Here we go guys and gals. This is it. The Big One. It’s my Top 10 Books of 2019.
I was expecting more applause than that but never mind.
First, some stats. I read 52 books this year; a very satisfying number because it means I finished exactly one book per week and also because it’s the exact same number of books I finished last year, which is a complete coincidence (no, really, it actually is).
Last year I DNFed* four books, this year I DNFed seven, and yes, I absolutely will name and shame them because it’s all the drama, Mick! I just love it!
*Oh come on, we went through this last year. DNF stands for Did Not Finish which means that no, DNF doesn’t work as a verb (you can’t Did Not Finish-ed something) but I am the editor here and I say it’s fine so shut up.**
**This is not how I speak to my authors, I’m actually very professional. Please hire me.
I think DNFing more books is a good thing; it could mean that I’m reading more adventurously and picking up more books that I’m not 100% sure I will enjoy, or it could mean that I’m wasting less time on books I’m really not enjoying. I’d encourage you all to embrace the DNF in 2020.
Books I DFNed in 2019:
- Daring Greatly by Brené Brown. I actually really like Brené Brown and her work, especially her TEDtalks and her Netflix special. It’s weird that I got bored of this book because she writes the exact kind of self help-y, personal development-y stuff that I’m into – but what can I say? I got bored of this book and felt like I’d got the message so stopped before I reached the end.
- The Italian Teacher by Tom Rachman. I should have loved this book; it has the world’s most beautiful cover and is set (at least partly) in Rome (did I ever mentioned that I lived in Rome?), but I just couldn’t get into it and didn’t care enough about the characters.
- The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera. Maybe I’ll have to try this again one day because I feel like this is another one that is right up my street, but I just found it pretentious and boring in the extreme. So much so that I don’t even really remember anything about it. Thank u, next.
- Sexing the Cherry by Jeanette Winterson. What the actual fuck was happening in this book? Maybe I’m just lazy and don’t like books that make me work too hard, but sometimes I wonder if Ms Winterson is called ‘a genius’ so often because people actually just don’t know what the fuck to make of her work so assume it must be really clever.
- Uncommon Type by Tom Hanks. I very nearly finished this book because the big problem with a short story collection that isn’t exactly bad is that there’s always the tantalising promise that the author might just crack it with the next one. But after ten or so stories that were fine – just fine – I realised that while the book wasn’t offensively bad, it was offensively boring. Boring is the worst. At least make me hate you, you know?
- She Must Be Mad by Charly Cox. DON’T BE MAD AT ME, OK. I’m not one of those people who says that Rupi Kaur, instapoets and young women poets in general are talentless. I strongly disagree with the people who are trying to be gatekeepers of art and to keep poetry highbrow and inaccessible by dictating what is and isn’t poetry, who can and can’t write it and who can and can’t read it – those people can fuck all the way off. Having said that, I think perhaps I’m just a bit too old for this kind of poetry, or maybe I just can’t relate to it any more, or maybe I want lovely sounds and rhymes and imagery from my poetry that I just didn’t get here. So I stopped reading this collection, NOT BECAUSE I THINK CHARLY COX IS A BAD POET, I just think that her writing doesn’t speak to me at this point in my life. Like, at all.
- Furiously Happy by Jenny Lawson. This one I stopped reading because of a weird printing error whereby Jenny Lawson’s humour memoir about mental health (I know) was randomly interspersed with pages from George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series. It made for a weirdly avant-garde read and I probably would have continued had it not been for the fact that I was working my way through the Game of Thrones series and was scared of spoilers.
Some other quickfire stats for you stat-lovers: of the 52 books I finished, 38 were by women (73%). I read 7 books (13%) by LGBTQ+ people or with an LGBTQ+ theme (a loose categorisation), which is surprisingly low for me considering that I love that shit. I read 7 books by people of colour (13%), which is roughly in line with the percentage of the total UK population (according to the most recent census in 2011, 86% of the UK population is white which means that 14% is non-white) but I think that figure could probably be improved, given that POC writing marks a deficit in my education and my general reading up to this point (and also I’m sure that those populations statistics will have changed over the past nine years).
