I’m stuffed on turkey, sleepy after all the excitement of Christmas and ready to try and snooze and eat my way into oblivion over the next couple of weeks of holidays; so of course my thoughts turn to lying under a duvet with books and what to read next. Before I jump into my TBR pile for 2020 though I’m doing the obligatory, ultra-cool, totally-not-overdone round up of my reading year.
This is not a round up of best books which have been published this year; although some of them have been. I can’t even dream of writing that post because I haven’t managed to read everything that’s been published this year (I’m such a slacker.)
Instead this is a list of the best books I’ve read. Some of them are years old and I’m waaay late to the party. Some of them were released this year and as my first flush of enthusiasm fades I may scale back my gushiness. But all of them I’ve raved about to people, bought as presents for people, foisted them on people even as they insist they’re not looking for anything to read (annoying I know. It’s a flaw, but a useful one as a book blogger!) and generally not shut up about. I really would recommend you track these down and give them a shot.
Unlike my usual monthly round ups I’ve not listed these in order of preference but instead tried to group them as genre, and I’ve not critiqued them (you can look back at round-ups if you really want to, but they’re all five stars, high four stars at a stretch). My last caveat is that these are the absolute tops of what I’ve read but I’ve read loads and loads of other excellent stuff, I just couldn’t include it all.
What have been your books of the year? Have you read any of these and did you like them?
When they call you a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir by Patrisse Khan-Cullors, Asha Bandele, Angela Y.Davis
The tale of the birth of a movement, When They Call You a Terrorist details the horrifying and very personal account of what led Khan-Cullors to help found the Black Lives Matter movement. From the start it makes it clear why the movement was, and is, so vital and essential for Black People around the world as they campaign to be able to feel safe in their day to day lives. For those of us who have the privilege of not facing this level of aggression and oppression in the smallest of our interactions, and who can call for help without fear of repercussions, this is truly eye opening and terrifying. But shows how that fear was utilised by a group of women who believe a better future for them and their families is possible.
The Library Book by Susan Orlean
Stepping inside a library for the first time in years, Orlean’s interest was peaked and she began an investigation into the inner life of the Los Angeles Public Library which had suffered a catastrophic fire. Part history lesson, part sociology study, it’s hard to describe how compelling a tale this is. If you thought librarians were society’s heroes before this will just solidify that opinion. And it’ll remind you of the full extent to which a library is a vital part of every community.
Young Adult Fiction
The Burning by Laura Bates
Absolutely everyone who is and ever was and has anything to do with teenagers must read this, a novel which brings the realities and dangers of life growing up with social media into sharp relief. Anna and her mother have escaped from a past to a new school, new job and a new life in rural Scotland. But as Anna tries to rebuild her life and her trust in people, her past is looking to track her down. All the while she is undertaking a project on a young girl, Maggie, who used to live in her house a few hundred years previously and was burned as a witch. The similarities between Maggie and Anna’s persecutions are horribly real, all that’s changed is the methods with which they are enacted.
Sonny and Me by Ross Sayers
Sonny and Daughter are two 15 year old boys trying to survive in their fourth year when their one and only favourite teacher vanishes mysteriously. Of course they can’t let this lie, how will they possibly pass National 5 maths without Miss Baird to help them out? So off the boys set to find out where she is and when she’s coming back. What they discover is a web of gossip, intrigue and murder that they were entirely unprepared for, but handle with wit and a twinkle in their eye. This is one of the funniest books I’ve read in a long long time and really will have you laughing from page 1, but it’s also full of heart and warmth and kindness.
The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
Star is a teenager from a mostly black neighbourhood who goes to a mostly white private school. As such she feels she is having to live two different lives and regularly switch between two different versions of herself in order to fit in to both her worlds. She begins to question this when for the second time in her life she sees a close friend shot and killed in front of her. This time by the Police. While trying to process her trauma she gets caught up in both the activism from her home town and the subtle and not so subtle racism from her school life, all while trying to come to terms with the duality of her existence. It’s a harrowing read about experiences that far too many children are having to traverse.
Toffee by Sarah Crossman
Toffee is the intergenerational tale of a friendship between a runaway who is emotionally lost; Allison and a woman with dementia; Marla. They are two lost souls who find a home in each other. After Allison is mistaken by Marla as Toffee, she decides to take advantage of that in order to get a warm bed and maybe survive another night. What develops is a friendship that allows Allison to begin to heal and Marla to regain some of the dignity and passion that have been stripped from her. Toffee is written in beautiful lyrical verse and yet contains miles of emotion and some of the best of humanity.
The Giver of Stars by JoJo Moyes
The Giver of Stars will either be heartwarming or Twee depending on your viewpoint. It follows the story of 5 women who establish and run a horseback library based in remote hills of Kentucky. As well as showing the different acts of heroism stemming from the librarians, it shows them as they navigate their way through small-town politics and dead marriages to find true friendship in each other. It was a real passion project for Moyes based on a photo of the real-life horseback library and I adored it.
Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
Two half sisters who have never met, Effia and Esi, end up leading very different lives, with Effia marrying James Collings the British Governor in charge of Cape Coast Castle and Esi being taken prisoner in the dungeons of the same castle. What follows is an epic sprawling inter-generational tale following the two family lines as the face racism, prejudice and superstition at home and abroad. Each chapter follows a new descendant of the family. It’s heartbreaking and harrowing and captivating and utterly unputdownable.
