Books of the Year

Best Books of 2019

Wow. 2019, huh? Certainly quite the year – and definitely one that I would rather celebrate through books.

Because, despite everything, 2019 has been a pretty good year for me reading-wise. Overall, I read 79 books in 2019 – beating my Goodreads Challenge goal of 52 by some way, although not quite making last year’s total of 84 books read.

There were definitely slumpy moments – I hit my traditional summer reading slump right on cue and the commencement of my PhD has definitely impacted on the amount of personal reading time I get to enjoy but, as I prepare to ring in 2020 and look back over my year in books, I got to read some fantastic titles this year.

As always, this round-up is of the books I read in 2019 – so there will be a mix of older and new titles in there. There’s no doubt 2019 has seen some fabulous new books released but you gotta give that backlist some love too, you know?

So, without further ado and in no particular order, I present to you my Best Books of 2019!

The FiveThe Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper by Hallie Rubenhold

Strangely I never got around to writing a full review of this one. This is probably because Hallie Rubenhold’s exceptionally researched and devastatingly heart-breaking biography of Mary Anne Nichols, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes, Annie Chapman, Mary Jane Kelly punched me in the gut when I read it back in April.

Hallie keeps her focus entirely on these women, moving the spotlight away from the violence that marked their ends and shining it instead on the tragedy, loss, perseverance, and determination that marked their lives. She gives these five women back their stories and, in doing so, presents a raw and insightful glimpse into the inequality and prejudice at the heart of the traditional Ripper narrative.

A masterful book, powerfully told, this one made me feel sorrow and anger in equal measure – and stayed with me long after I turned the final page.

Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup by John CarreyrouBad Blood

Another non-fiction read (or rather listen, as I read this one on audio) that I didn’t get around to writing up a full review for! Which is somewhat unbelievable as this is definitely a contender for most gripping book of the year!

Carryrou’s investigation of Theranos, the multbillion-dollar Silicon Valley biotech startup founded by brilliant young entrepreneur Elizabeth Holmes is a compelling and comprehensive account of corporate fraud and accountability.

Combining the thorough research of investigative journalism with the twists of a crime thriller – and with shades of a dystopian novel thrown in at times – this one had me hooked from the moment I began listening. A re-read of the paperback is on my ‘To Do’ list for 2020.

The Lost Man CoverThe Lost Man by Jane Harper

I’ve enjoyed all of Jane Harper’s crime novels to date but, in my humble opinion, The Lost Man is her best yet.

A standalone story that centres of the secrets and lies within a family of remote outback ranchers, The Lost Man is a powerful tale of brotherhood, revenge, recrimination and redemption.

You can read my full review here but, needless to say, this is one crime novel that you should definitely make it a mission to pick up in 2020 if you haven’t already done so!

The Library Book by Susan Orlean43217645

I read a fair bit of non-fiction at the start of the year and The Library Book, Susan Orlean’s account of the 1985 fire that all but destroyed the Los Angeles Public Library, was definitely one of the highlights.

Ranging between providing an account of the fire and its aftermath, complete with some devastating interviews with library workers who were present on the day, Orlean also recounts the history of the library service in Los Angeles in a meditative and powerful reflection upon the power of literature.

In a time when library services continue to be under threat both here in the UK and elsewhere in the world, The Library Book is a reminder of the importance of these well-loved but underappreciated public spaces.

You can read my full review here.

Way of All Flesh CoverThe Way of All Flesh by Ambrose Parry

Anyone who has followed the blog for a while will probably know that I love both historical fiction and crime fiction. Combining the two together, therefore, is a surefire way to get my interest.

Ambrose Parry (the pen name for writer Christopher Brookmyre and his wife Marisa Haetzman) hasn’t necessarily done anything new in The Way of All Flesh, the first in a potential series set in Victorian Edinburgh and centring on medical student Will Raven, housemaid Sarah Fisher, and their employer, the brilliant and pioneering Dr Simpson. But everything that is done is done exceptionally well. The plot is intriguing and well-crafted, the historical setting lives and breathes, and the characters come complete with both flaws and foibles. It all makes for an incredibly deep and satisfying read, which has more than earned its place on this list.

You can read my full review here.

The Red Word by Sarah HenstraThe Red Word Cover

I had never heard of this book until I agreed to take part in the blog tour for it but my gosh was it a revelation when I read it!

An intelligent, open-eyed and disturbing look at rape culture and the extremes of ideology, The Red Word is a campus novel that takes no prisoners in its depiction of sorority and fraternity life, radical feminism, and the terrible price that comes from being made to choose between two competing ideologies.

This is definitely no a novel for the faint-hearted but, in the wake of the Me Too movement, it’s a timely and powerful reminder of the ongoing debates that surround consent in modern-day culture.

You can read my full review here.

