The end of another year… there’s just no stopping them. I always enjoy writing these annual review posts. They feel like a good thing to do on Boxing Day while the nut roast settles. This has been a strange and troubling year in too many ways – politically (no more to be said about that) and personally (I’ve been ill for most of the year and this has made blogging a struggle at times). But there have been highlights. This year I spent all of November obsessed with taking part in National Novel Writing Month and, in a case of third time lucky, I finished it, triumphant! What I produced was a big pile of rubbish but the process was inspirational and so this January I’m going to have my very own National Novel Writing Month and I’m going to try and do it again but hopefully producing something that may have legs. The whole exercise has increased so many times my admiration and respect for all authors. I am in awe of what they do and it makes it even more of a privilege to read their books, often very early, and to write about them.
Which leads me to the other group of people I must thank – publishers and their amazing publicists. I cannot thank you wonderful, kind, generous and amazingly busy people enough. Many of you have been so supportive to me as I’ve gone through my Difficult Year and I’m grateful. I also appreciate all of my fellow bloggers and reviewers – what an inspirational bunch you are! Although you’ve made me buy far too many books…. I’ve bought more books this year than ever before.
Thanks so much to all of you who have taken the time to read my reviews over the last year. It’s such a good feeling knowing I haven’t been talking to myself and it’s really kind of you. I appreciate all of the comments and book recommendations that you’ve posted here. That’s more books that have been bought!
My reading has been a little different this year. I’ve sought out a fair few comfort reads and that also means that I’ve read less crime fiction than normal. Although, having said that, I have read a lot of really excellent crime and psychological thrillers over the last twelve months. You’d have thought that after all of these years of reading, I’d be hard to catch out with a twist or shocking revelation. You’d be wrong! I’ve continued to read lots of my beloved historical fiction and science fiction, although slightly less military action-based of both (yet two such books feature in my top reads!). I don’t know why that is. But it’s in parallel with reading more fiction which is lightly laced with romance or saga. No doubt next year my reading patterns will completely change again. It all makes it very interesting and I’m certainly more susceptible to reading books recommended to me that I might not have contemplated before. It’s all good! I’m sure I’m not the only person whose reading alters. I’d be interested to hear about it.
And so on to the statistics! So far this year I’ve read 172 novels. I’m trying to get this up to 175 but I might not have left myself enough time but I should read a couple more before Big Ben bongs. I’ve read 164 novels published in 2019 (this includes some books I read in December 2018). I’ve also read a fair few 2020 novels (which are absolutely excellent and I’ll do a separate post about them) and I’ve also been reading some oldies. I’ve fallen in love with new old series – The Seven Sisters books by Lucinda Riley, Jessica Fellowes’ Mitford books, Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie novels, the Philip Pullman Dust books. This has been an absolute delight in 2019.
I’ve been trying to put together my top 10 of books published in 2019 (purposely excluding titles published in other years – as I say, I’ll do a post about 2020 forthcoming titles shortly). I’ve not read nearly all of the books that I wanted to. There are big omissions. I’m getting better at going back to books I’ve missed. I keep a list of them. I usually get there in the end, but that does mean that this list is by no means a proper list – it’s just my own personal list. I love reading other people’s top tens. They’re such a highlight of this time of year and add to more books being bought, more books read and loved. Just as they should be. But in trying to get the list down to 10, I’ve failed and I’ve only managed to wrestle it down to 20. I thought about a ruthless cull but then realised that these 20 books leapt out at me and so they must have done that for a reason. It seems wrong to exclude them. The books aren’t presented here in any order except for the final three, which are my favourite three. There is among them a top favourite. With no more ado, here are my favourite 20 books published in 2019.
The Familiars by Stacey Hall
This is one of the most enthralling and enchanting historical novels I’ve read for some time. Its beautiful cover hints at wonders within and it is right. I fell for Fleetwood, our 17th-century heroine, the moment I met her. She could hardly be more vulnerable or isolated, despite her love for her husband and their beautiful ‘modern’ home, and yet she is so resilient. But then she has so little to lose. She believes she’s a dead woman walking. The Familiars is such an atmospheric novel, which is rich in place. I didn’t want to put it down once I picked it up and I read it in two glorious sittings.
