Monthly Archives: December 2019

Layla’s 2019 Review of Books

I notice this is my 7th year writing my Review of Books. As ever, this has been a year of reading that has spanned the voracious devouring of books… and periods where it took me weeks to finish a single novel. But by the end of the year I’ve read 87 books, which isn’t too bad at all. It’s also been an interesting year for new ways of identifying books. I do a lot of Googling for top new books of the season; I also read the Bookmarks magazine. I went on the Cheltenham/Times literature festival at sea. And for my birthday my wife took me to Bath for a ‘Mr B’s Book Spa’ – a delightful experience where I got to talk to a bookseller all about my reading tastes over tea and cake, curled up in an armchair, then left with more cake while she hunted down a pile of books she thought I might like. I started sceptical, but in the end I bought most of them and enjoyed many of them.

Book of the Year: The Farm by Joanne Ramos

I went through lots of angst trying to decide what my favourite read was this year. I have really, really loved a lot of books. And it’s interesting because I didn’t know it at the time, but one book has really sat with me, I’ve not seen it on enough major lists of top books, and you know what: I’m going to make my book of the year The Farm by Joanne Ramos. This is a really unusual near-future story that feels so close to today that perhaps it really is happening now. It’s about an elite farm/ ’gestational retreat’ where women are paid to be surrogates to rich people who can’t or are disinclined to carry their own babies. It’s about class, race, gender, immigration, economics, fertility politics, inequality, relationships, and capitalism, all brought together in a very compelling story told from more than one perspective. The characters are beautifully drawn and nuanced. Nobody is a villain, but many act villainously. It’s full of suspense, humanity, humour, and questions about women’s choices. It’s a comment on our values and the way we are building our society. It’s a must-read.

Best in Contemporary Literature

Winner: Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo

There were so many contenders for my contemporary literature book of the year that I can almost sympathise with the big literary drama this year that was of course awarding the Booker Prize to two authors. I wasn’t a fan of the approach. The problem was that we’d all been waiting decades for Margaret Atwood to write a sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, and when she finally did write The Testaments presumably everyone felt obliged to give her the Prize. The problem was, The Testaments wasn’t brilliant, in my view. I mean, it was very good. I really liked the angles it took – how the world of Gilead and some of its villains came to be; and how it was viewed both from the outside and from someone born within. But it really didn’t feel as good as its co-winner, Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo which was a really brilliant book about women and race and sexuality and gender and south London. Sometimes you read something that just feels special, and I feel annoyed on the author’s behalf that she had to share her prize, especially with someone who wrote something with tons of razzmatazz surrounding it that slightly overshadowed Evaristo’s must-read book.

Another semi-blockbuster I really liked was Grandmothers by Sally Vickers. I really enjoyed the study of navigating this grandmother-grandchild relationship, and the really interesting study of these women’s complicated relationships with their children’s parents, and how access to beloved grandchildren can be snatched away without recourse. I also really loved Frankisstein by Jeanette Winterson (which also falls into the historical fiction, LGBTQ+ AND dystopia categories). This book is remarkable: it’s a genre-defying thought experiment. It’s about Mary Shelley; it’s about sexbots; it’s about AI; it’s about trans people; it’s about immortality… Mostly it’s about how to build different types of bodies, and what that means on a personal and societal level. It’s a little bit ‘tell’ rather than ‘show’, with the characters settling into philosophical soliloquies a bit too often (which I suspect is what kept this one off the Booker shortlist), but this is unputdownable and crammed with genuinely interesting ideas. It’s unusual, and it’s a bit of a triumph. I’m still thinking about it. It was my runner up for contemporary book of the year.

There were a few other blockbusters this year that left me a little cold. Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday, was a tad annoying as it has two stories that I knew were somehow connected and I spent much time trying to figure out how. When I finally did, the link wasn’t very satisfying/convincing… Essentially, a young woman has an affair with an older author modelled on Philip Roth. And an Iraqi-American economist is held at Heathrow Airport for no real reason other than his race. I think this book is about the asymmetries in how different people are treated based on certain characteristics, and about how we understand each other despite our differences. Interesting but a little disappointing after the hype.

