters in 1947, 1944 and 1941. The writing is beautiful without being overdone but it is 100% Waters’ characters that have secured this a spot on my favourites list. I was frustrated by them, rooting for them and completely heartbroken with them. It’s also interesting to get a picture of London and women at home during the war and how their social status was starting to change. There are also chapters featuring characters who have conscientiously objected to the war, which is another interesting angle that I don’t think I’ve read about before. It’s a bit of a chunkster at over 500 pages but definitely one that’s worth the time you’ll invest in it.

4) My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite

I listened to this on audiobook back in April, after it had secured its place on the Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist but before it then made its way on to the shortlist. I enjoyed it at the time – the audiobook is fantastically well done and the plot is a real gripper – and it’s grown on me more and more since. I’m sure everybody knows this by now but it’s the story of a Nigerian woman, Korede, who finds herself cleaning up after the deaths of multiple men at her sister’s hand. When her sister meets the man that Korede loves, Korede is forced to look at who her sister is and to consider how far she’ll go to protect her sister and the man she loves. I particularly loved how the novel tackles the relationship between sisters and family dynamics; how Korede’s fierce protective instinct is challenged and pushed. The ending too was a real sucker punch. If you like a crime novel that offers something a little bit different, you want this in your life.

3) Days of Blood and Starlight by Laini Taylor

I used to read a lot of YA fantasy. I haven’t read anything like as much this year (74% of my reading has been ‘adult’) but the ones I have read have all been really good. This one in particular was absolutely fantastic. The series’ heyday was back in the early 2010s so I’m hugely late to the party but glad I finally did make it. The series is about a huge war between angels and ‘revenants’/demons. The writing is far better than you usually find in YA fiction. I mean, just look at the blurb for heaven’s sake:

Once upon a time, an angel and a devil fell in love and dared to imagine a new way of living – one without massacres and torn throats and bonfires of the fallen, without revenants or bastard armies or children ripped from their mothers’ arms to take their turn in the killing and dying.

Once, the lovers lay entwined in the moon’s secret temple and dreamed of a world that was like a jewel-box without a jewel – a paradise waiting for them to find it and fill it with their happiness.

This was not that world.

The themes are pretty damn dark too. There’s death and necromancy and torture and some truly awful characters. Even the romantic plot at the centre, which can so oftenrender YA fiction predictable or inject a thread that is too sickly sweet, is gloomier and more complicated. It’s just absolutely brilliant. I read this over a couple of sunny afternoons in April and I can’t wait to get to the final instalment.

2) The Wicked Cometh by Laura Carlin

The second historical fiction on this list, and the fourth book I read this year. The fact that this has clung onto its spot for so long should say a lot about The Wicked Cometh. It’s a real gothic treat that I obviously recommend that you pick up but would maybe say ought to be savoured in autumn/winter. It’s set in the gritty streets of 1830s London, following Hester White as she tries to work her way out of poverty. It touches on some of the real dark side of medical treatment and progress of that time and it’s not for the faint hearted. As you’d hope with a gothic, gloomy historical fiction, the atmosphere is incredible – one of those books where you can just feel the fog and grime seeping off the pages. There’s some LGBTQ+ representation that is just beautifully done, and an ending that made me weep. I’m sad that it didn’t get the exposure it deserves so if you do like historical fiction, please do take a punt on this. You won’t regret it!

1) Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

Taking the top spot at the middle of the year is Exit West, another of my June holiday reads. I can’t really sum it up any better than I did in my June wrap up:  It’s the story of Nadia and Saeed, starting off in an unnamed, war-torn country. As Nadia and Saeed meet, their country is being subjected to air strikes and an increasingly strict religious military regime. The writing is just stunning. Sparse and simple but absolutely flooring. I know that people say this a lot but I really do feel like Exit West is such an important book. It recounts Nadia and Saeed’s decision to leave their home, their reluctance 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. The power of the smell of familiar cooking when you’re far from what you know. It’s beautiful and crushing and should be required reading. I have Hamid’s earlier novel, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, and I’ll be getting to it later this year definitely.

Flashback to a Favourite: ‘The Ballroom’ by Anna Hope

Flashback to a Favourite is a regular feature where I look back at books I’ve previously given 5 stars and chat about whether the love has wained or lives on.

Where love is your only escape…
 
1911: Inside an asylum at the edge of the Yorkshire moors, where men and women are kept apart by high walls and barred windows, there is a ballroom vast and beautiful. For one bright evening every week they come together and dance. When John and Ella meet it is a dance that will change two lives forever. Set over the heatwave summer of 1911, the end of the Edwardian era, The Ballroom is a tale of unlikely love and dangerous obsession, of madness and sanity, and of who gets to decide which is which.

