2019 in Books: Commendations and Disappointments

As always, I won’t be posting my Top Ten Books of 2019 until the 31st December, but here are some books that almost made my top ten – and also my biggest disappointments of the year. Links are to my reviews. All books are first read by me in 2019, not necessarily first published in 2019.

Highly Commended

I discovered two new favourite authors this year: Nina Allan and Natasha Pulley. I’ve now read both of Pulley’s novels, and three of Allan’s. One novel from each writer has made my top ten books of 2019, but here are the others I read: The Race, The Dollmaker and The Watchmaker of Filigree Street. Both Allan and Pulley write speculative fiction, and I’ve found myself increasingly drawn towards speculative and science fiction this year, taking part in #SciFiMonth in November.

I didn’t find that 2019 was a particularly strong year for memoir and non-fiction, but two books stood out for me – Thomas Page McBee’s Amateurwhich was my pick to win the Wellcome Prize 2019, and Lisa Taddeo’s Three WomenInterestingly, both are essentially about the patriarchal constraints imposed by binary gender; McBee describes what it’s like to live as a trans man, while Taddeo interrogates how badly the world responds to genuine female desire. McBee’s subtitle is ‘a true story about what makes a man’, while Taddeo’s could easily be ‘three true stories about what makes a woman’.

I’ve been surprised to see some prominent end-of-the-year lists declare that 2019 was a poor year for fiction, as something that stood out for me this year was that many big-name releases didn’t disappoint! Jessie Burton and Tracy Chevalier produced arguably their strongest novels to date in The Confession and A Single ThreadTaylor Jenkins Reid’s much-hyped Daisy Jones and the Six was totally absorbing, while Emma Donoghue’s Akin was a slow-burning triumph. Finally, Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other was a totally worthy Booker winner, even if I felt that she shortchanged her youngest narrators.

In fiction, I also enjoyed three very different novels that don’t fit into any of the above categories: Lisa See’s story of Korean haenyeo free divers, The Island of Sea Women, which, pleasingly, was one of the books I was most looking forward to in 2019; Aminatta Forna’s difficult-to-summarise but very moving Happiness; and Naomi Booth’s eco-horror Sealed.

re-read three novels that made a big impression on me second time around (or in the case of Enchantress, probably fourth or fifth time around!): Sarah Moss’s Night Waking, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, and Sylvia Louise Engdahl’s Enchantress From The Stars.

In crime and thriller, I rediscovered Ruth Ware, and was totally captivated by her two latest novels, The Turn of the Key and The Death of Mrs Westawayboth of which brilliantly mix classic Gothic tropes with a contemporary setting. But frankly, I was spoilt for choice in this genre in 2019, as Erin Kelly released her best novel yet, Stone Mothersand Jo Baker’s The Body Lies introduced a clever meta-level into the familiar story of a murdered woman.

Finally, I admired two adult fantasy novels infused with YA energy: Leigh Bardugo’s Ninth House, about a Yale secretly run by supernatural societies, and Bridget Collins’s The Binding, which will please everyone who loves a gay teenage OTP. Both are also absolutely beautiful hardbacks.

Biggest Disappointments

By ‘biggest disappointments’ I don’t necessarily mean that these were my worst books of the year, but that they were books I’d been looking forward to, that had been hyped by publishers/reviewers/friends/all of the above, and which fell well short of my expectations.

I was disappointed by three authors I had enjoyed in the past. Uzodinma Iweala’s Speak No Evil was one of my top ten books of 2018, but his debut, Beasts of No Nation, was simplistic and pointless. Anna Hope’s Expectation was supposed to present three different women reassessing their lives in their thirties, but its characters ended up moving within such narrow bonds, all wanting the same things. Rowan Hisayo Buchanan’s Starling Days was muddled, aimless and – oddly, given how much I admired her debut, Harmless Like You – quite badly written.

Two debuts also disappointed me. Jessica Andrews’s Saltwater promised a coming-of-age story set in Sunderland and London, but totally lacked a sense of place. Katy Mahood’s Entanglement was supposed to be inspired by quantum physics but ended up being a very conventional story about two couples over several decades. Both novels were also written in a lilting, quasi-literary style that did nothing for me.

I’ll be back tomorrow with my Top Ten Books of 2019!

The state she’s in

GreatestHits-350Laura Barnett’s debut, The Versions of Us, had a clever, high-concept pitch: ‘What if one small decision could change the rest of your life?’ Its Sliding Doors-style narrative followed three versions of the lives of star-crossed lovers Jim and Eva, pivoting around a single moment when they either meet or don’t meet as students in Cambridge. Ultimately, I found it frustrating; the need to cover three versions of everything in Jim and Eva’s stories, from marriages to careers to children, made all three stories feel short-changed. It also became clear that Barnett and I have different ideas about what this concept is good for; while I wanted The Versions of Us to explore how fundamentally changed the characters were by their experiences, she was clearly more interested in thinking about what might remain constant. Given this, I’m not quite sure why I picked up her second novel, Greatest Hitsbut I’m so glad I did. Free from the restrictions of finding a smart hook for her story, Barnett’s talents as a storyteller really shine through. I found it a completely immersive read; the five hundred pages flew by.

Cass Wheeler is a well-known singer-songwriter in the vein of Sandy Denny or Joni Mitchell, her career kicking off in the 1970s with her first solo album, The State She’s In. Now, in 2015, having not released any music for ten years, she’s been tasked with choosing sixteen of her songs to appear on a Greatest Hits album, which she’s decided to do on a single day before having a celebratory party in the evening. This acts as a framing device for Cass’s narrative of her life as a whole, and thankfully, after the very early chapters, it isn’t too intrusive. I liked the fact that Barnett was able to jump back and forward in time throughout the novel, but frankly, Greatest Hits doesn’t need a narrative crutch of this kind. Cass’s life story is simply and beautifully told, and entirely gripping in its own right. Barnett’s clear writing somehow manages to breathe new life into the most familiar of themes, such as Cass’s awkward childhood and distant, unhappy mother. I liked Greatest Hits even more, however, from Cass’s late twenties onwards. So many novels think about teenagers running away from home who achieve early success in the field of their choice, but fewer devote as much time to the struggles of middle age.

One of the strengths of The Versions of Us was the attention Barnett paid to the full arcs of Eva and Jim’s lives, rather than foregrounding their youthful romance, and she does the same thing in Greatest Hits. I especially liked the scene where thirty-eight year old Cass is recording a song with a twenty-two year old rising star, Dinah McCombs. We’ve been primed by popular culture to expect catty competition between women in scenes such as this one, but Cass has only empathy for Dinah: ‘Standing in the vocal-booth in the New York studio, she looked across at the younger woman – so lithe and smooth-skinned, so filled with the expectation of imminent success – and felt a maternal stirring of fear for her, and the hope that she would not make the same mistakes Cass had made. But of course, she reminded herself, Dinah would make them – or she would find others of her own.’ (I’m a bit younger than Cass is in this scene, but this is how I feel towards some of my female undergraduates – although they will no doubt feel immensely and justifiably patronised if any of them read this, as most of them are much more sorted than I was at their age!)

Greatest Hits is a genuinely absorbing novel, definitely one to sink into over long summer evenings. Furthermore, it’s being released alongside an album by Kathryn Williams, produced in collaboration with Barnett, that features the songs that appear in the book – so that’s something else to look forward to.

I received a free proof copy of Greatest Hits to review. It will be released in the UK on 15th June.