So was Sweet Sorrow by David Nichols, a coming of age tale of a working class boy who finds himself getting involved in a drama group and with its posh participants, and what that all means for him and them. I usually love a book about people on the cusp of grown-up life, examining how a person ends up going in a particular direction. And this one wasn’t bad, exactly. But I just felt emotionally uninvested in what happened to this boy. In fact I found the book a bit annoying (which is apparently not the cool thing to think, as the reviews were great). A better example of this genre in my opinion was Expectation by Anna Hope, which I loved. Also a coming of age story, this time following three girls into adulthood to see how the decisions and experiences they faced shaped their lives. It’s about friendship and navigating the entry to grown-up life; it’s about disappointment, different types of family, the children question, and about what makes a good life. It’s nuanced and interesting and feels true and relatable. I suppose that’s also what True Places by Sonja Yoerg is about, though I didn’t really like this book much. A dissatisfied housewife encounters a girl who grew up in the woods, throwing the values and behaviours of her family, and how they became what they now are, into disappointing contrast. The premise was okay, it was readable, but it wasn’t of the quality to vigorously recommend…

But don’t worry: there were some other coming of age books I particularly enjoyed this year. The stand-out might have been The Extraordinary Life of Sam Hell by Robert Dugoni. This book will make you think of John Irving, who must be an inspiration for this author’s style. It’s about a boy with ocular albinism, i.e. red eyes, who is branded a devil by his classmates (and by some unfeeling teachers). It’s set in his childhood, and in his adulthood. I loved Sam, and it’s mostly about friendship and love and faith. Another charming read, probably intended for a young teen audience but one to grab from their shelf, was To Night Owl from Dogfish by Holly Goldberg Sloan and Meg Wolitzer. I love Meg Wolitzer, so I took a look and it was really lovely. Two girls find out their fathers are dating and are horrified when sent to the same summer camp to make friends, and the whole thing is written in letter form. It’s brilliant because it sounds like a revolting cliché but it’s so lovely and interesting and funny and I cared about these people so much. Finally, in the coming of age category, those of us who loved The Rosie Project had of course been anticipating the third in the series, The Rosie Result by Graeme Simsion, and it was a great relief to find it equally delightful as the preceding two. This one focuses on the protagonist’s relationship with his 11-year-old, potentially-autistic son as they attempt to help each other navigate the world. Like the other two books it is funny, gentle, kind, and the plot is rather compulsive.

The Friend by Sigrid Nunez was one of the surprises of my reading this year. The book is about a woman writer mourning the death of her best friend, with all the complexity of feelings of not quite having the ‘official’ mourning status of his wives; and of taking over responsibility for his huge, grieving, and elderly dog. The book is genuinely funny, it is insightful, it’s tender, and it is written in quite an unusual tone. The book talks about flaneurs and I think that’s what it’s trying to do. Strolling around grief, happening on random thoughts. Again it’s about trying to find meaning in life. It’s also about writers. And grief. And people’s intimate relationships with dogs. It’s a bit of a masterpiece, really. Hard to explain though.

And finally, skating in at the end of December, Nothing to See Here by Kevin Wilson was finally published and it was just as brilliant as I’d been hoping. I loved his previous book, The Family Fang. The story was so eccentric and the characters were so great. I’m happy to say Wilson has done it again. The story feels a little smaller this time, but it has everything I could want in its absurdity, from a girls’ boarding school to two children who literally catch on fire when they’re upset. I read it pretty much in one glorious go.

Best in Historical Fiction

Winner: Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier

A book that really stayed with me this year was Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier. Maybe I loved it more because I read it in Lyme Regis, where it is set. But it’s one of these perfectly constructed books that just fill you with delight. It’s based on the true story of the impoverished Mary Anning who had a gift for finding fossils and was the talent behind most of the UK fossil finds claimed by rich men in the 19th century; and it’s also about her friend Elizabeth Philpot, a less-gifted fossil enthusiast, spinster, and mentor of sorts. The relationship between them is one of the best parts of this rather magical book; so too is the examination of the social and religious mores of the time and the impact of understanding what the existence of these fossils might mean. It’s fabulous.

I’m not usually especially into historical fiction, but one of my other top books this year was The Giver of Stars by Jojo Moyes. This one is about an English woman who marries, moves to Depression-era Kentucky with her disappointing new husband, where she incongruously becomes involved in running a packhorse library. I really cared about these characters and what happened to them – it felt unputdownable. It all got unexpectedly dramatic in the last third. But I loved it. And You Will Be Safe Here by Damian Barr was incredibly bleak but also involved hope; it’s a mix of horrible things the British did during the second Boer war, and horrible things done to young effeminate boys in modern-day South Africa. This feels like an important book, and showed me part of British history about which I knew very little.