Thoughts in 2019: Remembering the beauty that is The Ballroom makes my heart hurt a bit. Anna Hope writes stunning historical fiction. Character focused historical fiction that worms its way into your heart until you genuinely believe that you know how it felt to be a disadvantaged woman stuck in an asylum in the early 20th century or a woman grieving over her son in post-WWII England. It’s been three years since I read The Ballroom and I can still remember the characters vividly and just how much I wept over the ending. It’s a real corker and it’s clear that my love for this book has absolutely stood the test of time. While pulling this post together, I found out that Hope has another novel out in July this year. I will absolutely be picking that up and I would whole-heartedly recommend that you read both The Ballroom and Wake in the meantime. Both are incredible and deserving of a lot more love.

Thoughts in 2016: Wake by Anna Hope was one of my favourite books of 2014.  I remember being amazed at how a story that was so quiet could be so impactive; how Hope could tell a story of the lives of three women over the course of five days and manage to say so much about post-war Britain.  The Ballroom manages to do just the same thing.  Through Ella and John’s story, Hope manages to weave a commentary on the treatment (or lack of treatment) of mental health in the early 20th century without it weighing too heavily on the plot or leaving it feeling laboured.

The novel follows Ella, a young woman incarcerated in Sharston Asylum after breaking a window at the factory where she worked out of frustration and a desire to see daylight for a change, and John, locked up after losing his family, his job and becoming homeless and destitute.  There are other ‘residents’ who have what would still be regarded as mental health problems by today’s standards (Ella’s friend, Clem, for example, whose experiences are particularly harrowing) but Ella and John are just two young people who have fallen on hard times and are regarded by society as unstable or inferior.  Every week, the better behaved inmates are treated to a dance.  A bright spot in their routines where they get to socialise with members of the opposite sex and dance.  Ella and John’s meeting is adorable and the progress of their relationship from that moment on made my heart hurt.  Their story isn’t melodramatic.  It’s gentle and achingly realistic and I was entirely taken in by it.

I just love the way that Anna Hope writes characters.  The way that they grow and change subtly until they’re someone entirely different from who you thought they were.  Alongside Ella and John’s narrative is one of a young doctor, Charles Farrer.  Dr Farrer starts as a young idealistic doctor, determined to prove to the medical community that sterilisation isn’t the way to prevent the “spread” of mental health problems, that those who fall under the rather flaky 1911 idea of what constitutes mental ‘deficiency’ are quite capable of productivity.  Events then tease out his vulnerabilities and frustrations and twist them (and him), really shining a light on the hypocrisy and imbalance perpetuating asylums of that era.  Gradual and utterly believable.

The combination of the oppression of Sharston Asylum itself and of the soaring temperature creates an increasingly frazzled atmosphere. There’s an ever-increasing sense of urgency and the characters become progressively more fraught and almost desperate.  Towards the end of the novel, I was gripping my book so hard it hurt and I was just willing both the characters I loved and the characters I hated to get the endings they deserved.  I closed the novel in tears.  Admittedly, that’s not necessarily something new for me but the ending of The Ballroom was a real sucker punch.

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Date finished: 18 December 2015
Format: Paperback (Advanced Reader’s Copy)
Source: Received from the publisher in exchange for an honest review – thanks, Doubleday!
Pictured Edition Published: on 11 February 2016 by Doubleday

Flashback to a Favourite: ‘Ready Player One’ by Ernest Cline

Before starting She Reads, She Runs, I had another book blog. I loved that book blog but I felt like it had got a bit stale, too narrowly focussed and, to be honest, glitchy in a way that I lacked the technical ability to fix. While I’m still really happy with that decision, I do miss having all of the reviews of my favourites, those elusive 5 star reads, in my current blogging space.  And so I’ve decided to carry them over in Flashback to a Favourite! Each will be my original review, with a few thoughts on whether or not I still think of them as a favourite.

First up: Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

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It’s the year 2044, and the real world has become an ugly place. We’re out of oil. We’ve wrecked the climate. Famine, poverty, and disease are widespread. Like most of humanity, Wade Watts escapes this depressing reality by spending his waking hours jacked into the OASIS, a sprawling virtual utopia where you can be anything you want to be, where you can live and play and fall in love on any of ten thousand planets. And like most of humanity, Wade is obsessed by the ultimate lottery ticket that lies concealed within this alternate reality: OASIS founder James Halliday, who dies with no heir, has promised that control of the OASIS – and his massive fortune – will go to the person who can solve the riddles he has left scattered throughout his creation. 
 
For years, millions have struggled fruitlessly to attain this prize, knowing only that the riddles are based in the culture of the late twentieth century. And then Wade stumbles onto the key to the first puzzle. Suddenly, he finds himself pitted against thousands of competitors in a desperate race to claim the ultimate prize, a chase that soon takes on terrifying real-world dimensions – and that will leave both Wade and his world profoundly changed. 

A world at stake. 