Tiamat’s Wrath by James S.A. Corey
Tiamat’s Wrath is the eighth novel in the Expanse series and surely there can be no science fiction series being written today that I love half as much as I do this one. I love it so much I don’t watch the TV series. It’s engrossing, disturbing and troubling, full of heart and sacrifice, packed with action, and with an alien threat that is as thoroughly terrifying as it is mysterious. Bravo! I wish this series would never end but I suspect that the end is approaching.
Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield
This is a stunningly gorgeous and melancholic tale set along the Thames during the later Victorian years. This is beautiful writing. The flow of the river and its tributaries form the heart of the novel and they also weave their way through its prose and imagery. It’s a hypnotic book, albeit a very sad one in places, because this is a novel about lost children, the hope of a child found, and the folklore of a river that might be the centre of this village’s life but it is also a place of death, especially for those in despair, and superstition. Once Upon a River is an immersive, beguiling novel from start to finish.
Big Sky by Kate Atkinson
Big Sky is a magnificent novel, not just for its excellent plot and beautiful, elegant prose, but also for its insight into human behaviour and motives. People here can do bad things, even when they don’t want to and know it’s wrong. That doesn’t make their behaviour any less evil, but it does make them interesting. There’s a battle between good and evil – Reggie and Ronnie (so brilliantly named) are the angels. Jackson Brodie is there to mete out justice and the way in which this novel comes together is jawdropping and marvellous. Kate Atkinson is one of the very finest authors at work today. Big Sky shows yet again why. I’ll be sure not to let this series pass me by again and I urge you to read it.
The Ten Thousand Days of January by Alix Harrow
This is a beautiful novel, beautifully written. The gorgeous cover hints at wonders beneath and it delivers. I’m not generally a reader of fantasy but there’s something about this book that really appealed to me (quite apart from its stunning cover and beautiful writing) – it feels like a mix of historical fiction and science fiction, with an Edwardian girl opening doors into worlds of other possibilities. But not just any Edwardian girl, but one who is vulnerable, regarded as different and exotic, without parental care, virtually a prisoner, in real danger of being considered mad. She is also enchanting. January is an outstanding creation. I adored her. So much of the novel is told with her voice and it is dedicated to her. This is January’s journey and, although there are monsters to be encountered along the way, there are also angels.
The Wayward Girls by Amanda Mason
I love to read frightening tales, especially those that have a haunted house at its heart. Sadly, they rarely scare me, but The Wayward Girls, on more than one occasion, managed to do just that. It is a very creepy tale indeed, perfect for late night reading. It has all of the appeal of a ghost story. There is also something of Poltergeist about it. Iron Sike Farm is a frightening place indeed. It is irresistible. But The Wayward Girls is also character-driven and it’s Loo and Bee who hold our attention, although we are also caught up in the lives of the investigators who visit this farm and must deal with what they find, both in the past and in the present. I read The Wayward Girls at night by lamplight and I can certainly recommend that you do the same. Everything I want from a ghost story, this book gives. That, I think, says it all.
The Long Call by Ann Cleeves
This is the first in a new series by Ann Cleeves – set in a different part of Britain (a long way from Shetland and Northumberland) and with a new detective at its heart. And it is magnificent. The mood and sense of place is presented perfectly from the very first chapter in which we meet Matthew Venn for the first time. Ann Cleeves is a genius in laying bare character so carefully, sympathetically and lightly – and quickly. Almost immediately I could believe that Matthew is a real person, in convincing relationships with his partner, colleagues and parents, newly part of this rural community in north Devon where the rivers Taw and Torridge converge. It’s a beautiful part of the world, yet also tucked away. When crime happens here it really does shock. I am a huge fan of Ann Cleeve’s Vera Stanhope series but Vera has undoubtedly met her match in Matthew Venn.
The Second Sleep by Robert Harris
Robert Harris is easily one of my very favourite authors, if not my favourite, not least because everything he writes is so different, original, ingenious and surprising. And with The Second Sleep Robert Harris has achieved, in my opinion, the greatest surprise of them all. Something happens early on – watch for the clues – and, it might be a cliche to say it, but I could feel my jaw actually dropping. All I’ll say to tempt you to read it, is that The Second Sleep is beautifully written and structured. Its characters feel real, their fears and loves tangible. The Exmoor setting is perfect. Most of all, read this book putting all your expectations and assumptions to one side. Neither belong here. The rewards will be great.