I also dabbled in the very specific genre of typist-to-the-spies literature this year, which is not my usual enthusiasm. Transcription by Kate Atkinson was one of those must-read blockbusters I liked but I didn’t love. It’s set in London during the war, where it’s about a spy who was monitoring fascist sympathisers, and then a piece after the war, where I quite enjoyed the BBC setting – I have no idea if it’s true that post-war, lots of spies moved into the BBC. I liked the concept though. But I overall probably preferred The Secrets We Kept by Lara Prescott which is about the publication of Dr Zhivago by the US intelligence services – and a love affair by Dr Zhivago’s author and the woman who inspired Lara in the book. I cared a lot about this book, and the lesbian romance storyline was an unexpected treat. (I also saw Maggie Smith in A German Life which was about being typist to Goebbels, which was a fascinating German-facing version of this niche genre, and Tokyo Rose, an outstanding new musical which featured Japanese-American typists in Tokyo during WW2!)

Finally, The Ocean Liner by Marius Gabriel is not exactly a true story, but it is based on historical facts and is one of those compulsive reads that you can’t resist staying up too late to finish. It centres on the passengers of a transatlantic ship all fleeing Europe for various reasons during the war: Jewish cousins fleeing a concentration camp, a young Nazi, composers Stravinsky and Toscannini, and the Kennedy family, with a focus on their daughter Rosemary, whose fate left me sobbing (especially when I read the afterword, which advised me that the very slightly happy conclusion for her was fiction and it was really all just misery).

Best in LGBTQ+ literature

Winner: In at the Deep End by Kate Davies (but Once and Future, Red White and Royal Blue, and Frankisstein must ALL get honourable mentions!)

It’s always exciting to know an author, but then also risky, in case you read their book and don’t like it and have to think of something nice to say. So what a glorious surprise was In at the Deep End by a friend of mine, Kate Davies. The main descriptor I can think of is ‘a romp’. A young woman in London, leaving a dull relationship with a man, reinvents herself as a lesbian and has a passionate affair that is both crazy and relatable. It’s sexy, it’s interesting, it’s really properly laugh-out-loud funny. Reviews talk of the lesbian Fleabag, or of Bridget Jones… it’s hard to categorise this but perhaps it’s the book lesbian relationships have been waiting for.

You wait ages for a hilarious LGBTQ+ book and then two come along at the same time. I have already read Red White and Royal Blue by Casey McQuisto twice and I’m not above reading it a third time. The author wrote this book in response to Trump being elected president in the US. She decided to jump into a fantasy land where a very liberal female president found herself in the White House, complete with gay son who has a love-hate relationship with one of the royal princes from the UK. This book gives every impression of preparing you for a trashy book, but it’s really, surprisingly, brilliant. The writing is sharp and the plot compelling. Again it’s funny, it’s sexy, it’s interesting, and it’s heartwarming. I loved this. Suspend disbelief and go for it.

I’m going to talk about Once and Future by Amy Rose Capetta and Cori McCarthy and The PlanetFall series by Emma Newman under the category of Books set in space, Frankisstein by Jeanette Winterson under contemporary literature, and You Will Be Safe Here by Damian Barr under historical fiction, but they all also belong in LGBTQ+ literature and I loved them. Though despite sharing these different categories, they are very, very different.

Oh and yes, I re-read Oy Vey My Daughter’s Gay by Sandra McCay. Yes, it’s about me. Written by my mother so I wouldn’t dare to review it.

Best in end-of-the-world fiction and other dystopian literature

Winner: Spin by Robert Charles Wilson

We all know that this is one of my favourite categories so of course there are lots of books in here. And that’s even after giving space-set books its own category. This year’s dystopian reads have been really quite fascinating. I’ll group them by premise:

End of the world by catastrophe: Often the end of the world comes because of some space-related calamity such as a problem with the sun, or a nuclear bomb. The books in this category were some of those I rated highest this year. I really loved Spin by Robert Charles Wilson. The sun dying, but the author takes the fascinating approach of slowing the Earth compared to the rest of the universe. Which leads to one of the most fascinating terraforming efforts I’ve ever read about. The characters are fantastic – complex, interesting, and I cared about them a lot. It’s an epic book, spanning across the lives of the protagonists, across the globe, and more. It’s actually the first in a trilogy but I couldn’t get past the first few chapters of the second one which was ridiculous given how much I loved reading Spin.