A quest for the ultimate prize. 

Are you ready?

Thoughts in 2019: I still remember this so clearly that I was genuinely surprised to see that I first read it in January 2015! I almost never reread books but this is one that I could see myself picking back up at some point – I haven’t found anything like it in the years since I picked it up so it seems like if I want that heady mix of 80s pop culture, computer game madness and RPG-like adventure, I’m going to have to go back to the best. If you’re in the market for something that’s an unabashedly fun read, this would still be at the top of my list. I actually haven’t seen the film adaptation (or even read Ernest Cline’s subsequent novel) because I didn’t want it to “ruin” the book for me. If you have seen it, I’d definitely be interested to hear what you thought and whether I should brave it!

Thoughts in 2015:

I don’t even know where to start with this.  Maybe with the reason I even picked up Ready Player One?  I’d heard of it maybe a couple of years ago when everybody started reading it, mentally noted it as something to pick up one day if I happened across it and then forgot all about it.  I was reminded every now and then when I saw it on the occasional list of favourites but it was never something I felt like I had to go out and buy.  Until a friend texted me in January at nearly midnight on a Sunday with much upper case enthusiasm and said that I HAD TO READ READY PLAYER ONE.  So I did.  Because I am nothing if not easily led by enthusiastic reader friends into reading pretty much anything.

I was promised that it would be amazing.  And it is.  Absolutely, unrelentingly, unputdownably amazing.  Reading it was the most fun I’ve had reading a book in years and I didn’t ever want it to stop.  It manages to be both completely niche in its unashamed geekiness but also completely accessible.  I was born in the late 80s (ok, fine, 1986 is probably “mid-80s” but whatever) so I’m really more au fait with 90s popular culture and missed a few of the computer game references but I knew enough about the music and films of the time that I could still feel connected.  Even if I hadn’t got those references, I honestly believe that I would still have loved it because Cline just writes with such an obvious love for all things “nerdy” that it’s infectious.The text is quite small and there’s a lot on a page so when I opened it on the 10th of January, I thought it would maybe take a couple of weeks.  I finished it on the 12th.  I was travelling quite a lot in that couple of days, sure, but I was obsessed with it.  And not in a general “oh, this is a good book” way.  The kind of all-encompassing obsession with a book that means that you eat reading it, read it when you’re stood waiting for anything that will take any longer than 2 minutes and just generally ignore everybody else in your life until you’ve finished and can look to them for consolation over the gaping hole the book has left.

Ready Player One may well be an homage to 80s pop culture but it’s also a gripping science fiction adventure story that’s grounded just well enough in reality that it doesn’t take long to lose yourself in.  I don’t read a lot of science fiction because I don’t like reading long descriptions of technological advance or political background or, heaven forbid, actual science.  Cline has managed to write something that is both undeniably science fiction but without the tedium.  Somehow, you completely understand both the real and virtual world that Wade lives in without having to suffer through any dry explanations.  It’s impeccable and not really all that much of a stretch of imagination.  I remember when Second Life was launched about 10 years ago and the media was filled with tales of women leaving their husbands for men they’d met while building their perfect life.  You don’t have to read the news for too long to see endless stories about bankruptcy, environmental disaster and how badly we’re damaging the world.  Is it really that much of a stretch to imagine a world where everybody is crowded into small spaces without any money or natural resources, seeking refuge online?  Add in an adventure story and you’ve got something golden.

The online contest and the bedlam that ensues when Wade happens across the first clue is so, so much fun.  Like everything else about this book.  The pace is pretty hectic but not so much that it seem rushed or overwhelming.  When I could feel that the story was starting to wrap up, I was genuinely sad.  I could still be reading about Wade and about his friends two months later and I’m pretty sure I’d still be happy.

The story is amazing.  The characters are amazing.  The writing is amazing.  The whole damn thing from start to finish is AMAZING.  Consider this your midnight text.

Overall:  My biggest problem with Ready Player One is that finishing it and knowing that I’d read one of the best books I was going to read all year.  Nothing since has even been close to being as good.  Just read it, already.

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Date finished: 12 January 2015
Format:  Paperback
Source:  Bought
Genre: Science fiction
Pictured Edition Published:  in June 2012 by Broadway Books

Five Star Reads of 2018

I had a pretty great year of reading in 2018. I tend to read roughly a book a week in an average year but this year I’ve somehow read 65 books, with 22,370 pages between them. My average star rating for the year was 3.5 stars, which isn’t quite as positive as I’d have thought but still more good than bad. Out of my 65 books, I gave 9 books five stars. Five star books for me are ones that I couldn’t find fault with – books that are either new favourites or books that were just such an all-encompassingly brilliant reading experiences that even if they weren’t perhaps the most literary of books, they just had to have 5 stars.

