Technically, I should have posted this blog in December 2019 but because I took a two week break you’re getting it now! That being, this is not your typical Best of listicle. Instead, I am listing my personal top picks for the year, so not all of the books mentioned below were published in 2019 they just happen to be some of the books I read last year.
I’ve split this post into fiction and non-fiction where each book mentioned contains a single sentence synopsis followed by a mini -review.
If you’d like to watch the video version of this blog (including which books I plan on reading in 2020) click here.
Best Fiction 2019
Stations Eleven – Emily St John Mandel
Log line: An epidemic has wiped out 98% of the population.
Stations Eleven is the Walking Dead without zombies. As described by Mandel, Stations Eleven is a love letter to the world. Mandel knew she wanted to depict the wonder and marvel of our modern society: electricity that lights and powers our home, medical care, telephones that allow us to connect with people on the other side of the planet … But how do you articulate the miraculous marvels of contemporary life?
Easy: take them away.
Most ‘epidemic’ novel unravel in the heat of crisis, yet Stations Eleven is predominately set fifteen years after the viral outbreak occurred with brief glimpses of the night of the outbreak and the days-weeks that followed. The novel is heart-breaking, terrifyingly real, quiet, dark, and elegant.
I have little time for apocalyptic narratives (odd that I am studying climate change fiction!), but Stations Eleven is a sophisticated offering in a space dominated by doom.
The Wall – Marlen Haushofer
Log line: Woman trapped inside a glass dome with a cow, a dog and a cat.
I’m going to write a much longer blog post about this novel because I loved it so much, but I had to include it in this post too.
The above log line will no doubt make you think of Stephen King’s Under the Dome, but Haushofer penned this novel back in 1920. Despite the premise, The Wall is not about a woman (whose name we never learn) attempting to escape her imprisonment, instead, it is a story about basic survival.
Here’s the set up: The woman’s companions leave their cabin in the woods to go into town on some errands, and the woman decides to remain on the farm. When she wakes the following day — friendless — she discovers that an impenetrable dome as sealed her inside.
Thinking the wall is a weapon left over from the war, she patiently waits for assistance.
It never comes.
Instead, she must find a way to survive by taking care of herself and the three animals that live on the farm. This novel is one long journal entry containing accounts of her daily duties (farming, cooking, tending to the animals), stunning observations of animal behaviours (with a dose of anthropomorphism), and meditations on what it means to be human. It’s beautiful, brilliant, and brutal.
Only the Animals – Ceriwen Dovey
Log line: Short story collection told through the perspective of literary animals.
Any book told through the perspective of an animals has to be a little self-aware.
Each short story in Only the Animals is told through the perspective of either a famous author’s pet or an animal from a literary text. Oh, and they’re all dead.
One of my favourite stories is about two buddies (who are muscles) that travels around America by catching free rides on cargo ships. Dovey did a speculator job on the characterisation in this story (the muscles’ speak like 1920s gangsters) and the dialogue between the muscles’ chauvinistic, free-spirited behaviour is hilarious.
Another highlight was the tale about Leo Tolstoy’s pet turtle who goes on to live with Virginia Wolf. I give nothing away …
Dovey wrote Only the Animals as a way to articulate the violence people are capable of towards each other (during war) and how that affects the greater world (animals, ecology).
The stories are poignant and witty. Highly recommend.
The Book of Dreams – Nina George
Log line: The scape between life and death.
I loved George’s The Little Paris Bookshop when it came out a few years ago, and while her usual warmth and charm can be found here, The Book of Dreams is a shade darker with a mystical edge.
The book opens with a man jumping off a bridge to save a little girl’s life. The story then alternates between the man – who is now in a coma and trapped in the space between life and death – his son who has fallen in love with a girl who is also in a coma, and the man’s ex-girlfriend who was still listed as his in case of emergency contact.
George seamlessly blends her usual exploration of complicated family dynamics with the unanswerable question of what happens when we die?
The Book of Dreams is George’s last book in her series dedicated to grief and father-child relationship. Fittingly, it is dedicated to her own, deceased, father.
Oryx and Crake – Margaret Atwood
Log line: Genetically modified animals, collapse of the human race, Snowman.
Okay, so I know Oryx and Crake has been around for a super long time, but maybe you’re like me and this one skipped the TBR list.
Well, friends, if you’re yet to read OAC, I highly recommend you add it to this year’s list.
I’ve been reading a lot of cli-fi narratives as part of my research, and frankly, few author manage to package our current ecological disasters within a gripping read.
Oryx and Crake moves between multiple time periods as Jimmy (AKA Snowman) leads us through his childhood, adolescence, the time after the collapse of the human race and the collapse itself.
Atwood, whose parents are both biologists, did extensive research to ensure that the science within the book was plausible (even if a little stretched). Alarmingly, some of the experiments mentions in the book have actually come true, such as glow in the dark rabbits.
As a writer, the elements that I admired most about this novel was Atwood’s success in drawing me into the story despite the omissions of information and the unlikeability of the characters.
Mystery = narrative drive.
Best Non-fiction for 2019
Deep Work – Cal Newport
Log line: focus = success / unfocussed = mediocre.
I have harped on and on about this book because it is awesome.
Newport is an associate professor in computer science at Georgetown University. In Deep Work, Newport argues that right now focus is the world’s most important commodity.
Living in the age of distraction, most of us are task switching constantly which lead to mediocre results. The skill that we must develop in order to create meaningful work, to get the best jobs, and to live a happier life is to learn to focus.
What does this look like?
Carving out three-hour focus sessions a couple time a week. It is this method, coupled with productive meditation and saying no, that resulted in Newport writing eleven academic journal articles within one year and he doesn’t work weekend.
Inheritance – Dani Shapiro
I’ve been a big fan of Dani Shapiro for years and while I personally can’t relate to her latest memoir, Inheritance, the book was impossible to put down.
Shapiro is petite, fine bones, pale, blonde and has blue eyes. For this reason, she’s had a difficult time convincing people that she is Jewish.
One day, her husband orders a DNA kit and on a whim, Shapiro swabs her mouth, pops it in the tube and forgets about it. The test results arrive while Shapiro is packing her bags for a writing retreat she’s scheduled to lead, what happens next changes everything.
Inheritance reads like a thriller, only it’s real.
Here, Shapiro shows a vulnerability that manages (somehow) to surpass that of her previous book, Hourglass.
As always, her writing is clear, concise, precise, and deeply moving. She is highly observant and knows how to deliver a line that cut right to the core.
Inheritance is for lovers of memoir generally and fine writing specifically.
GRAB A FREE COPY OF SEVEN WAYS TO STAY MOTIVATED AS A WRITER
While you’re here, be sure to join my email newsletter and gain instant access to your FREE downloadable copy of the Seven Ways to Stay Motivated as a Writer. Plus, you’ll receive my weekly newsletter straight to your inbox every Thursday morning. This is where I share links to my latest blog/vlog, updates and other exclusive content that I ONLY share via email.