I’m incredibly lucky to be able to read books for a living, whether that’s through academic work, bookselling, reviewing, or as amazingly happened this year, book prize judging. Overlapping with my own reading habits, this year I’ve reviewed 89 books for Cumbria Life magazine and read another 53 debut novels which were being considered for the Costa Book Awards (I’m very proud of our shortlist). Looking back over the year I’m surprised I had time for anything else. Nevertheless, I did. There were a number of books vying to keep me sane and to surprise me in 2019. I’ve largely shorn this account of poetry, children’s books and Cumbrian books, although a small selection of the year’s highlights creeps in towards the end.
Elanor Dymott’s Slack-Tide (Jonathan Cape) was the first book I became immersed in this year. I’d never read anything by Dymott and loved the writing in this slim, powerful novel of character and relationships. Kudos too for the passage which reflects on the optical illusion of Patrick Hughes’ bookcase artwork ‘Paradoxymoron’ which hangs on the lower floor of the British Library
Ella Risbridger gets a double starred entry for the classic pairing of the hybrid cookbook-self-help-memoir, Midnight Chicken (Bloomsbury) and an excellent poetry anthology Set Me On Fire: A Poem For Every Feeling (Doubleday). Ella’s writing is sincere and compelling, whether she is introducing you to a wide array of poems or reminiscing about the simple cookies she frequently made to satisfy children in her care in Paris.
Yvonne Battle-Felton’s Remembered (Dialogue) is both lyrical and searing in its visceral depiction of the legacy of slavery in early twentieth-century Philadelphia. The plotting and puzzling of family history is particularly strong in what is a painful retracing of Reconstruction era America.
Ben Lerner’s The Topeka School (Granta) is a joy. I love how Lerner writes, with such precise scene setting, appreciation of time and multiple points of view. The poet’s ear for the particular is a great help to Lerner’s world-building. 10:04 was a big novel to follow up and The Topeka School did not disappoint. I was so excited to get to see Lerner discuss his novel with Katherine Angel at Tate Britain in November. ALSO, note the wonderful Lerner-merch Granta sent me!! Over the holidays, I’m planning on listening to the new episode of Literary Friction which features an interview recorded with Lerner when he was in the UK.
Few books do what Gareth E. Rees does in Car Park Life (Influx). Rees makes the ordinary extraordinary. The humble supermarket car park is the object of study here, becoming a subject of childhood nostalgia and of public history, underscoring the design and function of these overlooked sites. Humour and emotion sit side by side. Plus, there’s a brilliant chapter on Penrith Sainsbury’s.
Probably my favourite book this year, Jon Day’s Homing (John Murray) should have readers flocking to the paperback in 2020. Day’s book is ostensibly about taking up pigeon keeping, but is really about how we spend our time, what we’re doing with our lives and what those who associate with pigeons are up to. It’s partially a sociology and it’s also a study on the pigeon in and of itself. Often a cameo appearance in any form of art, pigeons have their mystery, and this book considers the marginal in wildlife and social life.
Edward Parnell’s eery Ghostland (William Collins) tracks British landscapes which have inspired haunting writings. A sideways biography of many different figures from MR James, Algernon Blackwood through to Susan Cooper and Alan Garner, it deals with the compelling influences of folk and myth on some earthy and dark tales.
Nicole Flattery’s Show Them A Good Time (Bloomsbury) is a sizzling collection of short stories. The writing is playful and insightful, making Flattery a writer to watch.
Iris Murdoch‘s backlist received beautiful treatment in celebration of her centenary year. Striking images from Bijou Karman drove a whole raft of new readers to Murdoch’s work. Having never read any myself, and for book prize-related reasons, I thought I’d start with Murdoch’s first novel, Under The Net (Vintage). I was not disappointed. First published in 1954, it felt entirely contemporary.
Charlotte Philby’s The Most Difficult Thing (Borough Press) is a twisty spy thriller which I found a real page-turner. It’s not regularly what I would read but I’m really glad I did, and that there will be another book (A Duplicitous Life) out in 2020 — particularly if it ends up connecting to the story in this debut.
Julia Armfield’s Salt Slow (Picador) is another stand-out collection of short stories. I read some of these whilst in the midst of a weird fever whilst travelling and that probably contributed to the way they infected my dreams.