The Undoing of Arlo Knott by Heather Child
This is a truly extraordinary novel. In big ways it’s speculative science fiction as we watch Arlo manipulate time and recent events for various reasons. All of which raises the huge question of what would we do if we could undo an event, reverse an action or word that we regret, save someone we love. But how much would you change? How far back would you go? Where would you draw the line as life’s knots grow increasingly complex and entangled? This is a brilliantly written and clever novel. It shocks and amuses and it has so many twists and unexpected developments. I love speculative fiction and with The Undoing of Arlo Knott we see the genre at its very best.
The Family Upstairs by Lisa Jewell
Lisa Jewell is the master of stand alone psychological thrillers and this is proven yet again by The Family Upstairs, which I found to be utterly compelling and engrossing, in a kind of voyeur sense, perhaps, but this darkly disturbing novel is as catchy and addictive as you could desire. At the heart of this book is 16 Cheyne Walk, with its several floors, many rooms and multiple hiding places. There’s barely a room without a secret, barely a space left untouched by its extraordinary past and we explore them all. I could not put this marvellous book down.
The Gameshouse by Claire North
I’m a huge fan of Claire North’s unusual, mind-bending speculative thrillers and The Gameshouse is, I do believe, a masterpiece. The fact that it was first published in three disparate parts doesn’t matter at all. Each story is separate and distinct but each influences the others, the same characters appear in two or three of them, and the influence of the Gameshouse itself grows throughout the three parts in a kind of crescendo. It is very clever. Claire North’s writing is clever and original but it’s also very witty and, fittingly for this novel, playful. The Gameshouse presents a staggering portrait of power, astonishing the reader with the lengths to which players will pursue their games, as well as their (mostly) casual disregard for their enslaved pieces, which they manipulate, manouevre and sacrifice.
All That’s Dead by Stuart MacBride
Stuart MacBride can do no wrong in my eyes. Without doubt, he is my favourite crime writer and Logan McRae and the appalling Roberta Steel my favourite detectives. Stuart MacBride is the wittiest of writers and All That’s Dead sparkles. This is such clever writing. It makes the reader laugh but this contrasts so effectively with other sections of the book which are utterly shocking. The case at the heart of the novel is horrifying. It builds slowly towards something unforgettable. It is astonishing.
The Exiled by David Barbaree
Following on from Deposed, this superb novel, even better than its predecessor, continues the story of what might have been if Nero had survived the plot against him and, blinded, developed an elaborate plot of vengeance. It’s a fantastic idea, brilliantly executed, and here it collides full on with the eruption of Vesuvius. The Exiled is such an exciting and riveting novel – a Roman political thriller with a disaster novel thrown in for our added enjoyment. I couldn’t take my eyes off the pages. Original, clever, exciting and engrossing, I can’t praise this book or its author enough.
Blood & Sugar by Laura Shepherd-Robinson
This is a sophisticated, engrossing tale, written with such confidence by an author who has clearly immersed herself in a period that she understands very well indeed. And she brings it to life, especially that little bit of 18th-century England that is Deptford, to the east of London, where slavery is everyone’s business. No punches are pulled here when it comes to the slave trade. The cruelty and inhumanity is laid bare and some sections, with which the author has taken so much care, are upsetting to read but they are also powerfully informative. Blood & Sugar is a compelling novel. The murder mystery is such a good one. The book is action-packed and as page turning as you could wish for. This is such a hard novel to put down.
The Neighbour by Fiona Cummins
The Neighbour is without doubt one of the most atmospherically menacing and sinister novels that I’ve read in quite some time. I read it at night by lamplight. I read other things in the daytime. The Neighbour is a book that belongs to the night. And so all I can do is urge you to turn down the lights and curl up with quite possibly the most atmospheric tale of murder I encountered in 2019. This isn’t about blood or gore, although you’ll certainly encounter scenes that may make your skin crawl, it’s about a mood and a place, and those cursed to live there. It is excellent.
