The 2019 Hitlist

Welcome back bookworms!

A little while ago I asked if a round up of my 2019 reads would be worthwhile and, receiving a resounding yes, here I am! After looking through the books I’ve picked up this past year (I diligently record and rate everything I read on Goodreads, so I can remember the highs and also think ‘what the hell was that about?’ over the lows) I’ve decided that this can’t feasibly be one blog post, it would be too much to expect you to sit through, so, if you’ll humour me, I’m going to split it in several pieces. We’ll start off with ‘5 Star Reads’, the big hitters of the year, over two posts, and then follow up with another post or two containing the ‘Best of the Rest’, books that although may not have reached the 5 star heady heights, still deserve a mention.

I’ve got my mitts on some great books in 2019 so even with this division I already fear for the length of these posts. I’d also like to add that I save some of my most anticipated reads for this time of year, as Winter/Christmas is my favourite reading season (yes I have a favourite reading season, don’t judge!) so you can safely go ahead and assume anything by Elizabeth Strout, Philip Pullman and Erin Morgenstern have got 5 stars, I am just reading them now or in the following week or two, so they won’t feature here. And one last caveat – the idea of sorting my 5 star reads into any kind of countdown to a number one spot was too much for my tired little brain, so they’re mainly being presented in the order I read them, from January to December. Well, with all that ado we best get on!

Milkman by Anna Burns

Faber & Faber

What a bloody brilliant start to my year this was. I’d been nervous of this winner of the 2018 Man Booker, whispers of it being difficult to read and stylistically challenging. I’m so glad I decided to see for myself as this book paid back tenfold in rewards for pushing myself that bit harder with this novel. We follow an 18 year old, quiet, book reading girl living in Belfast during the Troubles, and while we’re aware of the major political strife and violence occurring, the book focuses in on the more direct effects on her life at this moment. We see strict patriarchal structures asking her to be a person she doesn’t want to be, the stifling claustrophobia from her family and religious doctrine, and Milkman himself. No characters are named in this book, we meet mammy, boyfriend, the sisters, and then Milkman. A man much older, and powerful, than our protagonist, his presence is oppressive as he makes it clear he will be her partner. Architecting meetings so that the rumour mill will kick in and the town will believe his declaration and hold over her, her actual life and the one people believe she is living take two wildly divergent paths. This novel puts weighty problems within the pages, both on the shoulders of the protagonist and for the reader to work through, but it is worth it for the skill Burns has with her prose, how wickedly funny this book can be and the demonstration of the personal being political and vice versa.

Testament by Kim Sherwood

Quercus

This sensitively handled first novel deeply moved me. Set across two time periods we follow the story of a Jewish artist, Silk, during the Holocaust. This is then interwoven with this the story of his granddaughter, Eva, in the present day. When Silk dies Eva is contacted by the Jewish Museum in Berlin. They have the testimony of Silk in their possession and wish to display it in the museum. Seeing on the page the questions posed to those liberated from the camps were asked to answer, sometimes only hours or days after they were freed, is heart rendering. Eva herself is unsure whether her grandfather would have wanted this document made public so travels to Berlin to see his testimony, where she finds much more about the man and his past than he had ever revealed. Sherwood has drawn from her own family history and the deep effect the holocaust had on them, and I believe this can be felt in the writing, bringing an honesty to it that is both upsetting and beautiful.

The Winter of the Witch by Katherine Arden

Ebury

The final instalment of this trilogy and, oh my, it did not disappoint. Each book improved on the last for me and this series has easily found itself on my ‘favourite books of all time’ list. I don’t want to talk about this book here as if you haven’t read the series I don’t want to spoilt what happens, and if you have read the first or second book, well, you don’t need me to tell you to get the third, you’ll already be doing so. What I will do for this who are wondering if they should get involved in this world of Russian dark magic and derring do is insert a link here to my review of the first in the series!

The Little Snake by A. L. Kennedy

Canongate

Charmed doesn’t even come close to the effect this book had on me. For old and young alike this homage to ‘The Little Prince’ by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry is the most beautiful of fables. A young girl named Mary, happily living in the beguiling city she has always called home, befriends a small snake called Lanmo. He visits her as she grows older, providing comfort as the city around her begins to change beyond all measure as corruption and war take hold. Knowing there will come a day when he can no longer see Mary, the two try to accept the trials that can beset us in life with bravery and grace. Lanmo also visits others, more morally dubious than Mary, and dispenses just deserts that cannot help raise a wry smile with the reader, holding accountable those who have a striking resemblance to public figures we may also not feel so warmly towards. I could reread this several times over, almost a novella it could be consumed in one sitting, and I think you’d always come away warmed, remembering what really matters in life.

Brother by Matthew Dickman and Michael Dickman

Faber and Faber

Some poetry to wet the whistle now. This is a collection split down the middle, and flip reversed, with each half given to a brother. Both award winning poets in their own right, Matthew takes one half and Michael the other. This is the first time the two have had their work published together in a volume and it was devastating circumstances that led them to do so, after their older brother lost his life to suicide. The grief rings off every page, but there is also light to be found in the darkest of times as they remember the relationship they shared and the memories they made. An incredibly special collection.