As though one time-slowing book wasn’t enough, I also read The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker. This time the characters are very much aware of the slowing and it gives a fascinating, if not jolly, vision of what life might be like if days were elongated. I was very much compelled. Emily Eternal by MG Wheaton was also really brilliant – probably my AI book of the year. Emily is an artificial consciousness (she vigorously does not identify with artificial intelligence), designed to be like a human. When her development is interrupted by the unfortunate news that the sun and thus the world is dying, she commits herself to saving humanity. Which sounds like a big story but it is intimate, and filled with both adventure and romance. It’s outstanding and brimming with ideas about what it means to be a human.

I’ll also put The Last by Hanna Jameson in this category, though the catastrophe in question is nuclear. Our protagonist happens to be staying in a Swiss hotel while it happens. About twenty others also survive, but then it transpires one is a murderer. I usually hate whodunnit books, but I couldn’t resist the premise, and I couldn’t put it down, especially when they leave the hotel. The protagonist had lots of nuance and I thought it was excellent.

End of the world by disease: Interestingly two of my favourite end-of-world-by-disease books this year went for the premise of sleepwalking. I really enjoyed The Dreamers by Karen Thompson Walker where a sleepwalking disease infects people associated with a college in small town California. I about equally enjoyed The Wanderers by Chuck Wendig where apparently-random people start sleepwalking together to an unknown destination, though in this case the non-sleepwalkers start getting infected by a virus and dying. I started out liking The Dreamers more, but The Wanderers turned out to have a far more interesting premise. No spoilers.

Even more interesting than the immediate crisis, in my view, is a look at life post-apocalypse. That’s why I loved The Quiet at the End of the World by Lauren James. Set in London after pretty much everyone in the world has been killed by a virus, the main protagonists are the two youngest people in the world, destined to be the last people on Earth. Which is such an interesting concept in itself. The plot of this book is unexpected (to me), and the tone is tender and intimate. It was sad and lovely and optimistic. And intriguingly it felt like the prequel to another book in this review (though they are unrelated) but I can’t say which for fear of providing spoilers. I wonder if any of you will spot it.

The Program series (The Program, The Treatment, The Remedy, The Epidemic, The Adjustment and The Complication by Suzanne Young) was one of the most enjoyable young adult dystopia series I read this year. (If you enjoyed The Sky series that I recommended last year, this is this year’s version of that!) There’s an epidemic of teen suicides and society has responded with The Program, a way of admitting at-risk teens to an institution where they undergo a procedure to remove the memories that make them susceptible. The series is fascinating in the way that it takes the perspectives of different teenagers with different roles in this world, and then brings them all together. I usually hate when a series suddenly abandons its main protagonist and goes in a different direction but this was a brilliant choice. The Program is not going to win the Booker, but it was really compulsive young adult reading full of genuinely interesting ideas.

I had never fancied the Maze Runner series (Maze Runner, The Scorch Trials and The Death Cure by James Dashner) but I knew it was really famous and popular with Hunger Games enthusiasts and I was in the mood for, I know, yet another young adult dystopian trilogy, so I decided to bite the bullet. And sure, it was pretty good. I was compelled. Not exactly my kind of thing, but it was imaginative and well done.

End of the world due to climate change: The best book in this category that I read this year is The Wall by John Lanchester. The premise is that everyone in Britain has to spend two years guarding the Wall, which is a horrible and potentially deadly experience. The reason I rate this book so highly is its atmosphere. It’s an unusual book filled with an atmosphere of menace and tedium and desperation that floats above the less-well-developed storyline. It feels like a piece of art. Another climate-related book was The Flow tetralogy (Flow, Break, Drift and Source by Clare Littlemore), a moderately interesting young adult dystopia series about a teenage girl growing up in The Beck, a small community constantly threatened by floodwater (and potential invaders) in a drowning world.  When she moves from her posting in agriculture, she inevitably gets more of an understanding of the darker elements of her little world. Not high literature. Pleasant enough.