Things in Jars by Jess Kidd
Bridie Devine is a Victorian era detective, interested in figuring out how things work and helping people that most would overlook. Having risen from an Irish Street rat to a doctor’s apprentice and now an independent woman who advocates for the less privileged, Bridie’s reputation is still recovering from her last case. Which is why a Baron with something…fishy to hide feels confident that she’ll keep his case confidential. So Bridie and her 7 foot tall ferocious maid, Cora get drafted in to find Christabel Berwick; a missing child that no one was supposed to know even existed, and who has a little air of Kirstin Dunst’s “butter wouldn’t melt/oh so vicious” character from Interview with a Vampire about her. Oh and Bridie absolutely doesn’t believe in anything inexplainable or supernatural. She DEFINITELY doesn’t believe in ghosts, and definitely isn’t developing feelings for the really handsome half dressed spectre from her past who just so happens to be following her everywhere.
What Jess Kidd has produced here is a book full of warmth, heart and genuinely hilarious quirks.
The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon
800 pages of queens and prophecies and dragons, and secret agents, and love. I have heard many many people say that the size of the book intimidated them, but the story flows so naturally, the characters are so compelling and the adventure so careering that you will never notice the length of this book, and will likely grieve when it does end. It’s phenomenal and does so without having to lean on gratuitous violence or misogyny. Ead and Sabran’s blossoming relationship is one for the ages.
Nevernight by Jay Kristoff
Mia was born into a highborn family, with a life of wealth and privilege and a warm and loving family. However her father attempts a failed rebellion, he is summarily executed and her family imprisoned. With the help of her rage and a shadowy familiar named Mr Kindly Mia manages to escape and finds herself seeking out The Red Church, in order to graduate as an elite assassin called a Blade and exact her revenge on those that destroyed her family.
From page one this is engrossing, and brutal and unforgiving and utterly addictive.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
Upon returning home for a funeral, the narrator starts to remember strange events which occurred 40 years earlier, including a malevolent spirit and the mysterious girl next door who offers to help him bind it. It’s impossible to describe what follows without giving too much away but it’s haunting and universally awestriking. And weird. But beautiful. This is the book that has ignited m love for Gaiman’s writing.
The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden
Vasya is the youngest daughter of a rural Russian Boyar named Pyotr, thought both cursed and gifted. Her birth led to her beloved mother’s death but she also wields extraordinary powers inherited from her maternal grandmother – including the ability to speak to spirits and creatures of folklore. Unfortuantely her stepmother (who shares her gift but believes she sees demons) condemns Vasya as a witch and shuns her and the culture that the creatures of folklore come from. Vasya’s gifts soon draw the attention of greater and more powerful spirits.
It’s a hauntingly beautiful tale based in Russian folklore and exploring Vasya’s journey to discover and accept herself.
The Binding by Bridget Collins
In a world where books are taboo as they are created by binding people’s undesired memories, which are then prayed on and traded by the elite, Emmett and his sister lead a sheltered life in a rural farm. Then one day Emmett is summoned to be a bookbinding apprentice – a profession and world he knows nothing about. Then one day he finds a book with his name on it.
This is a love story. One that is passionate and haunting and terrifying and where Emmett and Lucien have to fight prejudice and members of the powerful elite in order to find happiness.
Circe by Madeline Miller
The epitome of there are two sides to every story, Circe tells the story of a banished Goddess who was a side villain in the Odyssey, but from her point of view. Events play out just as they did in the Odyssey but from a very different perspective which follows Circe from her position at the bottom of the divine social ladder to her own ownership of herself as a person. A beautiful reimagining of a classic which makes it much more accessible and feminist for modern day audiences.
The “I don’t know what to call it” genre
I wanted you to know by Laura Pearson
If you want an uncontrollable tearjerker this is the one for you. Jess is a single mother who is at the end stages of terminal breast cancer, and her daughter, Edie is still a baby. So Jess sets about writing Edie a series of letters telling her how to love, how to forgive and how to move on. This is juxtaposed with Jess’s goodbyes to everyone around her. It is heartbreaking and powerful and cruel – the very nature of cancer. And completely unforgettable.
My Sister the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite
A blackly comic look at the depths and limitations of family loyalty between two sisters in Lagos. Ayoola is charming, manipulative and deadly. Korede appears average by comparison but is fiercly protective and obsessively organised. As sisters they have a bond forged in the heat of an abusive childhood and they make a deadly efficient team, but what happens when they set their sights on the same man and can their relationship surivive?
Sal by Mick Kitson
It’s hard to define which genre Sal sits in; it could fit in so many. Sal and her sister have been living in an abusive home where their needs and welfare are neglected at best, and at worst…well: Sal is driven to plan an escape in order to preserve her sister. The story follows Sal and her sister as they find their feet, independence and general freedom in the Scottish wilderness, while also flashing back to the lives they escaped. Despite the circumstances it is hopeful and joyous in places and Sal is a compelling heroine who is determined to overcome the obstacles and lack of choice that were her lot in life.
The Lost Ones by Anita Frank
In 1917 Stella Marchem returns from nursing in the Great War, traumatised and having to come to terms with the horrific loss of her childhood sweetheart and fiancé. Steeped in a deep depression, Stella is given the mission of attending to her lonely and newly pregnant sister, Madeline, who currently lives with her mother-in-law and a handful of servants in an oppressive and chilling country manor. And so off she sets with her maid, Annie Burrows; a young girl who makes everyone around her nervous and who seems to on the knife edge of madness. But Madeline is facing more than simple loneliness; from running footsteps to sudden chills; misplaced items and sobbing in the night.
Is it hormonal hysteria, or is there something more sinister at work?