My Life in Books – what I read in 2019

As you might expect, quite a lot of these titles crop up in my lists of the century and the decade (watch this space), but I’ve read things that fall well outside of those time frames, and things that I very much enjoyed but which didn’t quite make the cut. I haven’t included absolutely everything I read. One or two things were just a bit rubbish, and I’m going to ignore them. What that means is that everything here I enjoyed and/or was glad I had read (not necessarily the same thing), with the occasional caveat, and there are things that I enjoyed a very great deal. I’m not attempting to do a full review for all titles, or I’ll be here till 2021, just a few notes and links here and there, particularly for those titles which I haven’t written about elsewhere or which aren’t going to feature in all of the other (less fun) Books of the Year guides that are beginning to appear. The books that were published in 2019 are in bold, and my favourites have a little star by them, just so’s you know.

Crime, Thrillers, that sort of thing

Ben Aaronovich – The Furthest Station (part of the Rivers of London series, which I love. Moon over Soho is on my Century list)

Megan Abbott – Give me your Hand (a new author to me this year but one who I will follow up.)

Eric Ambler – Journey into Fear (classic thriller from 1940)

Kate Atkinson – Big Sky (new Jackson Brodie!)*

Mark Billingham – Love Like Blood, As Good as Dead, The Bones Beneath, Die of Shame, The Killing Habit (the excellent Tom Thorne series)

Stephen Booth – Fall Down Dead (Cooper & Fry series, set in the Peak District – I’ve read quite a few of these, but not in chronological order, and I keep feeling there’s back story that I’m missing! Will have to fill in the gaps.)

Sam Bourne/aka Jonathan Freedland – To Kill the Truth (follow up to To Kill the President, which was a startlingly close to reality account of Trump’s presidency as well as a nail-biting thriller. This one’s preoccupation is clear from the title – the events described may not be entirely plausible but the basic premiss chills, nonetheless, and Bourne/Freedland knows how to keep his audience gripped.)

James Lee Burke – New Iberia Blues, Robicheaux* (Dave Robicheaux series. Robicheaux is on my Century list)

Jane CaseyLove Lies Bleeding, One in Custody (two Maeve Kerrigan novellas), Cruel Acts* (new Maeve Kerrigan! on my Century list), How to Fall (first in Casey’s YA Jess Tennant series)

Harlan Coben – Tell No One, The Woods

Eva Dolan – Tell no Tales (second in the Zigic & Ferrera series, set in a Hate Crimes Unit)

Louise Doughty – Dance with Me, Honey Dew, Crazy Paving

Tana French – In the Woods, The Likeness, Faithful Place, Broken Harbour* (the first four in the Dublin Murders series – Broken Harbour is on my Century list), The Wych Elm*

Frances Fyfield – Half-Light (I read several of her crime novels back in the ‘80s and ‘90s but nothing more recently. This one is from ’92 and published under her real name, Frances Hegarty, but has reminded me to read anything by her that I’d missed).

Robert Galbraith – Lethal White (the latest Cormoran Strike – The Cuckoo’s Calling is on my Century list)*

Isabelle Grey – Good Girls Don’t Die (another new writer to me this year, and another who I will follow up)

Elly GriffithsZig Zag Girl, The Blood Card, Smoke and Mirrors, The Vanishing Box* (the first four in the Brighton Mysteries series, which I love), The Stone Circle* (the latest Ruth Galloway – on my Century list), The Stranger Diaries (first in an intriguing new series)

Jane Harper – Force of Nature, The Lost Man* (the latter is on my Century list)

Sarah Hilary – Never be Broken* (new Marnie Rome! on my Century list)

Susan Hill – Hero, The Comforts of Home* (a novella and the latest in the Simon Serrailler series, on my Decade list)

Doug Johnstone – The Jump, Gone Again

Philip Kerr – The Lady from Zagreb, The One from the Other, Prussian Blue*, Greeks Bearing Gifts (Bernie Gunther series. Sadly Kerr died last year, and so whilst there are a couple of Bernie Gunther novels that I haven’t yet read, that will be that. I’ll miss him. Prague Fatale is on my Decade list.)