Fertility-focused dystopias

The books in this fertility category are largely focused on solutions to infertility. The Farm is of course my overall book of the year – see the top of this blog. I also loved Expiration Day by William Campbell Powell where, left without children, civil unrest is halted by the invention of android children. It’s about identity, humanity, and societal values. It’s rather fascinating. And I thought the ending was apt. I liked less The Testament of Jessie Lamb by Jane Rodgers about the implications of a teenage girl deciding to make a personal sacrifice to play a role in saving the world. The book isn’t especially well-written but the concept feels very of-the-moment. This is about fertility, not climate, but it’s about teens taking action where adults lag and it’s thought-provoking.

I suppose The Testaments by Margaret Atwood may fit in this category too, though I’ve already covered it in the contemporary category.

Marriage-focused dystopias: I loved reading We Set the Dark on Fire by Tehlor Kay Mejia. It starts in a fancy high school/finishing school where the girls prepare themselves to marry into rich families as either wives or mothers. The main protagonists find themselves caught between their own comparative prison/privilege and their desire to make their world a better place. The book is pretty compulsive and it’s quite unusual in some of its ideas. And it’s the first in a duology, so of course there’s a cliffhanger ending. Another book starting in a girls’ boarding school is Girls with Sharp Sticks by Suzanne Young. To be honest, that one was a bit of a disappointment. Again, it’s focused on preparing girls for marriage, but there’s a twist. I’d better not say. It was fun to read but the real disappointment was that it wasn’t as good as The Program series, also written by this author. The Chemical Garden trilogy (Wither, Fever and Sever by Lauren Destefano) focuses on another teenage girl, Rhine, who lives in a society where all diseases have been eradicated, but in doing so, all females die at the age of 20 and males at 25. There are few workers, society has broken down, and then Rhine is kidnapped to marry a rich boy. This trilogy was clearly a little bit trashy… but at the same time, embarrassingly compelling.

Dystopias where society just works differently: I reasonably well enjoyed All Rights Reserved by Gregory Scott Katsoulis where the premise is that once you’re sixteen, every word is copyrighted and you have to pay for each one you use. Families get into terrible debt, but one girl comes up with a fix: stop speaking at all. This doesn’t go well for her. The world is well-built but the characters are a bit one-dimensional. I didn’t really enjoy The Method by Juli Zeh. Set in a world where every citizen has the responsibility to be in optimal health. The protagonist’s brother is apparently convicted of a crime and for one otherwise successful scientist, her pursuing this against the authoritarian regime precipitates her downfall.

Best in space-based books

Winner: The Lady Astronaut series by Mary Robinette Kowal

I love a space-based book and there were several stand-outs this year. There was a brilliant series called The Lady Astronaut series (The Calculating Stars, The Fated Sky and The Lady Astronaut of Mars by Mary Robinette Kowal). This series could fall under both the end-of-the-world category AND the timeline changes category, but it’s so much more. It’s set in an alternate reality 1950s when the space programme is sped up by an extinction-level asteroid strike. The aim is now to get people living on other planets in a world where most of NASA has been obliterated. Mathematician Elma York is a glorious protagonist. Unlike so many sci-fi books, she is a grown-up: married to a lovely husband, smart with an established career, and a religion (Judaism) and she is deliciously complex and interesting. The books look at race, gender, and other forms of inequality through a really fresh lens, and the plot and characters are compelling. I can’t wait til the next in the series, coming in 2020.

I have been sad that Becky Chambers finished her Small Angry Planet trilogy last year, so what a treat to get to read her new To Be Taught, If Fortunate novella. It was excellent. Partway through a long term study mission to distant habitable planets, the crew finds fewer reasons to look forward to their return to Earth. It’s a beautiful study of humanity and exploration. It’s just too short. I’m insatiable for Becky Chambers stories.

But in the absence of any more Becky Chambers stories, I thought another outstanding space book was Do You Dream of Terra-Two? By Temi Oh, which pleasingly also appeals to my enthusiasm for boarding school books.  Earth is dying and six teenagers are trained to make the twenty-three year journey to a far-off habitable planet, supported by a veteran crew. This book is all about their relationships and emotional experiences. I’ve seen criticisms that not a lot happens, or that the science is unconvincing, but that’s not really what this book is about. It’s about coming of age, and about who we are in different contexts. I loved it.