With all that said and done, let’s get into what you really came here for: my favourite ten books of 2019. May I present to you, in the order in which I read them:
- Less by Andrew Sean Greer (Abacus)
A very early contender for my top ten books of 2019; after 60 or so pages, I predicted that this would be in my top 10 books of the year and it just about snagged it. From the cover and what I had heard about this book – a failed ageing novelist gets invited to his ex-boyfriend’s wedding, has a bit of a breakdown and starts responding ‘yes’ to every literary event invitation in his inbox, sending him on a round-the-world adventure of self-discovery – I was hooked. LGBTQ+? Check. Self-discovery? Check. A novel about a writer? Check. Travel? Check. Love and loss? Check. A classic Annie Warren book if ever I saw one. I thought this was going to be a light, funny novel with a couple of pithy quotable lines revealing something profound about the Human Condition™ and I could honestly read a thousand books like that and not get bored (probably).
And Less was all of those things, but ohmygoodness it was so much more than that. I thought it was so funny, not because of the slapstick situations that our protagonist finds himself in (necessarily) but in the irony of the writing and an absurd eye for detail. It’s so beautiful, if a bit predictable (though it won’t necessarily end in the first way you think it will, or even the second; but maybe the third or fourth).
Consider, if you will:
“He kisses—how do I explain it? Like someone in love. Like he has nothing to lose. Like someone who has just learned a foreign language and can use only the present tense and only the second person. Only now, only you. There are some men who have never been kissed like that. There are some men who discover, after Arthur Less, that they never will be again.”
Kill me softly with your words why don’t you. Donkey from Shrek was right. Chicks love that romantic crap.
2. My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante (Europa Editions)
There are SO MANY REASONS that this book shouldn’t have done well in the UK. It has a shitty cover. It doesn’t fit neatly into a genre, so publishers and booksellers don’t know how to market it or where to shelve it. It’s in translation. It’s about two ordinary women. There was no real publicity campaign by the publisher to speak of and the author flatly refuses to promote the books. None of these things historically contribute well to a book’s overall sales. But boy oh boy did the Neopolitian Novels take off this year and after having read My Brilliant Friend, I can definitely see why.
The story begins with the friendship of Elena and Lila, two young girls in 1950s Naples. And that’s it, really. Ask me what happens in the book and I’d be hard pushed to tell you – the girls get older, go to school, do their homework, start seeing boys and eventually the book ends with a wedding. And yet, despite being set in a world so far from my own and despite being about such ostensibly mundane occurrences, Ferrante’s writing had me hooked. I don’t think I have ever read a book that examines female friendship in such exquisitely accurate detail, and I defy any woman to read this and not have one particular friendship come to mind. I know I did.
3. Outline by Rachel Cusk (Faber & Faber)
From incredible detail to incredible sparseness. Also the first novel in a series (this time a trilogy), Outline is a short book told in conversations. The protagonist is teaching a creative writing course in Athens over the summer, but we only learn this through her conversations with other characters; a stranger on a plane, other writers, her students and the woman from whom she is renting an apartment, for example. We slowly learn about her by learning about what (and who) she is not. It’s a novel that’s full in its emptiness and I can’t say I’ve ever read anything like it before.
4. Leonard and Hungry Paul by Rónán Hession (Bluemoose Books)
I smile just thinking about this sweet, quiet, lovely book about two friends (male friends this time; don’t tell me I’m not diverse in my reading habits). A celebration of the everyday, of the ordinary, finding greatness in the small things. The writing makes you want to hug someone and/or drink a big cup of tea. It’s a perfect antidote to the news and the constant stream of shit that my BBC News updates keep bleeping at me.
5. What I Loved by Siri Hustvedt (Sceptre)
This book is an intense rollercoaster. Is it a book about art? Parenting? Madness? Love? Sex? Grief? Lies? Betrayal? Friendship? The short answer is yes, all of those things. With so many themes going on, at least we know for sure that it’s a character-driven book full of navel gazing and interpretations – oh wait! No, hold on, now it’s a thriller! I can’t put it down! What’s going to happen next? Why am I freaked out? Why am I crying? ARGH!!!! This book is clever; it will take you places that you didn’t expect it to and the writing is absolutely delicious. The cover does it such a disservice. Please read this book.
6. Factfulness by Hans Rosling (Sceptre)
Let me sum up this book for you: the world is getting better, even though most people think it is not. Most people, as I have long suspected, are wrong, and could be outsmarted by monkeys (that’s not exactly what he says but it is sort of true – read the book!). Mr Rosling was extremely passionate about this message, and not because it is one of hope, but because it is true. So true, in fact, that he’s going to illustrate it to you ten times over. If you don’t mind the slight repetitiveness of this book (ah, a chapter about poverty, you say? Let me guess – getting better! Oooh, and one about mortality rates – again, getting better! How did I guess?), then it’s an interesting and uplifting read, as well as being a great reminder of how to put critical thinking to good use, how to interpret facts and data and why you should draw your own conclusions.
