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
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
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
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
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,