Another very good book about visiting distant planets is Semiosis by Sue Burke. I wasn’t at all sure about this book, but grew to admire it. It’s about moving to another planet where there’s already lots of life, and humans finding their place in it. The fascinating thing about this book is that it moves through six generations of humans on this planet – it’s about how their values and priorities and approaches evolve, and how they learn to live within this alien ecosystem. It was really interesting.

A very different but enjoyable series is Planetfall (Planetfall, After Atlas, Before Mars and Atlas Alone by Emma Newman). I liked the first one best, where people are living on a new planet as part of a religious pilgrimage. The next books explore what life has been like on a futuristic Earth (not great), and living on the Moon too. And all sorts of criminal and religious and capitalist intrigue starts to ensue. It all becomes a bit too much of a thriller for my liking, but you might like that.

I semi-liked The Space Merchants by Frederick Pohl and CM Kornbuth where an ad man is commissioned to attract people to colonise Venus (which has little to recommend it). I enjoyed the premise a lot, but it all got a bit too thriller-y for me. It’s about consumerism, essentially, and it’s filled with interesting ideas. If you don’t mind a crime vibe, you might love it.

Another book about consumerism, also straddling space and fantasy and LGBTQ+ categories, is the rather brilliant Once and Future by Amy Rose Capetta and Cori McCarthy. It’s about the Arthurian legend. It turns out that Arthur is reincarnated incessantly until he finally saves humanity. Merlin accompanies him, though ageing backwards. In this book, the latest incarnation of Arthur is a young woman in space, accompanied by a teenaged-looking Merlin. This book is absolutely bursting with fascinating ideas, with LGBTQ+ themes, with thought experiments in what would happen if one big corporation controlled everything, with legends and history, with genocide… there is a lot in here – do not underestimate it because it’s so uncategorizable.

Best in books involving timeline changes/alternate realities

Winner: Here and Now and Then by Mike Chen

This is a bit of a wide category in terms of the books I’m bringing together. I think my favourite was Here and Now and Then by Mike Chen, a book about time travel, as used by intelligence agencies in the future, and the effect it has on an operative who gets stranded for decades in the 1990s, starts a family, then gets ‘rescued’ away from them to the year 2142 where he’s only been gone briefly. It sounds all sci-fi/crimey but it’s really about love and family and what matters to you. The premise is really intriguing and it’s filled with interesting and well-developed relationships. Another really fascinating read was Before the Coffee Gets Cold by Toshikazu Kawaguchi, set in a Tokyo coffeeshop which allows you to travel back in time, within certain parameters. It feels a little Murakami-ish in both its tone and premise, but perhaps a little more grounded and elegant, and the interwoven stories are compelling. This is a book about relationships, regret and hope. I really liked it.

On the other hand, Machines Like Me by Ian McEwan is set in alternate-reality 1980s London and is uncharacteristically a bit rubbish. This was mostly amusing to me as McEwan said in an interview that he had essentially invented the genre of artificial intelligence in sci-fi. And it reads like he did no research into this rather brilliant genre. It’s about a perfect robot man with artificial intelligence and his relationships with his ‘owner’ and the owner’s girlfriend. It’s about what makes us human. It is surprisingly devoid of sympathy or interestingness. Its disappointingness is particularly prominent when you compare it with something like the genuinely amazing Frankisstein (see Contemporary Fiction).

Best in Fantasy

Winner: Once Upon a Time in the North by Philip Pullman (only if you’ve read His Dark Materials)

I don’t really like fantasy. I make an exception for Philip Pullman. He disappointed me this time – but only because I was so ready to be delighted. For anyone who loved His Dark Materials, it’s not really possible not to be into this sequel trilogy, The Book of Dust. It’s just frustrating that Pullman has succumbed to second-book-in-a-trilogy-itis. The Secret Commonwealth by Philip Pullman was good and fascinating, of course it was. But it’s pretty much just dedicated to setting the scene for book three. And it’s almost unremittingly depressing. Lyra is often horrible, which is hard for a beloved protagonist. And it just randomly ends unexpectedly with no real story arc and certainly no resolution and lots of issues of the day awkwardly crammed in. Let’s just hurry towards the third book, Philip, and we’ll say no more of this. In the meantime, I loved both Lyra’s Oxford and Once Upon a Time in the North which are novellas from the same series but I’m claiming them as books I read, especially as I read them while in Oxford, having received beautiful hardback gift editions of the books for Christmas. I especially loved the latter as we finally learn the backstory for Lee Scoresby and Iorek Byrnison.