The Prince and the Dressmaker by Jen Wang

Macmillan

Yas Queen!! Or Yas Prince should I say! I am SO HERE for this graphic novel. Set in France, an undisclosed time ago, a young woman named Frances is working as a seamstress in a shop where her talents are seriously undervalued. When one day her work is spotted by an appreciative eye she receives a job offer she can’t refuse, making clothes for a member of the Royal Family! Moving into the palace she meets her new employer, to find they will not let her see their face, simply passing on requests for the most extravagant of dresses. Eventually discovering she is providing show stopping fashion for Lady Crystallia, who is also known as Prince Sebastian during the day, the two work to keep his secret while also allowing him to live the life he feels most happy in. Will the demands set on a Prince prove to be too much to make this possible? This story is an absolute JOY and the illustrations are perfection. Perfect for ages 8 to 88!

To prevent you all from suffering fatigue I’ll stop here for the day, but I’ll be back soon with the final instalment of the 5 star reads of 2019, and then will follow soon after with Best of the Rest! Hope some or all of these have piqued your interest and do let us know what your reads of the year have been!

Until next time,

Happy Reading!

The 2019 Hitlist

Stefan Zweig – Two Books & A Chat

I consider myself to be fairly well read, obviously there are plenty of authors out there who are mentioned in those never ending lists of ‘books you should have read..’ whose work I have not delved into yet, but when I started working in the book industry I was introduced to Stefan Zweig and to this day a cloud of disappointment and guilt hangs over me that I did not arrive at his work earlier. In fairness my shame can most likely be shared by many in the UK (please accept my apologies if this is not the case for you dear reader, and also, excuse the introduction to the great man which you will not need) as despite Zweig being one of the most popular writers in the world in the 1920’s and 30’s, with more books in translation at this time than any other author, he went largely unnoticed by the British public.

A great effort to remedy this has been made by Pushkin Press, constantly championing some of the best translated fiction out there, they have published a stunning collection of his work. These editions are as fine an object to admire as much as the writing inside will set you in awe. I do not want to sound like an obsessed one man band heralding Zweig’s career blindly no matter what, I have read the criticism, the disdain sent his way for his quiet stance politically, the accusations that he was writing soap style melodrama and of course the classic argument that his writing was ‘railway carriage reading’ as it was so popular. The latter I, of course, dismiss out right. The scorn that is turned on authors and their work if they go beyond the literary establishment to be loved by swathes of the general reading public can boil my blood – but I shall not type on about this as a recent Guardian article sums up the situation beautifully (with Zweig showing this is not modern phenomena), have a read here http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/nov/24/good-books-women-readers-literary-critics-sexism

The first accusation, well, I really can’t answer how I would respond if I was one of the most hated Jewish writers who had managed to flee the Nazi regime just in time, would I step up and denounce them no matter what? Zweig claimed that he did not do so as he was worried about the safety of those friends left behind, this has been doubted as being the real reason, but I think that in such extreme circumstances like these one should be very slow to judge. And the last claim, soap style melodrama, well yes – Zweig did love a bit of melodramatic plot in his writing, but oh does the course of love ever run smooth, and more importantly, would we want to read about it if it did? His examination of his characters’ lives, the turmoil within them and the tension of sexual relations is nuanced and told in his simplistic style that make him a constant pleasure to read.

As confessed above I was not familiar with Zweig’s work and my introduction came through another artist I much admire, director Wes Anderson. With the release of his movie ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’ Anderson admitted that a lot of his work has been directly influenced by the Austrian, after also owning to not being on exactly first name terms with him,

“I had never heard of Zweig…until maybe six or seven years ago…when I just more or less by chance bought a copy of Beware of Pity…I also read The Post Office Girl…The Grand Budapest Hotel has elements that were sort of stolen from both these books. Two characters in our story are vaguely meant to represent Zweig himself”

With the release of the movie came the publication of ‘The Society of Crossed Keys – Selections from the Writings of Stefan Zweig’. This book begins with an interview with Anderson, and the above quote, which introduces us to how exciting it can feel when you ‘discover’ the author and the world that he creates. Within the book our first word of Zweig’s comes from his memoir ‘The World of Yesterday’. You know with certain news events there will always be the inevitable ‘where were you when you heard…’ question that will remain tied with it forever? Well I remember where I was when I first read Zweig, and it ain’t glamorous. The 319 bus from Kingswood to Bath was never fun at the best of times, but this day it was sweaty with condensation, packed to the rafters and running late, usually enough to be sending my blood pressure soaring and providing a terrible start to the day. That day was different. Wedged into my seat I turned the pages and escaped into pre-war Vienna, a place evoked so reverentially I ached to travel back in time to experience the magic, it made my surroundings disappear. In the interview with Anderson he describes what a special time and place this was,

“Vienna – and the environment he grew up in was so – I guess, art was the centre of his own activity, and it was also the popular thing…the daily newspapers they got each morning had poetry and philosophical writings…Vienna was a place where there was this great deep culture, but it was the equivalent of rock stars – it was the coolest thing of the moment.”

