This year I tried to create a succinct list of book highlights but again found it completely impossible. I’ve read so many amazing books this year and thought it would be rude of me to keep them all to myself. I’ve narrowed my top three down into three categories and written a quick rundown of all the other books which stood out to me in 2019. I can’t wait for another year full of books and bookish discussions in 2020.
Top fiction: Saltwater by Jessica Andrews
Saltwater came out on top for me this year and it probably doesn’t come as a surprise — I haven’t shut up about it since it came out. I’ve written an extended review of this so I won’t say anymore, other than that I’m super excited to see what Jessica Andrews has in store for the future.
Top poetry: Vertigo and Ghost by Fiona Benson
Another one I have already reviewed in-depth, but I’ll just say that if you’re looking for a poetry collection that will grab hold of you and not let go, this is it. I’d also urge anyone to try and get to an event with Fiona Benson because the way she reads aloud is almost as incredible as the words she writes.
Top non-fiction: Lowborn by Kerry Hudson
Kerry Hudson’s Lowborn is by far the best non-fiction/memoir I’ve tackled this year. She has this way of making really heartbreaking and important stories so readable and I loved every word of Lowborn. She is also an amazing human outside of her writing. This summer she created the Breakthrough Festival for working-class writers and I was lucky enough to attend. I’ve never felt so accepted into the world of writing and literature more generally and I’m so thankful she brought that opportunity into my life.
Others books I enjoyed…
Sally Rooney: Normal People / Conversations with Friends
I felt like I was a little late on the boat with these two but was very happy to finally get chance to spend some time with Sally Rooney, an incredible writer with an ability to make page-turning narratives come to life. I adored both of these books for different reasons and I can’t wait to see what else the author has in store in the coming years. Whilst there has been some controversial opinions about the characters and their clear detachment from class, for example in Conversations with Friends, I think Rooney’s interest in writing class and the disparity within it is explored clearly and intelligently in Normal People. I’m really interested in how writers construct class narratives and this book made some observations which have stuck with me since I picked it up earlier this year.
Hannah Sullivan: Three Poems
Three Poems was the first book I read this year and I knew it was going to be a very strong favourite. It’s made up of three poems (as you might imagine), each a musing on a different location: New York, California and London. Whilst both experimental and full of bold description, it was the intensity of atmosphere and the changing mood within it which was most memorable. A very stunning book of poetry that has inspired my own writing in the last year and simply had to make it on to my final list.
Anna Burns: Milkman
Where do I start with Milkman? Another one with mixed reviews and a lot of people who have told me they had to disband it. However, I really did adore this one. Admittedly, it took me a very long time to finish it, but once I got into the story and got used to the style of writing, written in dialectic first-person, I got so attached and had to find out what happened between the narrator and the Milkman. It’s a story about being a woman, about politics and how they pervade our lives, about the Troubles in Ireland and how they’ve impacted cultural memory. For me, it was dark and terrifying at times, but always deeply interesting and beautifully constructed.
Mikhail Bulgakov: The Master and Margarita
This wouldn’t be my top reads if it didn’t include at least one Russian author, and Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita was a solid winner. It’s a weird, whimsical and entertaining reflection on life. The book was written during the Stalinist regime between the late 1920s and 1940s but was not published until the 1960s– after the death of Stalin in 1953. Even when it was finally published in a Russian magazine, it was heavily censored due to subtle criticisms of Stalin’s dictatorship which are scattered throughout the novel. I adore this classic and can’t wait to re-read it again.
Sarah Moss: Ghost Wall
Ahhh! Ghost Wall! I read this book in the early spring and absolutely refused to shut up about it for a solid month after. It’s short and snappy and I wanted it to last forever but it also didn’t need to be any longer. I loved the northern setting of Northumberland which was effortlessly juxtaposed with the harrowing undertones of the book. The key thing that I took away from Ghost Wall is that patriarchy and violence in women’s history are inextricable — Moss captures its lack of development between the Iron Age and the present, despite her engagement with a vast and seemingly endless temporal stretch.