Another weird category of book that might fit into this fantasy genre is Out of the Blue by Sophie Cameron. It’s about coming of age and grief after the death of a parent; it’s also about angels and adventure. I found it hard to suspend disbelief to get behind this, but I did quite enjoy the characters and it being set in Edinburgh. One for younger readers, I think, but there’s some interesting stuff in this book.

And speaking of books really not written for an adult-aged audience, The Split Worlds series (Between Two Thorns, Any Other Name, All is Fair, A Little Knowledge, and All Good Things by Emma Newman) is the sort of series I’m so embarrassed to have read that I considered leaving it off this list. But clearly for all its ridiculousness I paid for and read all five books in the series, so I’d better just own it. I will quote the premise from Goodreads: “Between Mundanus, the world of humans, and Exilium, the world of the Fae, lies the Nether, a mirror-world where the social structure of 19th-century England is preserved by Fae-touched families who remain loyal to their ageless masters.” And of course there’s a teenage girl who moves between the worlds and tries to find meaning and safety in her life. It wasn’t excellent (unlike Newman’s Planetfall series, which is why I picked this one up). But if you like fantasy, go for it. It’s quite compelling, in its way. And I liked reading it while in Bath.

Dream-like, season-focused fiction

I don’t really know what to call The Summer Book by Tove Jansson. It’s about the relationship between a grandmother and granddaughter on an Finnish island over the course of a summer, and then as they grow older. I couldn’t tell if they were actually the same person, or what was going on. It was lyrical, and very landscape-focused. I could see it was excellent though I didn’t really love it. From summer to winter, I also read The Ice Palace by Tarej Vesaas. Again left with feelings of ‘errr what was that about?’ It’s about schoolgirls and life and death in a remote village in the Norwegian fjords over winter. These two books, quite dream-like, felt like they were about something I didn’t quite get. They felt like they belonged together. I’m not going to say which was best – I have no idea.

Best in children’s literature (or adult books by children’s writers)

Winner: The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart 

It’s very much a children’s mystery-type book, but The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart is eccentric, quirky, interesting, exciting, and incredibly gripping, and worthy of a look by adults. The characters are extremely well-drawn and the whole thing is imaginative, the tone is lovely, and it essentially celebrated four smart and talented orphans on a mission to save the world. It’s likely to appeal to the same audience as A Series of Unfortunate Events. I put To Night Owl from Dogfish by Holly Goldberg Sloan and Meg Wolitzer in the Contemporary literature category but it could also fit here and it was brilliant.

I had a mini-Noel Streatfeild binge. I re-read Ballet Shoes, which was as glorious as always. One of my favourite children’s books ever. I read Party Shoes which I realised I’d never read and it was probably the worst Streatfeild book I’ve come across: very disappointing. I also wasn’t especially enthused by Parson’s Nine. And then I thought I’d try one of her adult books and picked up It Pays to Be Good and it was fascinating. It was like an adult version of Ballet Shoes, but bleak and cynical instead of charming and optimistic. I didn’t love it, but I loved getting to read it.

Best in autobiography

Winner: Miss Ex-Yugoslavia by Sofija Stefanovic

It was annoying that Miss Ex-Yugoslavia by Sofija Stefanovic wasn’t available on Kindle because I really wanted my mother to read it. It is a brilliant, sensitive, funny account of the immigrant experience, of leaving Yugoslavia’s civil war for suburban Australia. It’s about being an outsider and finding your place in the world. It’s delightful.

I also quite enjoyed Spinning by Tillie Walden, an autobiography in graphic novel format about being a competitive ice skater coming of age and trying to find her identity. I was left cold by Rosie: Scenes from a Vanished Life by Rose Tremain which should have been brilliant, but in reality was just some vignettes. Interesting insight into a posh world and a sad one, of course, but didn’t seem to add up to more than the sum of its parts.


Gosh, did I really only read one non-fiction book this year? Apparently I only recorded one anyway: Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge, which was very interesting in helping me understand the complex roots of racial inequality in Britain, including in my own neighbourhood. Oh and I got my first non-fiction book published this year! I was only one of several authors, and it’s more textbook-ish than literary, but I’d better give a shout out to Urban Mental Health by Dinesh Bhugra, Antonio Ventriglio, Joao Castaldelli-Maia and Layla McCay.