When Zweig describes his time there you become acutely aware of how important these surroundings were for him, and why the disappearance of it all was just that much harder to stand.

The book is a great taster for readers, including not only work from his memoir but also ‘Beware of Pity’, his only completed novel, and ‘Twenty-four Hours in the Life of a Woman’, one of his many novellas. His output was as vast as it was varied, producing plays, biographies and many pieces of journalism. My most recent outing with him was to travel through time, as he introduced to me some of the great stories through the centuries in ‘Shooting Stars – Ten Historical Miniatures’. Generally I do not read a lot of history, but these bite sized pieces left me perfectly satisfied as I was waltzed through the discovery of the Pacific Ocean in 1513 through to Wilson’s failure and the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, with fascinating pit stops to be had along the way. These momentous moments in history caused me to laugh, gasp at the audacity of some and marvel at some great daring do (seventeen ships being carried across a mountainous headland as a battle strategy anyone?! And when I say carried, I mean carried!). Zweig brings these moments to life so that the people involved, such as Handel, do not read as those we can’t imagine from a past too different to our own, but as living and breathing characters we could almost reach through the page to touch. His style is as elegant and effective with his non-fiction just as we are used to in his fiction.

We cannot ignore the sad ending of Zweig’s own life story however. After escaping Vienna following Hitler’s rise to power, he made his way to London and then onto Bath, but never settled in one place until he reached Petropolis, a town 68 kilometres north of Rio, Brazil. Here he lived with his second wife until they were one day found dead, holding hands, after taking a large dose of barbiturates. The news broke worldwide, covering the front pages of many a newspaper, and a state funeral was given with mourners lining the street, all shops and facilities closed for the day. Sadly a couple of days later a friend of Zweig’s received a letter from him in which he said he would like his funeral to be ‘moderate and private’. His heart was broken, after he found himself having watched “my spiritual home, Europe, having destroyed itself”. In his final words he said,

“I think it is better to conclude in good time and in erect bearing a life in which intellectual labour meant the purest joy and personal freedom the highest good on Earth”

The outpouring from his ‘intellectual labour’ has been so loved by so many we can only give thanks for his talent and life. So although the thought of missed time reading Zweig bothers me so much, I will look up to a silver lining, there is much of his work out there for me still to discover and enjoy, and I hope after reading a little about him here you might do the same.

Happy Reading.

The Society of Crossed Keys: Selections from the Writings of Stefan Zweig £6.99 (Pushkin Press)

Shooting Stars: Ten Historical Miniatures by Stefan Zweig £8.99 (Pushkin Press)

Stefan Zweig – Two Books & A Chat

‘She is too fond of books and it has turned her brain’

Come in, come in and settle by the fire I have conjured up with my mind! I hope you have a cuppa in hand so we can complete the introductions and then get on to the much more important business of talking about all things literary! First of all it is only polite I introduce myself. My name is Danielle and I am happy to confess that my life is one consumed by books, it has been suggested before I have some kind of problem. For every one book I read I would say another five enter my flat, I also suffer from a real and genuine ailment which no Dr takes seriously –  a fear of dying before reading all the great literature out there. I am lucky enough to have landed my dream job working in what I consider to be the finest bookshop in the land (supported by our place in the ‘Guardian’s Top 10 Bookshops in the World‘ list) so I spend my days happily chatting away about everything reading related. Alas this still does not quench my thirst to talk about books, I have found myself becoming a nuisance to those I follow on twitter – if I see them discussing what they are currently reading I will always end up jumping into the conversation. Although most are no doubt sick of me I do still get asked for recommendations on a regular basis. So here we are, this blog is an attempt to kill two birds with one stone, stop the pestering of the innocent bookworms out there and then those who want to hear (read) me harp on can do so of their own accord.

I read a real mix of contemporary, classic, genre fiction (we can debate the whole ‘genre’ topic another day!), non fiction and plenty of YA goodness. My literary diet is varied and complete, unlike my actual diet which mainly consists of carbs and cheese. I will be reviewing pretty much everything I read on here, and no doubt news from the literary world will creep on in too, with comments on latest releases, author interviews, book podcasts and festivals.
So make yourself snug in this corner of the internet, I hope it will become a place you can turn to for some good book nattering and inspiration if you are looking for something to pick up and read next.
Now I have done my introduction it would be really lovely if any of you guys would like to say hello in the comments and let me know what you enjoy reading, any favourite authors or books.
My first review will be up on Saturday so pop by for a read, you can sign up for handy notifications when a new blog is posted, and spread the word to your book loving friends!
Until next time – happy reading!
‘She is too fond of books and it has turned her brain’