I wrote an in-depth review of this one if you’d like to read it here.
Rebecca Tamas: WITCH
Another incredible poetry collection which I was very happy to encounter this year was WITCH by Rebecca Tamas. It’s a stunning look into the occult, radical feminism and how these things can be interpreted and brought to life by the lyrical, strange and raw literary word. It is super gritty and weird at times but I think that’s what I liked most about it.
Sayaka Murata: Convenience Store Woman
A solid contender for my book of the year was Sayaka Murata’s Convenience Store Woman. It was both a hilarious and thought-provoking read about a woman who struggled to find her place in a society which seems to define the path we must take to reach an accepted state ‘normal’. It reflects on relationships and the self, as well as some very intelligent musings on capitalism. If you’re looking for something dark and witty to add to your reading list for 2020, I’d highly recommend this short and brilliant little book.
Anna Hope: Expectation
Anna Hope’s Expectation is a beautiful insight into what it means to love friends and to hate them. The way she explores relationships is stunning and I fully believed I was, myself, entwined within the friendship circle between the three women at the heart of this novel. I’ve written a separate post about this one and the next book on this list, so feel free to check that out for more detail. We hosted Anna and Lara at the bookshop I work in for the most amazing event in November and really ended the year on a high.
Lara Williams: Supper Club
Supper Club was a book that really got me wanting to write again. Lara Williams writes with such staggering confidence and it really inspired me to stop caring about what I’m putting on the page and just write it. I loved how this book combined food writing with feminism and female friendships, all themes I love to read about. I can’t wait to see what else she has in store.
Livia Francini: Shelf Life
Shelf Life! Ah! What a gorgeous book. Livia Francini really knows how to construct an incredible story and bring emotion into the hearts of her readers. The novel, structured around a discarded shopping list, follows a woman left behind after her fiance breaks up with her. Each stage of breaking up, moving on, exhaustion and grief is encountered and put so delightfully into words. I didn’t want it to end. Another book too which somehow incorporated food writing into a novel about women and trauma which is an interesting connection to make and one I’m hoping to see more from in the coming years.
Linda McKnight Hardy: Water Shall Refuse Them
2019 wouldn’t have been the same without the gothic, witchy and hot goodness we were treated to be Linda McKnight Hardy’s Water Shall Refuse Them. I loved every detail, from the searing descriptions of a 1970s heatwave to the sweltering presence of the past that lingered all the way through. I was lucky enough to meet Linda in the shop alongside Andrew Michael Hurley where they discussed their novels, connected by their discussion of a rural setting and gothic resonance. It was such a wonderful event and it was really interesting to hear them talk about using different genres and setting to channel a certain feeling or emotion.
Susanna Moore: In the Cut
All I have to say about this one (okay maybe not all…) but THE ENDING!! Yikes. Such a good read. I’ve heard mixed opinions about Susanna Moore but everyone seems pretty agreed that this novel is a masterpiece. It’s a thrilling story about language and follows a woman who gets entangled in a world of sex and crime and danger. So! Good!
Elizabeth Strout: Olive Kitteridge
I wanted to read Olive Kitteridge after seeing Olive Again would be coming out in late 2019. I hadn’t heard much about it but once I started reading it I was sure it would go down in history as a classic. Olive is a stunning character, explored through chapters which are more like individual short stories making up a collection. Her world is changing before her, time moving on and people too, but Strout’s reflections through this character and the topics she touches on are unforgettable.
Liz Berry: Black Country
Another delicious collection of poetry I had the pleasure of experiencing in 2019 was Liz Berry’s Black Country. She is such a unique writer and creates individualistic poems about living in a regional location and growing up working-class with the most incredible dialect and vocabulary. If you do one thing before the year ends, please watch some videos of her performing — she is electric!