Hi everyone! I hope everyone has been enjoying the holiday season and that your families and friends have spoilt you. For my last post of 2019, I am will be looking back at my favourite books. This was a hard list to put together; midway through the year I had a bit of a reading slump and wasn’t particularly reading anything great. Thankfully, I have had some brilliant books at the beginning and end of the year, so that’s where the majority of them are coming from. As always my “rules” for the list are that I need to have read them for the first time in 2019 regardless of publication date and I cannot include rereads. I have also linked my original reviews in case you want to hear more about the books mentioned, as I will only be briefly summarising them here. But without further ado, let’s get into the books:
Kicking the list off is Barbara Pym, who is quickly becoming one of my favourite authors. Some Tame Gazelle is her debut novel and it revolves around two middle-aged sisters, Belinda and Harriet Bede. Belinda still has feelings for University sweetheart Archdeacon Hoccleve, whilst Harriet is happy to turn down Count Bianco every year. However, when two strangers visit their village, the sisters’ world is about to turn upside down. Funny and charming, Pym’s knack for social commentary is on full display, capturing village life in the 1950s perfectly. Belinda and Harriet are a joy to read about and I could have happily continued reading about them in a much longer novel.
The first of the Women’s Prize longlistees to make this list, Swan Song explores the relationships between author Truman Capote and a group of socialites that he calls his ‘swans’. I might be biased because of my love of Capote, New York, and this time period in general, but I really enjoyed this. The swans are like a Greek chorus in the novel, speaking as one. This was quite an unusual technique but one that really worked for me: it highlighted the importance of their voices which had been robbed from them by Capote. For them to tell their own story was quite empowering. The novel became all the more poignant as two of the swans – Lee Radziwill and Marella Agnelli – passed away this year.
The novel follows the Greek witch Circe, from when she is shunned by her family to meeting Odysseus and his men. This was a lot of fun. I was only vaguely aware of Circe at the time but Miller did a great job of developing her character arc. It was fascinating watching her grow up. The cameos from more famous faces of Greek mythology was also a nice touch. It was interesting to see how many tales Circe is involved in, and Miller combined them all really well. It felt like a retelling of The Odyssey from a woman’s perspective at points. I can see why it garnered huge acclaim when it was first released.
Set in the Victorian period, the novel follows married couple Tom and Ally Cavendish. Yet, weeks after their wedding, Tom sets off for Japan to design and build lighthouses. Ally meanwhile, begins working as a doctor at an asylum in Truro. As they spent more and more time apart, they begin to wonder if their marriage will survive. This is a very quiet novel which seems almost like a character study. Admittedly, I preferred Ally’s chapters, mainly because I found her relationship with her parents really compelling. They appear in other novels by Moss which I will check out. Moss’ descriptions of 19th century Japan were also extremely beautiful, and it was clear how much research she had done.
I had read Little Fires Everywhere by Ng last year and really enjoyed it, so picked up her debut. This one might be my favourite of the two. Lydia, the middle child of the Chinese-American Lee family, is drowned in the lake. Her father suspects it was suicide; her brother is suspicious that her friend might have something to do with it. But what really happened? Ng tackles hard-hitting subjects, such as sexism and racism. She doesn’t shy away from portraying the uglier aspects of society. Yet, the novel at its heart is about family, and the differences between what we say and what we mean. Ng weaves all these themes effortlessly, and she captures middle-class America with stunning accuracy. I can’t wait for her third novel.
I read this very early in the year yet it still makes it into the top 5. Most people probably know the plot by now, considering this book has been everywhere: nurse Korede often has to help younger sister Ayoola in times of need, such as when she keeps killing her boyfriends. However, when both women get caught in a love triangle with a young doctor, Korede will have to make a tough decision. Despite the subject matter, I loved this book and zoomed through it. It was such an entertaining romp that I didn’t want it to end. Braithwaite throughs in a couple of twists and red herrings to keep you guessing, but what she does so well is develop the relationship between the sisters. That aspect was brilliant to read about and the fact this novel is a debut makes it all the more impressive.
Set to be a feature film starring Ana de Armas, Blonde is the fictional account of the life of Marilyn Monroe. It is principally written from Monroe’s perspective (there is one chapter from Ava Gardner), letting her the readers her version of events. This is a harrowing, devastating read. Oates talks about the sexual abuse and harassment Monroe suffered throughout her life – making the novel seem all the more relevant in the wake of news of people like Harvey Weinstein. Oates’ language is beautiful, and there were many passages I wanted to underline, and it often contrasted with the grim content. Yet I couldn’t put the book down.
Yes, another Marilyn Monroe book. But whilst Blonde was fictional, Summers’ book is a biography, tracing Monroe’s career and sudden death in 1962. He also addresses the rumours surrounding her demise and poses his own theory on what happened that fateful night. Summers normally writes crime fiction, a fact clearly evident when he discusses the star’s death. The book is researched meticulously, with Summers speaking to witnesses, obtaining phone records and documents, and having modern experts look over the case in order to piece it together. Yet, Marilyn’s life has also been carefully and thoroughly researched, and it is fascinating hearing from those who knew her. A must for all Monroe fans.
This is a history of cinema itself, from Eadweard Muybridge and George Melies in the 19th century, to films such as Melancholia and Hugo by Martin Scorsese. Any film fan should read this. Thomson’s passion for cinema clearly shines through, and he makes a witty and engaging narrator. The little titbits and background information about the movie industry was really enlightening. He summarises periods of film and groups of filmmakers incredibly well, so people unfamiliar with them will have some grasp of their work. It also gave me a new appreciation of the films I had watched before reading, and made me want to watch all the films mentioned that I hadn’t.
This book is very much what it says on the tin. Plokhy looks back at the Chernobyl disaster, what caused Reactor 4 to explore, and the wider-reaching implications of the meltdown. Plokhy writes incredibly well, explaining succinctly complex scientific topics. Whilst not completely understanding every single thing, I came away with a lot of knowledge concerning nuclear energy. Yet, he also looks at the human cost of the accident and it is his ability to never lose sight of humanity whilst discussing major events that is truly impressive. It is also fascinating to catch a glance at how the Soviet Union operated in this period, and how Chernobyl helped lead to its downfall.
And there you have it! My top 10 books of 2019. It has been a great year for nonfiction for me: the top 3 slots all going to them. I have started to slowly get into nonfiction in the past couple of years, a trend I can see continuing into 2020. In fact, my first review of the new year will be a nonfiction work: Kate Moore’s The Radium Girls. Plus, there are 4 debut novels in the top 10 which I am happy about. However, compared to last year there are virtually no classics on the list, something I hope to rectify.
Let me know your favourite books this year in the comments below, and I shall see you on the 6th January 2020 with more reviews. Until then, hope you have a happy new year!