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

…Better Than All The Rest!

So here we are again to talk about some more of the books that have had me desperate to be (physically) at home on the sofa with nose stuck in book while (mentally) exploring a whole host of new worlds and experiences.

A great young adult read made its way into my hands a few months back and the striking cover of a censored piece of fiction had me wanting to get stuck in immediately. Anything That Isn’t This by Chris Priestley takes us to a gothic town of statues with eerily worn away faces and a castle, a constant looming presence, in which resides the all-powerful ‘Ministry’. We meet our protagonist, Frank, in his last few weeks in education and what, to him, will be the end of the daily reminder of how he doesn’t quite fit in. With aspirations of being a writer he is faced with the unpleasant truth that most in his position, good grades and family connections, will actually end up working for the Ministry. The ruling state have imposed curfews on the residents and ensured all creative output is controlled by allowing only ministry approved fiction (all published work before their reign has been consigned to one small shop, where the end two chapters of each book have been fastidiously torn out) and television programs. Frank feels the claustrophobic town bearing down on him and cannot even escape this feeling in his own home as he believes his family have simply fell in line with the system. The only relief he seems to get from this world is by either talking to his grandfather (in not exactly the most conventional of settings) and by focusing on his love for Olivia, one of the popular crowd, who he is sure would return his affections if he could just engineer the right situation for romance to blossom. I found this a great read that would be enjoyed by all, as usual don’t let the ‘young adult’ tag put you off if you don’t tick the box for that age bracket. Priestley had me questioning how far you will go to pursue your dreams and how easy it is to be sucked into a way of life without questioning the forces behind it. An added treat for the reader is the illustrations that appear throughout the novel, all in stark blacks, whites and greys, making you feel like you are roaming the streets along with Frank. I think this is a corking read for anybody aged 13 years upwards.

‘Anything That Isn’t This’ by Chris Priestley £8.99 Hot Key Books

I am almost embarrassed to be writing about this book now as I am so horribly late to the party, but it would not be honest if I did not include it in here, so, we have arrived at… ‘My Brilliant Friend’ by Elena Ferrante. Working in the book industry I obviously had seen and heard more about these books than your average release, the word of mouth buzz began and I saw the tables stacked with those covers (oh those covers, so much to be said) yet I just did not pick them up. There was no aversion to them, I am not one to reject something because it is popular, I simply had a lot of books to read and they ‘The Neapolitan Series’ kept escaping me. That was until this summer, when I was being a book shop tourist for the day (busman’s holiday and all that) and I found myself buying the first of the four part series. Well, that is it isn’t it? You Ferrante readers will know how my heart was stolen and my every waking moment was consumed by Lila and Elena. Such phenomenal writing translated so beautifully you feel as if you are experiencing the text exactly how those reading in the original language will be. Never have I read such a realistic portrayal of female friendship, with its passionate love and deep jealousy. I experienced such a thrill reading Ferrante describe the difference between the men and women of Naples, people presuming they should be frightened of the men’s explosive anger, but no, as this passes in ten minutes, whereas the women – be frightened of the women, their anger will last a lifetime. Opening the story with Elena, in her 60’s, receiving a phone call from her best friend Lila’s son, to inform her that she has not been seen for days now. Elena advices him to look around her friend’s apartment and he quickly realises that not only has his mother gone, but her possessions too, she has even gone so far as to cut herself out of every single family photo. As Elena puts down the receiver she reflects on how she is not surprised Lila has disappeared, that she knew she would always do this, and that while she can remember she is going to write their story down. We jump back to late 1940’s Naples and so the tale begins. This, for me, is fiction at its best. Engrossing and enough to make me really resent any activity that wasn’t sitting down with this book. I do worry that the covers will put some male readers off (not that I in any way believe in fiction being ‘for’ men or women specifically) but I am aware this does happen, so if you have looked at these covers and thought ‘hmmm, bit gaudy, I’ll give this one a miss’, then to you I say ‘NO you fool! Pick up the book, take it to the counter to pay and then prepare to be amazed!’

‘My Brilliant Friend’ by Elena Ferrante £11.99 (Europa Editions)

I do not have many graphic novels in my back catalogue but this is something I definitely want to change. This was a point driven home when I read ‘Everything is Teeth’, a graphic novel written by Evie Wyld and illustrated by Joe Sumner. Now I am a huge fan of Wyld’s writing, having read and recommended ‘After the Fire, A Still Small Voice’ and ‘All the Birds, Singing’ to many, so I was always going to pick this up to take a look, but I did not anticipate becoming so hooked by this form of storytelling. The tale itself initially appears to be a simple one, as we learn of Wyld’s fear of the shark and how this was a constant issue in her childhood. As we read on we quickly become aware that the story is so much more than this and is actually an examination of her relationship with her father as he grows older and eventually passes away, with Wyld’s striking, sparse style focusing on the minutiae within their relationship and having it speak volumes. Sumner, a friend of Wyld’s, has illustrated the tale in two different styles. The portrayal of Wyld and her family is done in an almost cartoonish fashion, where-as his images of the sharks are frighteningly realistic, the contrast highlighting how they were the stuff of a young girls nightmares. Squeamish when it comes to blood? Well you would assume you were safe when it comes to flicking through a book, but hold your horses, although the majority of the novel is black and white, we do see the damage that can be done by these magnificent animals as vivid, blood red suddenly leaps out at us from the pages to powerful effect. For those new to the graphic novel or seasoned pros, this would be a welcome addition to a bookshelf.

‘Everything is Teeth’ by Evie Wyld & Joe Sumner £16.99 (Random House)

So there we go, another handful of my favourites from this year’s collection. Have you read any of the above and if so, what did you think? Or do you have some favourites you think deserve a mention? Well  let us know in the comments below! Until next time,

Happy Reading!

[dc1]

…Better Than All The Rest!