Here are all the books I read this year, ranked with the simple criterion of how much I enjoyed reading them; within each rank category, they are ordered in the order in which I read them.

Five star

In at the Deep End by Kate Davies

Do You Dream of Terra-Two? By Temi Oh

The Extraordinary Life of Sam Hell by Robert Dugoni

The Rosie Result by Graeme Simsion

Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier

The Farm by Joanne Ramos

Spin by Robert Charles Wilson

Red White and Royal Blue by Casey McQuisto

To Night Owl from Dogfish by Holly Goldberg Sloan and Meg Wolitzer

Emily Eternal by MG Wheaton

The Fated Sky by Mary Robinette Kowal

The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal

To Be Taught, If Fortunate by Becky Chambers

Expectation by Anna Hope

Once and Future by Amy Rose Capetta and Cori McCarthy

Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild

The Giver of Stars by Jojo Moyes

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo

Grandmothers by Sally Vickers

Frankisstein by Jeanette Winterson

Nothing to See Here by Kevin Wilson

Four star

Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday

Transcription by Kate Atkinson

The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker

The Dreamers by Karen Thompson Walker

You Will Be Safe Here by Damian Barr

Spinning by Tillie Walden

The Last by Hanna Jameson

The Program by Suzanne Young

The Treatment by Suzanne Young

The Remedy by Suzanne Young

The Epidemic by Suzanne Young

The Adjustment by Suzanne Young

The Complication by Suzanne Young

Planetfall by Emma Newman

The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart

Before Mars by Emma Newman

The Summer Book by Tove Jansson

The Ice Palace by Tarej Vesaas

The Ocean Liner by Marius Gabriel

The Wall by John Lanchester

Atlas Alone by Emma Newman

Here and Now and Then by Mike Chen

The Lady Astronaut of Mars by Mary Robinette Kowal

Miss Ex-Yugoslavia by Sofija Stefanovic

Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge

Semiosis by Sue Burke

We Set the Dark on Fire by Tehlor Kay Mejia

The Quiet at the End of the Universe by Lauren James

Expiration Day by William Campbell Powell

Maze Runner by James Dashner

The Testaments by Margaret Atwood

The Secret Commonwealth by Philip Pullman

The Wanderers by Chuck Wendig

The Friend by Sigrid Nunez

Lyra’s Oxford by Philip Pullman

Once Upon a Time in the North by Philip Pullman

Before the Coffee Gets Cold by Toshikazu Kawaguchi

Three star

Parson’s Nine by Noel Streatfeild

The Testament of Jessie Lamb by Jane Rodgers

The Method by Juli Zeh

Out of the Blue by Sophie Cameron

Wither by Lauren Destefano

Fever by Lauren Destefano

Sever by Lauren Destefano

Girls with Sharp Sticks by Suzanne Young

After Atlas by Emma Newman

True Places by Sonja Yoerg

Sweet Sorrow by David Nichols

The Scorch Trials by James Dashner

All Rights Reserved by Gregory Scott Katsoulis

Rosie: Scenes from a Vanished Life by Rose Tremain

The Space Merchants by Frederick Pohl and CM Kornbuth

Flow by Clare Littlemore

Break by Clare Littlemore

Drift by Clare Littlemore

Source by Clare Littlemore

It Pays to be Good by Noel Streatfeild

The Death Cure by James Dashner

The Secrets we Kept by Lara Prescott

Two star

Machines Like Me by Ian McEwan

Between Two Thorns by Emma Newman

Any Other Name by Emma Newman

All is Fair by Emma Newman

A Little Knowledge by Emma Newman

All Good Things by Emma Newman

Party Shoes by Noel Streatfeild

One star

Again, I have not awarded anything one star. I do a decent amount of research before reading any book, so I rarely find something unexpectedly appalling. I confess I did stop reading about 15 books this year – not usually because I found them bad, but because I for some unknown reason just couldn’t get into them, or because they were so far from my taste that I wasn’t able to enjoy them. I’ll remain silent so as not to prejudice you.

There’s also my guilt list: another 20 or so books I bought and intended to read by the end of the year but I have not… The shame. Luckily I share my Kindle account with my wife and mother so that at least someone’s enjoyed them (in many cases one of them has already chastised me for my poor judgement in not reading them yet!) But hooray: there’s always 2020!