It’s always hard to pick your own Top Ten books of the year. What criteria do you set yourself? What is more worthy, the one that made you laugh, or the one that left you truly fearful for the future? Originality? Writing style? Characterisation? Plot? Or the fact that as soon as you finish you want to phone friends and yell “You must read it”?
It was relatively straightforward to whittle the numbers down to, say, 20, without too much internal strife. But then it was tough. Very tough. What about Agatha by Danish writer June Catherine Bomann, a gentle but surprisingly powerful story about loneliness. Or Melissa Lucashenko’s Too Much Lip which was as humorous as it was typically no-holds-barred. Or Edna O’Brien’s Girl, about the devastating kidnapping of a group of Nigerian schoolgirls by Boko Haram. And in non-fiction there was Beauty by Australian author and writer Bri Lee about the toxic and potentially deadly environment particularly affecting young women, by society’s application of rigid physical standards. Or Superbugs by Matt McCarthy a devastating, and decidedly scary, analysis of bacteria, antibiotics and Big Business. You get the point.
Some titles went on and off the list. In some cases a couple of times. However, before 2019 disappears, here’s my final Top Ten. In the next post I’ll give the full list of books that I read during 2019. Maybe then, you can be the judge.
A Month in Siena by Hisham Matar (Viking): the historian, writer and memoirist’s long fascination with the work of the Sienese school of artists becomes the inspiration for this unforgettable book. In beautiful prose he muses on art, history and the enduring pain of loss.
The Birdman’s Wife by Melissa Ashley (Affirm): fictionalised account of Elizabeth Gould whose art breathed life into the work of her husband, celebrated ornithologist John Gould . A woman ahead of her time, but largely forgotten by history for her pioneering approach to life, art and discovery.
Fly Already by Etgar Keret: compulsive and very clever collection of 22 short stories that push the boundaries to offer an emotional roller-coaster view of life. Frequently funny and sad at the same time.
Olive Again by Elizabeth Strout (Viking): the return of one of literature’s most blunt, cantankerous, yet endearing women, Olive Kitteridge. A novel created from 11 separate chapters intertwining characters and events, that sees Olive eventually come to terms with happiness.
She Said by Jodie Kantor and Megan Twohey (Bloomsbury): Riveting factual account of the investigative journalism by which two journalists pieced together the critical sexual harassment stories that led to the world-wide awareness and impact of the #MeToo movement.
The Weekend by Charlotte Wood: after the death of an older women, one of four close friends, the remaining three gather to clear out her beach house. But can their lifelong friendship survive the realisation that none is sure why they had stayed so close? An often hilarious celebration of tenderness and growing old.
There There by Tommy Orange (Vintage ): A quietly controlled inquiry into what it means to be an urban native American. The only thing binding the diverse group of main characters preparing for the Big Oakland Powwow, America is their Native American roots. But is it enough?
My Sister, The Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite (Atlantic): A nurse in Nigeria is shocked to discover that her beautiful sister has killed three men. But when she accidentally discovers that the man she loves seems to be on her sister’s kill list, she realises blood is thicker than water.
Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck (Granta): Retired academic Richard, whose wife has recently died, finds himself drawn to a group of African asylum seekers in Berlin. The book chronicles his growing awareness and empathy towards people in a world from which he had been largely insulated.
Rabbits for Food by Bonnie Kirshenbaum (Soho Press): after she finds herself unable to leave her apartment or function properly Bunny ends up in a Manhattan hospital with an assortment of “inmates, lunatics, psychos, and loons”. Can she survive inside, or out? Moving and incredibly funny.