The BEST Books I Read During 2019

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.

In fact, I have written two posts about this here and here.

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.

Read it.

Seriously.

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.


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The One Writing Hack That Can Change Everything

We’ve all heard the writing advice to read as much and as widely as possible.

The reason for this advice is fairly simple. If you are a fantasy writer and you only read fantasy novels, you run the risk of producing a novel that lacks originality.

You may be very well informed about what stories, premises and concepts have already been done, but how will you be able to offer anything different if your reading preferences are so narrow?

Writers should aim to read as widely as possible. You may love fantasy novels, but it’s important that you also read outside of this genre.

Read crime, romance, science fiction, speculative and horror books. Read literary books, classics, short stories, flash fiction, micro fiction and non-fiction.

Read cookbooks, memoirs, essay collections and poetry. Read books about travel, history, theory, politics, productivity, money and health.

Read books about how to declutter and organise your house.

Read medical books.

Read coffee table books like Bibliophile by Jane Mount (one of my current favs and a fantastic starting point for reading widely!).

Not only will reading widely make you a better person in general (hello, healthy eating habits, responsible saving and organised wardrobes!), it will make you a more interesting person to talk to and it will definitely make you a better writer.

When you know more, it’s possible to write more because you’re no longer drawing from your limited experiences or ideas. Challenge yourself to read works that open your eyes to bigger concepts and problems.

Read books about feminist theory, climate change, philosophy, human/animal relations, economics and conspiracy theories (this one is especially great for dystopian writers!).

Reading widely enable you to take snippets of information from a variety of sources and embed that knowledge within your current WIP.

The work will benefit from your careful inclusion of this information as the story itself will become more interesting. Obviously.

Also, if you read more widely and challenge yourself to read texts you wouldn’t ordinarily read (especially non-fiction and scholarly works including literary analysis, theory, philosophy), you will innately produce work that has more substance. Your work will have something to say.

Remember: the message behind the story needn’t be prescriptive or a slap in the face; there is such a thing as sub-text.

Remember: Your readers aren’t stupid. If you do a good job, they’ll find the message beneath the mayhem. 

Even if a reader picks up your work and enjoys it solely for the story, they will still feel that the book is about something bigger.

You don’t have to read widely. You don’t have to write stories that are more than just the story. But the writing process itself and your growth as a human being will be better if you do. Just saying.

If you’re not sure where to start, I’ve included a list of random books you may enjoy perusing.


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Books that Will Make You a Better Writer

Romance

Tipping the Velvet – Sarah Walters
Atonement – Ian McEwan
Cold Mountain – Charles Frazier

Fantasy

Nevernight – Jay Kristoff
The Savior’s Champion – Jenna Morecci
Rupetta – Nike Sulway (?)

Crime

Call my Evie – J.P. Pomare
Mystic River – Dennis Lehane
The Big Sleep – Raymond Chandler

Dysfunctional Families

Flowers in the Attic – V.C. Andrews
Everything I Never Told You – Celeste Ng
The Liar’s Club – Mary Karr

Cli-fi

Clade – James Bradley
Stations Eleven – Emily St John Mandel
Gold Fame Citrus – Clair Vaye Watkins

Speculative

A Superior Spectre – Angela Myer
The Book of Dream – Nina George
Lincoln in the Bardo – George Sauders

Dystopia

A Clockwork Orange – Anthony Burgess
Never Let Me Go – Kazuo Ishiguro
The Stand – Stephen King

Literary

The Poisonwood Bible – Barbara Kingsolver
Commonwealth – Ann Patchett
We are all Completely Beside Ourselves – Karen Joy Fowler

Historical Fiction

From the Wreck – Jane Rawson
The Signature of Everything – Elizabeth Gilbert
Bitter Greens – Kate Forsyth

Classics

Villette – Charlotte Brontë
Emma – Jane Austen
Orlando – Virginia Woolf

Essay Collections

What are People For? – Wendell Berry
A Field Guide to Getting Lost – Rebecca Solnit
I was Told There’d be Cake – Sloane Crosley

Short Stories

Her Body and Other Parties – Carmen Maria Machado
The Bloody Chamber – Angela Carter
This is How You Lose Her – Junot Diaz

Non-fiction Environmental Writing

The Reinvention of Eden – Carolyn Merchant
The Soul of an Octopus – Sy Montgomery
The Invention of Nature – Andrea Wulf
The End of Nature – Bill McKibben

Get your life together

You are a Badass at Making Money – Jen Sincero
Do the Work – Steven Pressfield
The Happiness Project – Gretchen Rubin
Deep Work – Cal Newport

Poetry

Ariel – Sylvia Plath
Life on Mars – Tracy K. Smith
Howl – Allen Ginsburg