John le Carré – Our Game, Absolute Friends (The Constant Gardener is on my Century list, and his memoir Pigeon Tunnel on the Decade list)

Laura Lipmann – Sunburn (on my Century list)*

Attica Locke – Black Water Rising (on my Century list)*

Mary McCluskey – Intrusion

Val McDermid – A Darker Domain (Karen Pirie series – I have read a couple of these now and much prefer them to the Wire in the Blood series, which I just can’t get along with. That puzzled me, given my love for the genre and McDermid’s place in the crime-writing pantheon, so I’m glad to have found these and will follow the series up )

Thomas Mullen – The Lightning Men (sequel to Darktown, which is on my Century list)*

Louise Penny – Still Life (first in the Inspector Garnache series – another series to follow up)*

Ian Rankin – In a House of Lies* (on my Decade list), Rather be the Devil, Hide and Seek, Naming the Dead* (on my Century list) (all Rebus novels)

Cath Staincliffe – Desperate Measures (a Blue Murder novel. Staincliffe’s stand-alone novels The Silence between Breaths and The Girl in the Green Dress are on my Century and Decade lists respectively, and I have thoroughly enjoyed her Sal Kilkenny series too)

Lesley Thomson – Ghost Girl (follow up to The Detective’s Daughter)*

Sarah Vaughan – Anatomy of a Scandal (political/psychological thriller, disturbing and compelling)

Sci-fi/Horror/Dystopian Futures etc

Margaret Atwood – The Testaments (sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, on my Decade list)*

Ted Chiang – Stories of Your Life and Others (includes the short story that inspired the film Arrival, on my Century list)*

Andrew Michael Hurley – Devil’s Day* (his second novel – his debut The Loney was on my Century list)

Stephen KingElevation, Gwendy’s Button Box, The Institute* (two fairly slight novellas and a stonking new one, which is on my Decade list)

Audrey Nifenegger – Her Fearful Symmetry*(there’s a sequel to her more famous Time Traveller’s Wife in the works, I believe, but this one is also excellent, spooky and moving)

Claire North – 84k* (a gripping and disturbing dystopia, in a society where everything is commodified and human rights have been abolished)

Iain Pears – Arcadia

Philip PullmanLa Belle Sauvage (on my Decade list), The Secret Commonwealth (the first two in his new trilogy)*

Historical Fiction

Marjorie Bowen – Dickon (a 1929 novel about Richard III, from a hugely prolific but largely forgotten author. The Viper of Milan thrilled me to bits as a young teenager)

Sarah Dunant – Sacred Hearts (third in her Renaissance trilogy. It’s set in a convent, and by chance I read it immediately after The Testaments, which set off all sorts of interesting echoes)*

Robert Harris – Imperium, Lustrum, Dictator (the Cicero trilogy, read in preparation for and during a visit to Rome)

Sarah Moss – Bodies of Light (on my Century list)*, Signs for Lost Children, Night Waking*

Elizabeth Strout – Abide with Me

Amor Towles – A Gentleman in Moscow

Sarah Waters – The Paying Guests

Kate Atkinson – Transcription* (WWII/Cold War set novel, about secrets, lies, paranoia, invention. The Guardian described it as ‘an unapologetic novel of ideas, which is also wise, funny and paced like a spy thriller’.)

Other Fiction

André Aciman – Call me by Your Name

Peter Ackroyd – The Great Fire of London

James Baldwin – Giovanni’s Room* (Baldwin’s 1956 novel is a groundbreaking account of bisexuality, with a non-linear timeline. It’s a powerful read – I read quite a lot of Baldwin as a teenager, including the later Another Country, where the themes of race and sexuality are intertwined, as well as his novels exploring the black experience in the US)

Arnold Bennett – Clayhanger (published 1910, first in a trilogy – or possibly a quartet – set in Bennett’s ‘five towns’ in the Potteries, with a very striking female character in Hilda Lessways)

Jonathan Coe – Middle England* (on my Decade list, the follow up to The Rotter’s Club and The Closed Circle)

J M Coetzee – Disgrace (this has been on my bookshelf for many years and for some reason I only got round to it this year. It was excellent, but I don’t know that I want to read more by him, however good and important he is)

Michel Faber – The 199 Steps (read following a short break in Whitby)

Sebastian Faulks – Paris Echo (this should have been right up my street, and I did enjoy a great deal about it. Some critics felt that the history – Occupied Paris – was rather didactically presented rather than being integrated in the narrative. But the stumbling block for me was rather that some of that history was wrong. Careless mistakes that Faulks or someone should have spotted. Does it matter? I think it really does – if you’re going to invoke this (still contentious and disputed) history, get the details right.