TamburlaineTamburlaine Must Die by Louise Welsh

A masterful historical novella that recounts the fictional last days of the life of Elizabethan playwright and all-round bad boy Christopher Marlowe.

It’s the voice that really got me in this one. Louise Welsh brings Marlowe and his world vividly to life on the page, capturing the sights, sounds, and smells of Elizabethan London with brilliant precision. And, at the heart of it all, is Marlowe. Angry, dissolute, cunning, and brilliant, Marlowe lives within these pages.

You can read my full review here.

Fuck Yeah, Video Games: The Life and Extra Lives of a Professional Nerd by Daniel Fuck Yeah CoverHardcastle

So, this one is pretty niche. I freely admit that if you’re not a fan of video games, you’re unlikely to see the appeal of Daniel Hardman’s love letter to the medium.

But if, like me, you love to curl up and travel through Skyrim’s frozen wastes, relished the day you could beat your cousin’s Pokemon into dust, or spent hours attempting that bloody Water Temple in Ocarina of Time, then let me assure you that you’ll love this book.

Dan speaks the language of nerd with ease and his account of his favourite games and the way in which they have shaped his life are both hilariously funny and extremely relatable. Plus the book contains some brilliant illustrations by Rebecca Maughan – the one for the Animal Crossing entry has me chuckling just thinking about it.

You can read my full review here.

ErebusErebus: The Story of a Ship by Michael Palin

I must be really bad at reviewing non-fiction because this is yet another one that I read, loved, and failed to write up.

Michael Palin has that brilliant way of making anything seem interesting. So the fact that I already find historic polar exploration fascinating made this one an easy sell for me.

Erebus tells the story of the ship Erebus, from its construction to its fatal final voyage as part of the ill-fated Franklin Expedition. Along the way, Palin writes about the men and women whose lives were marked in some way by the ship, telling the tale of great voyages of discovery, scientific innovations, and crushed dreams. It’s a fascinating tale, engagingly told.

The Adventures of Maud West, Lady Detective: Secrets and Lies in the Golden Age of Maud West CoverCrime by Susannah Stapleton

If you want non-fiction that reads like a novel then look no further than Susannah Stapleton’s The Adventures of Maud West, Lady Detective.

Maud West, a real-life Lady Detective, ran her agency in London for more than thirty years, have begun her sleuthing in 1905. But the real mystery soon becomes Maud’s own life. Because who really was Maud West? And were any of the tall tales she told about her exploits even remotely true?

As always, the truth turns out to be stranger than fiction in this compelling account of a unique life.

You can read my full review here.

BeastBeast by Matt Wesolowski

This one is a late entry as I finished it yesterday – but its no less brilliant for being a recent read!

I’ve read and adored every single one of Matt’s Six Stories novels and the latest, Beast, is no exception. Combining a compulsive podcast-style narrative with a tale of poverty, social media, desperation and modern-day vampires, Beast has the page-turning, edge-of-your-seat quality that made the previous Six Stories books so gripping.

I’ll be writing up a full review of this one shortly but, in the meantime, if you’ve not read any of Matt’s other Six Stories books, you can find me raving about them here, here and here!

Looking back, I have definitely read some fabulous books in 2019. Reviewing the year to write this post, it’s actually been a better one that I remembered. Getting this list down to a reasonable length was really difficult and I definitely want to leave a bit of room for the following honourable mentions (with links to full reviews/features where available):

A Study in Emerald by Neil Gaiman (author), Rafael Albuquerque (author, illustrator), Rafael Scavone, and Dave Stewart (illustrator)

The Vanished Bride by Bella Ellis

Wakenhyrst by Michelle Paver

The Rapture by Claire McGlasson

The Stranger Diaries by Elly Griffiths

Unlawful Things by Anna Sayburn Lane

Many thanks to everyone who has read, liked, shared and supported the blog this year – every single retweet, share, like and comment has been much appreciated and I do love interacting with fellow bookish types on Twitter and here on WordPress.

Thanks also to all of the publicists and tour organisers who have invited me to take part in some fantastic blog tours this year – I really wouldn’t have discovered some of these reads if it weren’t for you.

And finally to the authors, thank you for writing such brilliant books. The pleasure of a good book never grows old but I’m sure that easy reading makes for hard writing. So thank you for your efforts.

Wishing you all a very happy and bookish New Year. I shall leave you with a toast from one of my favourite writers, Neil Gaiman:

OldGods

See you in 2020 and, until the next time, happy reading! x

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Blog Tours · Reviews

BLOG TOUR!! The Red Word by Sarah Henstra

The Red Word Cover“The myths don’t have a clue what to do with women. They have nothing to say about us whatsoever. We need to build our own mythology.”