The book is not without its flaws and I am not without my questions (sorry to turn your own critical thinking tools back at you, Mr Rosling) – but nonetheless it was a book that really made me think more deeply about the world around me, and that’s never a bad thing.
7. Love, Nina by Nina Stibbe (Penguin)
In the 1980s, Nina Stibbe was nanny to Mary-Kay Wilmers’ two boys. Mary-Kay was the editor for the London Review of Books and lived on Gloucester Crescent in Camden along with Alan Bennett, whose works I of course know and love, and very close to Jonathan Miller and Deborah Moggach as well, who I had heard of but didn’t know precisely why I had heard of them. There were any number of other famous literary types around Camden at that time, but Nina, from rural Leicestershire, hadn’t heard of any of them and what’s more didn’t have any time for their stuck-up literary bollocks. This book is a collection of Nina’s letters home to her sister over a five-year period, describing her life in London. It is a good, sweet, hilarious (but not always not purpose) book and I absolutely loved Nina’s down-to-earth manner telling Alan Bennett that if he wants to criticise her cooking then he can bloody well make his own dinner (or words to that effect).
8. Pages for You by Sylvia Brownrigg (Picador)
The structure of this book is, on the surface at least, as simple as can be. It’s a story of love and loss. Girl meets girl, girl gets girl, girl loses girl. Our narrator tells you as much this on the first page, so if you can live with predictability in order to frolic in beautiful language and the story of a passionate love affair (I most certainly can) then this is the book for you. Brownrigg’s prose is like poetry – almost is poetry, really, and it’s gorgeous and heartbreaking to read. Listen, I might be a basic bitch, but I loved this book because I have a lot of feelings and this book helped me to feel them.
9. The Terrible by Yrsa Daley-Ward (Penguin)
If Pages for You was almost poetry, The Terrible is completely indefinable. This book laughs in the face of classification. I bought it after I saw a video on Facebook of Daley-Ward reading one of her poems on World Mental Health Day (it was this one) and I thought, ‘This woman gets it. She knows’. The Terrible is a burningly honest personal memoir that stretches the edges of what a book is and what a book can do. It makes for uncomfortable reading at times, but is but so comforting at others. It’s like holding your hand under the hot tap for as long as you can and then the cold tap for as long as you can… but in a good way. I’ve never read anything else like it, and it’s definitely one I’ll come back to again and again, knowing I’ll find something new every time.
10. Three Women by Lisa Taddeo (Bloomsbury)
Lisa Taddeo spent almost a decade interviewing and living with the women after whom the book is named and in whose pages their lives unfold. There’s Maggie, a student who has a relationship with a teacher at her school; Lina, whose husband won’t have sex with her and who ends up in an intense affair with a former boyfriend; and Sloane, who somehow seems to live her life as a sex object for those around her, including her husband and even, maybe, herself. Taddeo must be an incredible woman to have captured these women’s stories of desire so carefully, thoughtfully and honestly. She must have been incredibly dedicated to her work. Something about the fact that someone cared enough about these women who are, at the end of the day, just normal women with no more or less of a story in them than any other woman, yet also women who have been looked down on by others and by society as bad or less than for – for what exactly, it’s hard to say. For loving someone? For liking sex? For wanting sex? For admitting it? For BEING HUMAN? Anyway. The fact that someone took them seriously enough to bring their stories to such a huge audience moves me greatly.
And finally, an honourable mention:
Money, A User’s Guide by Laura Whateley (Fourth Estate)
This book doesn’t make it to the Top 10 list because it’s hardly a page-turner (although I did get quite obsessed with it). I’ve been really interested in personal finance and money in general this year, and it boggles my mind that we weren’t taught any kind of financial literacy at school. You think numbers are boring and the grown ups should deal with them, then you think it’s probably too difficult for you because you don’t understand all the words and acronyms being thrown about, and by the time you’ve got to a point where you really need to know about interest rates and salaries and taxes, you feel like you’re too old to ask and like everyone else knows something you don’t; so you either say nothing or quietly google ‘what does APR stand for?’ as you’re waiting in line to open a bank account. If this is you (it was me) then read this book, and read it as soon as you can because it was written in 2018 and some of it is probably already out of date.
That just about sums it up for this year, folks! Get in touch to let me know which books you really enjoyed this year and if you agree/disagree with anything I’ve written above. Also, seeing as you’re here, I’m doing a bit more book and travel writing this year and it would really help me out if you could follow me on Twitter and Instagram and big me up to your friends. Ta very much!
Same place same time next year? xoxo