Karen Joy Fowler – We are all Completely Beside Ourselves (on my Decade list)*

Barbara Kingsolver – Flight Behaviour

Chris Mullins – The Friends of Harry Perkins (a late sequel to A Very British Coup)

Michael Ondaatje – The English Patient (another one that I hadn’t got round to for years, and that somehow didn’t connect with me. Whether that’s down to me or Ondaatje, I cannot tell…)

Georges Perec – W: Une Memoir d’enfance

Sally Rooney – Normal People (on my Century list)*

Liz Rosenberg – Indigo Hill (on my Century list)*

Donal Ryan – From a Low and Quiet Sea (on my Century list)*

Kit de Waal – The Trick to Time*

Biography and Autobiography

Sue Black – All that Remains: A Life in Death (musings on life and career from a leading forensic anthropologist)

George L MosseConfronting History (engaging autobiography of one of the leading historians of the Nazi era and ideology, himself a refugee from Nazi Germany)

Keith Richard – Life (on my Century list)*

Bart Van Es – The Cut Out Girl: A story of War and Family, Lost and Found(the story of one of the ‘hidden children’ in occupied Netherlands, and of the author’s family, who sheltered her)

Tara Westover – Educated (grim and fascinating autobiographical account of growing up in the Church of the Latter-Day Saints)

History

Ferdinand Addis – Rome: Eternal City (on my Decade list)*

Anne Applebaum – Iron Curtain (on my Decade list)*

Saul Friedlander – Nazi Germany and the Jews: The Years of Persecution, 1933-1939 (first of a two-part history by Friedlander, a refugee from Prague who survived the war as a ‘hidden child’ in France)

Anton Gill – An Honourable Defeat: A History of German Resistance to Hitler

Thomas Harding – The House by the Lake (on my Century list)*

Claudio Magris – Danube: A Sentimental Journey from the Source to the Black Sea* (inspired by my cruise up part of the Danube. Magris does the whole river, as the title suggests, and his journey predated the lifting of the Iron Curtain, so it was fascinating to contrast his impressions with my own)

Renée Poznanski – The Jews in France during World War II

Michael Rosen – The Disappearance of Emile Zola: Love, Literature and the Dreyfus Case (a fascinating, touching and often quite funny account of the great novelist holed up in various hotel rooms in England, suffering the dreadful food – he is baffled by gravy: why roast meat and then pour water on it? – and trying to juggle his complicated domestic arrangements.  Obviously, Rosen also gives plenty of insight into the Dreyfus Affair which prompted Zola’s exile – and probably his murder).

Other Non-Fiction

David Andress – Cultural Dementia: How the West has Lost its History, and Risks Losing Everything Else (I only came across this because I follow Andress on Twitter and find his contributions there to be so well-informed and incisive that I wanted to read more of his thinking about the state of things. As the blurb suggests, it’s not exactly an optimistic view, but vitally important if we’re to understand how to fight back.)*   

Billy Bragg – Roots, Radicals and Rockers: How Skiffle Changed the World*

Nicci Gerrard – What Dementia Teaches us about Love (on my Century list)*

Dave Rich – The Left’s Jewish Problem: Jeremy Corbyn, Israel and Anti-Semitism* (this made a lot of sense, for me, of the specific nature of left-wing anti-semitism. Unless we understand this, we are trapped in endlessly asserting people’s anti-racist credentials as if that should be sufficient response, or whataboutery focusing on the Islamophobia of the Tory party.)

Rebecca Skloot – The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks* (on my Century list)

Allons-y to 2020, to new new books and new old books, e-books and tatty paperbacks, books that make me laugh, that make me cry, that make me think.

And to all the writers who’ve brought me so much enjoyment and enlightenment in 2019, my thanks, my love and admiration.

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