When university student Karen wakes up after a fraternity party on the lawn of Raghurst, a house of radical feminists, she gets a crash course in anti-frat activism on campus. One frat house, GBC, is especially notorious, with several brothers named on a list of date rapists by female students.

Despite continuing to party at GBC and even dating one of the brothers, Karen is seduced by the intellectual stimulation and indomitable spirit of the Raghurst women. As she finds herself caught between two increasingly polarised camps, her feminist housemates believe they have hit on the perfect way to bring down the fraternity and expose rape culture…but the war between the houses will exact a terrible price. 

As you can probably guess from the striking and provocative cover, The Red Word is a bold, dark examination of rape culture, campus politics, and the dangers that lurk at the depths of fiercely held ideology.

I’ll start by saying that this isn’t a novel for sensitive readers. Featuring scenes and discussions of sexual violence, The Red Word is a no hold’s barred account unafraid to hold a lens up to both classical and contemporary culture in order to be both provoke and disturb. I thought it was masterful, thought-provoking stuff and I haven’t stopped thinking about it since I turned the final page.

With echoes of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History (one of my all-time favourite books), the novel opens with university undergraduate Karen waking up on a lawn after a wild frat party at the notorious GBC. The lawn belongs to Raghurst and the four women who inhabit the house – Dyann, Marie-Jeanne, Steph and Charla – are radical feminists, inspired by the teachings of their lecturer Dr Sylvia Esterhazy.

Entranced by the girls’ polemical ideology, Karen signs up for Dr Esterhazy’s class on ‘Women and Myth’ and becomes involved with the Dyann and Steph’s work at the campus Women’s Centre, where a ‘Wall of Shame’ has been established to expose sexual violence on campus. At the same time though, she is dating the increasingly needy and controlling Mike – a fraternity brother at GBC – and enjoys the parties and privilege that comes with being a fraternity girlfriend. As the novel progresses, Karen walks an increasingly fine line between her ideals and her reality, and between the discussion of radical action and the consequences of its implementation.

There’s so much going on in The Red Word that, at times, it’s an exhausting read. Like Tartt, Henstra has used classical myth as a touchstone and Karen’s story is interlaced with references to mythology, from chapter titles made up of Greek words to echoes of the tragic tale of Helen of Troy, who Karen is trying to write about for Dr Esterhazy’s class. For the most part, this adds to the structure of the book. I particularly liked how that the novel invokes the chorus calls to classical muses, evoking epic poetry and inviting the reader into the novel, as well as the way in which the chapter headings subtly foreshadowed events to come.

At times, however, I did feel that the classical illusions became a little laboured, especially towards the novel’s conclusion and in the sections of the book that are more overtly allegorical of the Trojan War mythology. And I’m not 100% convinced that Dr Esterhazy was a completely necessary character. Unlike in Tartt’s The Secret History, her influence appears much more benign and, at times, it felt as if she had been catapulted into a scene to add exposition or act as a deus ex machina, her teachings moving the plot along in a slightly artificial way.

Structuring and concluding a novel of this sort was always going to be a complex job, however. The Red Word is not a book that provides easy answers or leaves you with a sense that all is well with the world. Instead, it asks numerous questions, presents its arguments and then leaves you to think through the complexities involved. Unlike The Secret History, this is not a classical tragedy. Instead, we are in the realm of Epic, with its shades of the fantastical and its uneven narrative, swinging between the comic, the tragic and the mundane as it depicts the travails of everyday life. As such, Henstra has done a fine job of bringing the many strands of her narrative together to form a coherent whole.

She’s also created a cast of compelling and realistic characters who populate a world that seems both monstrous and terrifyingly real. And, as with reality, the lines between acceptable and unacceptable behaviour are all too blurred. Without giving any spoilers here, there are some shocks in store for the reader and, by the novel’s end, it was increasingly difficult to distinguish who (if anyone) held the moral high ground.

Although not without its faults, The Red Word is an extremely accomplished and compelling novel. It shocked, disturbed, and amused me in equal measures. Like Jo Baker’s The Body Lies, which I reviewed last week, it gave me the rage in all the right ways. And, most importantly, it encouraged me to think – to unpick the tangled knots of mortality that Henstra has woven into the fabric of her narrative. Make no mistake, The Red Word is a complex book and, as such, requires a complex response of its reader. But it is a deeply worthwhile and extremely rewarding read for those that take up the challenge. Definitely a novel that merits repeated reading, and intense discussion with friends, this is a book that will stay with you long after you’ve finished the final page.

The Red Word by Sarah Henstra is published by Tramp Press in trade paperback and is available from all good booksellers and online retailers including Hive, Waterstones, and Book Depository.

My thanks go to the publisher for providing a copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review, and to Anne Cater from Random Things Tours for inviting me to take part in this blog tour. The tour continues until July 6 2019 so please do check out the other stops for more reviews and content!

The Red Word BT Poster