The Lost Man by Jane Harper
This is easily my favourite of Jane Harper’s excellent three mysteries. Once again, Jane Harper brilliantly visualises the outback as well as those hardy people who have to make a living from it. The heat, dust and merciless cruelty of the outback desert at the height of summer is relentless and superbly depicted in The Lost Man. The mystery is very much character-driven. It is all about families and relationships between a small group of people who live such remote and difficult lives. But there is as much love as there are secrets. It’s an excellent novel, beautifully written. Jane Harper is an irresistible writer. And what a fantastic premise!
Triumph in Dust by Ian Ross
Triumph in Dust completes the story of Roman Centurion, General and hero Castus and how this series has grown. It is an outstanding novel and a triumphant conclusion. We’re familiar with Castus and his struggles with Constantine, the emperor’s sons and family as well as with his rival emperors. Castus has had years caught in the middle of civil war, in the most perilous situations. But now Castus, much older with his body failing him, embarks on a final mission for an emperor who has caused him so much grief and pain, and it stands out for the very personal struggle that it will bring. Castus hangs on to his paganism which is so much a part of who he is. This tension between faiths, between the new and the old worlds, between Rome and Constantinople, is such an original and compelling element of the series and is particularly resonant in its finale.
Now to my three favourite novels of 2019….
Our Child of the Stars by Stephen Cox
This glorious, enchanting novel spellbound me. I’ve not read anything like it before. Its portrayal of a young alien child, embraced by a human couple with so much love to give, in the paranoid, moon-reaching world of 1969, is all-powerful and astonishing. It’s also an exciting adventure. There are hints about other planets, other aliens, that give me hope that Stephen Cox will return us to this world, reunite us with Cory once more. Our Child of the Stars is a very special novel indeed and, even though I read it almost a year ago it has stayed with me throughout the year. A truly exceptional novel written gorgeously.
The Irish Princess by Elizabeth Chadwick
I cannot overstate my love of Elizabeth Chadwick’s writing and her novels. It’s hard to imagine anyone else who can immerse the reader so deeply in the medieval period, bringing to such vivid and colourful life kings and queens but also those other people whose names are known to history but so little else. Elizabeth Chadwick’s great writing love is William Marshal, The Greatest Knight, and here she turns her attention to his mother-in-law Aiofe, a beautiful Irish princess who was so much more than that. I knew nothing about Aiofe before reading The Irish Princess but now I am fascinated by her and feel that I’ve been given a glimpse into her extraordinary life in 12th-century Ireland and England. Elizabeth Chadwick knows this period inside out and we reap the rewards of this knowledge with a novel built upon incredible historical details and insight. And because it feels so real we care deeply for these people, especially Aiofe and Richard. Expect strong emotion. I cried ugly tears more than once. I was so involved in Aiofe’s story. I’ve loved so many of Elizabeth Chadwick’s novels and The Irish Princess is right there among the very best, equalling The Greatest Knight, which, considering how breathtakingly good that novel is, is high praise indeed.
Leading on to my favourite novel published in 2019.
Wanderers by Chuck Wendig
On 3 June, in the small rural town of Maker’s Bell in Pennsylvania, fifteen-year-old Nessie gets out of bed, leaves her home and starts to walk. Nessie is just the first of many. Others are drawn to the walkers; some see them as angels, others as demons. Society can’t cope with the walkers. It can’t understand them. Order starts to collapse. It is a time for evil men to thrive, especially those who say they are servants of God. And all the time the Flock walks resolutely on, completely unaware of the growing danger around them. Wanderers is one of those rare novels that becomes such a part of your life when you read it that you feel different for it. It’s 800 pages long and not a page is wasted. I wanted to read it as soon as I heard about it and I bought and started it on the day it was published. There is so much to Wanderers. It contains so many lives and their stories. Chuck Wendig is to be applauded for the sheer quality of the writing, for the complex, multi-layered plot, and for the range of characters that we meet and spend time with. Comparisons have been made to The Stand, and there are similarities but, personally, I think Wanderers is the better book. What drives it on, though, is the fantastic mystery at its heart. Where are the walkers going? What will happen when they get there? On so many levels Wanderers succeeds. It’s a significant novel. But it’s also thrilling, horrifying, emotional, engrossing and is an absolute joy to read.
What an incredible bunch of books! And I know from those I’ve read already that 2020 is going to be just as good. I hope you’ll join me as we read together through the year. Have a wonderful New Year and I wish you health and happiness for 2020.