Lizzy Stewart’s Walking Distance (Avery Hill) is a rich graphic essay about women walking in the city. I really enjoyed the imagery and the evaluation of drawing and painting the everyday. It would make a nice companion to Lauren Elkin’s Flâneuse if you’d happened to read that or knew someone who liked it…
R.C. Sherriff’s The Hopkins Manuscript (Penguin or Persephone) was first published in 1939 but feels incredibly timely. A novel employing the classic device of the ‘found manuscript’ Sherriff’s pooter-esque protagonist is quite worried about the world being hit by the moon, but is also worried what the effect will be on the judging standards at the neighbouring village’s poultry show. Tragi-comic in the best possible way.
Katie Hale’s My Name Is Monster (Canongate) is a sweeping debut novel which deals with a post-apocalyptic Northern landscape. Poetic, allusive and filmic, Hale steeps you in the feelings of an isolated protagonist, Monster, and interweaves their childhood memories of a coherent society with the ominous present. Also contains some excellent post-apocalyptic chickens.
Anne Barnetson’s Customer Service Wolf (Affirm Press) is for anyone who has any experience of retail. Anne is a bookseller in Australia and in her autobiographical comics, her wolf persona develops unique responses to frequently asked odd-shop questions. These comics are some of the best things instagram has offered us in years. This collection is now out but only in Australia… so it’s trickier to get hold of but let’s hope there’s a UK version soon! See the BBC article on Barnetson here.
Geraldine Quigley’s Music Love Drugs War (Fig Tree) is a striking novel set in Derry in 1981. Music and youth culture infuse a haunting coming-of-age narrative as friendships and relationships become inextricable from the political situation of the time. At turns wry, ensnaring and it also contains huge emotional punch.
Elizabeth von Arnim’s The Caravaners (Handheld) is utterly hilarious, which is excellent considering it’s a novel from 1909 about Prussian tourists taking an English caravanning holiday. Part of the wonderful Handheld Press’s project recovering and republishing neglected fiction from the twentieth-century, The Caravaners is sharp, lively and a real discovery.
Rowan Hisayo Buchanan’s Starling Days (Sceptre) novel was another favourite this year. It contains a realistic depiction of friendships, relationships and dislocation whilst acknowledging physical and mental health in a way that few novels manage to achieve.
James Rich’s Apple: Recipes from the Orchard (Hardie Grant) deserves to be core-stock for all (I’m not sure I warned there would be puns in this round up but it’s an affliction which won’t leave me). This is an entire book of recipes involving apples. Nothing here is apple-adjacent, we’re talking consistent apple content. Ones I’ve experimented with so far have been excellent, and this is an a-peel-ing cookbook to return to (there was also no plan for two puns in one entry).
Joanna Pocock’s Surrender (Fitzcarraldo) was a really great book to come to in the midst of reading lots of fiction. This is an engaging book-length essay on transatlantic landscapes, community and the environment which asks some serious questions about how we live and how we want to live. The mix of memoir, and embedded research adds a layer of empathy to the investigation at hand.
Olivia Potts’ A Half-Baked Idea (Fig Tree) is another book to get lost in. Half-memoir, half-cookbook, recipes are sandwiched between chapters. Potts writes deeply and affectingly of grieving after her mother’s death, but also of the daring life-decision to swap a career in law for one as a baker, embarking on the Diplome de Patisserie at Le Cordon Bleu. I learnt much more about the law than I’d bargained for, but also got some proper insight into French cookery beyond watching Julie and Julia. New recipes are always a bonus too…
In no particular order, some poetry books that stood out this year…
Karen Solie’s The Caiplie Caves (Picador)
Stephen Sexton’s If All The World And Love Were Young (Penguin)
Rebecca Tamás’s WITCH (Penned in the Margins)
John McCullough’s Reckless Paper Birds (Penned In The Margins)
Helen Tookey’s City of Departures (Carcanet)
Isabel Galleymore’s Significant Other (Carcanet)
and a brief hint at the children’s books that will stick with me too…
Sophie Anderson, The Girl Who Speaks Bear (Usborne)
Danny Rurlander, Spylark (Chicken House)
Catherine Fisher, The Velvet Fox (Firefly)
Sharon Gosling, The Golden Butterfly (Stripes)
Nadine Wild-Palmer’s The Tunnels Below (Pushkin Children’s)