My favorite time of year has rolled around again: that time when my bank balance weeps as I add dozens of books to my TBR because everyone is sharing their top books of the year that you just have to read. Most of my December TBR consists of rereading Harry Potter for the umpteenth time, so I feel pretty confident sharing my top ten books of the year already – I’m feeling bold.
Half a Creature from the Sea: A Life in Stories by David Almond
Yes, I’m a bad Geordie for waiting until I was 24 to pick up my first book by local author David Almond but don’t worry, I’m fully converted now. Although a delightfully whimsical collection in its own right, this book makes my top 10 mainly because of the personal connection. Reading a fantastical story set in places I know intimately left me feeling beyond elated, and I hope that anyone who reads this who isn’t familiar with the area will see this ordinary corner of the North East in an extraordinary light.
Bodies of Light by Sarah Moss
I fell a bit in love with Sarah Moss this year, and while I was also enchanted by the Northumberland setting of Ghost Wall, it was Bodies of Light that really wowed me. Set during the early suffrage movement in England, we meet a dysfunctional family of four comprising of Alfred, father and painter, Elizabeth, the mother obsessed with helping the poor while neglecting her own family in the process, Mary, the youngest sister with a naïve attitude but a good heart and Ally, who finds herself at the forefront of the women’s fight for higher education. Ally’s storyline was the most compelling: imagine how terrifying it must have been to be the representative for all women while men in the medical sphere are waiting for you to slip up so they can dismiss the idea of women ever practicing medicine professionally.
Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison
Along with the rest of the world, I was devastated to hear the news of Toni Morrison’s death in August this year; I read four of her books between January and June of this year (as part of my reading resolution to explore more backlists) so her astounding literary contribution was fresh in my mind. Milkman’s journey of discovery along with a cast of remarkable supporting characters and a palpable feeling of tension running throughout the book made Song of Solomon a novel that stayed with me long after I closed it.
Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk
2019 was a great year in terms of discovering new-to-me authors, including the now Nobel Prize-winning Olga Tokarczuk. I devoured the subversive eco-thriller Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead in just a day, enchanted by the amalgamation of unique characters, remote Polish setting and astrology. There were also some truly Olympian feats of translation by Antonia Lloyd-Jones, including back-translating various Polish translations of William Blake poems – my tiny translator’s mind was blown.
The Years by Annie Ernaux
If you’d told me last year that an autobiographical history of France would make my top 10 books of the year I’d have laughed in your face. I’m wary of nonfiction, but if everyone wrote it the way Ernaux does, interweaving the historical facts with intensely personal anecdotes, then I’m not sure I’d read anything else. It’s not a book I’d recommend blindly – if you’re not familiar with the history of France you’ll be in for some serious Googling in between chapters, but if you’re up for it, you’ll be captivated.
Normal People by Sally Rooney
Yes, I’m part of the Sally Rooney fan club and no, I won’t hear a word against her. I read this one way back in January (seriously, this year has gone so fast and yet January seems like eons ago), and now when I try to articulate exactly why Normal People had such an impact on me, I struggle. My life is nothing like Marianne’s or Connell’s yet Rooney makes them unreasonably relatable and, despite their respective flaws, I would still fight to the death for both of them.
Salt Slow by Julia Armfield
Another surprise to past me, who used to proudly proclaim to hate short story collections – oh, how naïve I was. I was utterly spellbound by Armfield’s debut collection and upon finishing it I was on the verge of penning her a letter to commission a short story a day so I’d always have a daily fix of her wild imagination. Gruesome, sharp and raw, her stories peel back the layers of reality to reveal the blind, squirming things that lie beneath. Her matter-of-fact style lent these dark tales a startling ring of authenticity, which made them all the more alarming – and I loved it.
East of Eden by John Steinbeck
I’m a few years late to the Steinbeck party but I blame that on harrowing memories of dissecting Of Mice and Men to death in English class. This one was quite literally forced into my hands by my best friend for my birthday after she loved it, so the pressure was on. (Side note: don’t you just love the way bookworms give gifts? ‘I loved this, SO YOU MUST TOO!’ Then I did exactly the same thing to her with Salt Slow.) Thankfully I was as enamored with East of Eden as she was. Truly an epic masterpiece that I promise doesn’t read the way you might expect a 700-plus-page biblical retelling to – the pages practically turn themselves and you’ll find yourself deeply invested in this complex tale, with one of the greatest villains I’ve ever encountered.
My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell
I felt beyond lucky to receive an early copy of this outstanding debut novel, and if you’re in a position to pre-order it then I strongly recommend you do so – this is set to be one of the most powerful novels of 2020. A gritty and stomach-turning depiction of a student-teacher relationship and its devastating consequences on the victim’s life, Russell does not sugar-coat a thing. Her portrayal of gaslighting and abuse will be impossible for some people to read, but if you know someone who has a tendency towards victim-blaming when these types of cases come to light then buy them this book – it’s necessary reading for our time. I can’t stand it when books are tied up with a bow, and this one strikes the perfect balance between heartbreaking and hopeful.
Spring by Ali Smith
I think my obsession with Ali Smith hit its peak this year. I remember the post-woman just caught us as we were heading to the car and handed me a package. I made the mistake of opening it in the car, screaming when I realized what it was and nearly making my partner crash the car. Oops. Thankfully I didn’t die in a fiery car crash before reading this masterpiece. I genuinely think this quartet is going to end up a modern classic of the Brexit age, books kids will study in school once Brexit is but a distant blot in history. Smith’s writing never fails to raise the hairs on my arms, I reread entire pages several times before moving on just to appreciate the sheer power of her words as she dissects modern British society. I’m eagerly anticipating the last novel of this quartet and I’d put good money on Summer making an appearance on the 2020 version of this list.
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