Onto the books, ordered only by the date that I finished them:

1)  Saga: Volume 1 (Finished 27th January) and 2) Saga: Volume 2 (Finished 3rd July), both by Brian K. Vaughan

I’d had the first volume of Saga sat on my shelves for two years before I finally picked it up. Clearly I’m a fool. I don’t think the series needs much introduction or explanation at this point given how resoundingly popular it seems to be. Star crossed lovers trying to raise a child while being hunted down by various very angry leaders. It’s funny, it’s charming and it’s a real page-turner. I have volume 3 ready to go and I’m hoping it’ll be another five star read.

3) The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton (Finished 24th February)

Of all of these books, this is my absolute favourite. I absolutely adored it. It’s a classic, ‘Golden Age’ style mystery with a twist. The twistiest of time travel twists. The plotting is impeccable, the writing is flawless and it’s a beautiful book to own. It’s an absolute masterpiece that I can’t wait to read again one day.  It’s one of the best books I’ve read in a really long time and I can’t imagine reading anything better than it for quite some time. Apparently Turton is currently writing his second book and I will be preordering that as soon as physically possible.  If it’s even half as good as Seven Deaths, I’ll be a happy reader.

How lost do you have to be to let the devil lead you home?

4) Nevernight by Jay Kristoff (Finished 31st March)

I read a lot of fantasy. Exactly 25% of what I read in 2018 was fantasy, which makes it a little strange that this is the only fantasy novel that I gave five stars to this year. A lot got 4 stars but only this one really stood out. Nevernight is about Mia Corvere, an assassin with an ability to manipulate shadows. The first of this trilogy sees Mia attending the Red Church, a school at which she must hone her abilities so that she can survive. I know that the whole ‘skilled girl goes to niche boarding school’ concept seems a bit old hat but honestly Kristoff has built such an interesting world and cast of characters that it feels new.  It’s a fair old chunkster of a book at over 650 pages but it flew by and I loved it. 

5)  If We Were Villains by M. L. Rio (Finished 28th May)

I read the second half of this in one sitting in the sun in our garden and still remember how desperate I was to find out what was going on. It has strong vibes of The Secret History by Donna Tartt (another of my favourite books) and is the story of a close knit group of seven friends all studying acting at a prestigious university.  From the beginning, you know that Oliver has served a prison sentence for the murder of another member of the group but you don’t know whether he actually did it. The novel is told both through Oliver’s present day discussions with the detective who investigated the murder at the time and wants to know the truth and part through flashbacks to the past. It’s never quite clear who’s telling the truth and who’s playing a part and the group’s secrets are revealed slowly against a backdrop of oh so much tension. Literary thriller writing at its very best.

6) Sea Prayer by Khaled Hosseini (Finished 1st September)

There isn’t much to say about this one. It’s a poem written by Hosseini about the Syrian refugee crisis, beautifully illustrated in watercolour by Dan Williams. The poem is poignant, timely and feels very…raw.  It’s only short but it’s incredibly heartfelt and such an important book that everybody should read and cry over.

7) Gemina (Finished 12th September) and 8) Obsidio (Finished 16th September), both by Amie Kauffman and Jay Kristoff

These fall into the ‘just couldn’t stop reading, wept over and had to give five stars just for that‘ category.  They’re hardly literary but they’re just bloody entertaining.  The final two instalments in the Illuminae trilogy, they chart an intergalactic corporate conspiracy and a few characters’ quest to survive various genocides. Each book is melodramatic, utterly bonkers and features the best AI character I’ve ever read, AIDAN. The format is a little quirky, with handwritten excerpts from journals and other documents and transcripts, and I know that isn’t for everyone but personally I think it adds to the plot and isn’t just a gimmick. Solid ‘entry level’ science fiction that is incredibly readable and had me crying into my poolside beer on holiday.

9) The Fact of a Body by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich (Finished 31st October)

I don’t read a lot of non-fiction so it’s no surprise that this is the only non-fiction to make my five star reads list. More of a surprise is that this made the cut at all. I always imagine that non-fiction will be too much like work and not worthy of my “downtime”. Clearly that’s stupid because I was completely gripped by The Fact of a Body and didn’t find it at all dry or heavy or whatever else I was fearing. It’s the authors account both of her own life, and the effects of abuse that she suffered as a child, and of her work investigating Ricky Langley and the murder of a six year old child, Jeremy Guillory. It delves into the death penalty and the legal issues around trials of those facing it. It’s fascinating and I loved the writing.

“What I fell in love with about the law so many years ago was the way that in making a story, in making a neat narrative of events, it finds a beginning, and therefore cause. But I didn’t understand then that the law doesn’t find the beginning any more than it finds the truth. It creates a story. That story has a beginning. That story simplifies, and we call it truth.”

And that’s it! My top books of 2018, all wrapped up. What have your favourites of the year been? What do I need to be adding to my reading list for 2019?