Forgive the dinosaur-flavoured title, but a friend bought me the Jurassic Park board game for Christmas and I’ve been a velociraptor for the past few days. The voracious snapping rang a bell when I sat down in front of this screen about an hour ago and started looking back through my records at the past year of reading. In 2018 I struggled to take a few dainty bites of the books on my bedside table, but this year I rampaged through them, and I’ve read loads of great ones that have really stuck with me. I’ve got a head full of magnificent imagery, cracking characters and intense storylines. Thanks to all the authors who have kept me glued to their pages this year.
I should say that this isn’t a list of books published in the past year as I’m never that up to date with my reading (although looking at the list, I’ve done pretty well this time around), but just the books I’ve found and loved in 2019.
I’ll start with the fiction:
Water Shall Refuse Them by Lucie McKnight Hardy was a sharp slice of vivid and upsetting folk horror set in the heatwave of 1976. A story of witches and children and destructive impulses, it had some wonderfully disquieting moments. I raced through it, then turned it over and read it again.
The Cipher by Kathe Koja – you start a book you know very little about, and it turns out to be the most magnetic, unstoppable force of nastiness and you end up being totally sucked into it, and then when you finish it you want to hunt down and read everything else by that author. Apply that description here.
The Smoke by Simon Ings gave me a glimpse into an alternative world so real and yet so strange that I felt immersed within it and changed by it. Industry, power, love, sex and isolation in a version of the UK that I recognised and have never known. How do writers manage to do that? It’s magic.
Circe by Madeline Miller kept lots of readers captive this year, me included. Just when I thought I was fed up of books about Greek mythology. Reading and/or writing them.
Psychotopia by Roger Morris flew right under the radar this year, which is a shame because it’s great. A future filled with people who no longer care about anyone else apparently brings fresh opportunities for monetisation by other people who never cared about anyone else. It’s an epidemic. Bleak and funny and terrifying.
Sequela by Cleland Smith was a riot. Sexually transmitted diseases cultivated to be worn as fashion statements: that might be my favourite one-sentence description of a high-concept novel this year.
The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa. I love Ogawa’s writing, and in a year of stunningly powerful reads this was a step into a quiet, thoughtful world of bonds formed between generations regardless of memory loss.
The Migration by Helen Marshall. Climate fiction with zombie undertones, and so emotive, so caring towards its characters. It’s lots of different things all rolled together. I can’t really define it, which is good. Who wants to define everything, anyway? More books like this, please.
Short Story Collections:
This House of Wounds by Georgina Bruce and All the Fabulous Beasts by Priya Sharma both entranced me and gave me loads to think about. There are so many strong voices in short fiction right now. Hoping to read more short story collections next year; I read so many excellent stories in the pages of collections but I’ll refer you to the annual list created by James Everington if you’re looking for good ones. That’s a wonderful list.
I also loved Doorway to Dilemma: Bewildering Tales of Dark Fantasy (part of the British Library’s Tales of the Weird collection, edited by Mike Ashley) and hope to read more of that series. The stories by Catherine Wells and Mary E. Wilkins were amazing.
I’ve just finished reading Grass by Keum Suk Gendry-Kim and found it to be so very moving and beautifully involving, relating the experiences of a girl forced into sexual slavery during World War II, using black and white images to create intense moods.
Sabrina by Nick Drnaso might be the scariest thing I read this year. Simple drawings, small boxes, page after page of them. We watch characters watch the world, and try to solve a mystery that has such depths in this era of social media. It’s as if a relentless eye watches us all, its gaze passing over, focussing, then twitching to the next thing. Argh. I can’t sleep for thinking about it.
And I discovered a few spin-offs of the Hellboy universe: the BPRD and Sir Edward Grey Witchfinder. I love Mike Mignola’s explorations of weirdness and demonology in different time periods.
And finally – non-fiction! I had a brilliant year for the factual, mainly because my local library service decided to make reservations of non-fiction books free. What an opportunity. I requested a lot of classic texts and was delighted that the library dug their first-edition copies out of the archives and allowed me to borrow them. I was really careful with them, I promise. Jacques Cousteau’s The Silent World with original colour plates was so much fun. Nuremberg by Airey Neave was a weighty hardback that gave me so much to think about. Clean Young Englishman by John Gale was an autobiography with such a clear voice, wrestling to understand a changing world. I was glued to it.
I also really enjoyed a couple of biographies. Obsessive Genius: The Inner World of Murie Curie by Barbara Goldsmith and How to Live: A Life of Montaigne by Sarah Bakewell were both admirably clear and far-reaching in their studies of their subjects.
If there’s one non-fiction book that really connected with me personally this year it would be Exposure by Olivia Sudjic. It says many things about writing and anxiety and modern life that made me stop in my tracks, and look carefully at my own experiences. I’ve reread parts of it many times since, and probably will again throughout 2020. But hopefully I’ll also read so many new and amazing things next year, and catch up with the books I have waiting for my on my TBR shelf, including works by James Smythe, Nina Allan, Laura Mauro, and other writers that I already know are incredibly talented. And there’ll be new discoveries too.
Bring it on.
And have a great new year, if you made it this far through this meandering list in which I probably left out lots of great stuff. See you in 2020. Grrrrr and snap.