Favourite books of 2019

  • 31 December, 2019

I managed to read 74 books in 2019 (up from 53 in 2018 and 50 in 2017) but here follows ten of my favourites this year, in no particular order.

Disappointments included The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle (2018) which started strong but failed to end with a bang; all of the narrative potential energy tightly coiled in the exposition was lazily wasted in a literary æther like the "whimper" in the imagined world of T. S Eliot. In an adjacent category whilst I really enjoyed A Year in Provence (1989) last year, Toujours Provence (1991) did not outdo its predecessor but was still well worth the dégustation. I was less surprised to be let down by Jon Ronson's earliest available book, The Men Who Stare At Goats (2004), especially after I had watched the similarly off-key film of the same name, but it was at least intellectually satisfying to contrast the larval author of this work and comparing him the butterfly he is today but I couldn't recommend the experience to others who aren't fans of him now.

The worst book that I finished this year was Black Nowhere (2019), a painful attempt at a cyberthriller based on the story of the Silk Road marketplace, another of my 2018 highlights, very much better written too...). At many points I seriously pondered whether I was an unwitting participant in a form of distributed performance art or simply reading an ironic takedown of inexpensive modern literature.

As a slight aside, choosing which tomes to write about below was an interesting process but likely not for the reasons you might think; I found it difficult to write so publically anything interesting about some books that remain memorable to this day without essentially inviting silent censure or, worse still, the receipt of tedious correspondence due to their topics of contemporary politics or other vortexes of irrationality, assumed suspicion and outright hostility. (Given Orwell's maxim that "the only test of artistic merit is survival," I find this somewhat of disservice to my integrity, yet alone to the dear reader.)


In the Woods (2007), The Likeness (2008) & Faithful Place (2010)

Tana French

I always feel a certain smug pleasure attached to spotting those gaudy "Now a major TV series!" labels appearing upon novels I have already digested. The stickers do not merely adhere to the book themselves, but in a wider sense stick to myself too as if my own refined taste had been given approval and blessing of its correctness. Not unlike as if my favourite local restaurant had somehow been granted a Michelin star, the only problem then becomes the concomitant difficulty in artfully phrasing that one knew about it all along...

But the first thing that should probably be said about the books that comprise the Dublin Murder Squad ("Now a major TV series!") is the underlying scaffolding of the series: whilst the opening novel details Irish detectives Rob Ryan and Cassie Maddox investigating a murder it is told in from the first-person perspective of the former. However, the following book then not only recounts an entirely different Gardaí investigation it is told from the point of view of the latter, Cassie, instead. At once we can see how different (or not) the characters really are, how narrow (or not) their intepretation of events are, but moreover we get to enjoy replaying previous interaction between the two both, implicitly in our minds and even sometimes explicitly on the page. This fount of interest continues in the third of the series which is told from the viewpoint of a yet another character introduced in the second book and so forth.

I feel I could write a fair amount about these novels, but in the interest of brevity I will limit my encomium to the observation that the setting of Ireland never becomes a character itself, now curiously refreshing as most series feel the need to adopt this trope which overshot cliché some time ago. Authors, by all means set your conceits in well-trodded locations but please refrain from boasting or namedropping your knowledge at seemingly every opportunity (the best/worst example being Ben Aaronovitch's Rivers of London series or, by referencing street and pub names just a few too many times for comfort, Irvine Welsh's Edinburgh). Viewer's of the BBC Spooks series will likely know what I mean too - it isn't that the intelligence officers couldn't meet in the purview of St Paul's or under the watchful London Eye but the unlikelihood that all such clandestine conventicles would happen with the soft focus of yet another postcard-worthy landmark in the background forces at least this particular ex-Londoner of the plot somewhat.

Anyway, highly recommend. I believe I have three more in this series, all firmly on my 2020 list.


The Ministry of Truth (2019)

Dorian Lynskey

It should hopefully come as no surprise to anyone that I would read this "biography" of George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four (NB. not "1984"...) after a number of Orwell-themed travel posts this year (Marrakesh, Hampstead, Paris, Southwold, Ipswich, etc.).

Timed to coincide with the book's publication 70 years ago, Lynskey celebrates its platinum anniversary with an in-depth view into the book's literary background in the dystopian fiction of the preceding generation including Yevgeny Zamyatin's 1921 We and H. G. Well's output more generally. It is a bête noire of mine that the concepts in the original book are taken too literally by most (as if by pointing out the lack of overt telescreens somehow discredits the work or — equally superficially in analysis — has been "proven right" by the prevalence of the FAANGs throughout our culture) but Lynskey does no such thing and avoids this stubbornly sophomoric and narrow view of Nineteen... and does not neglect the wider, more delicate and more interesting topics such as the slippage between deeds, intentions, thoughts, veracity and language.

Thorough and extremely comprehensive, this biography remains a wonderfully easy read and is recommended to all interested in one of the most influencial novels of the 20th century and furthermore should not be considered the exclusive domain of lovers of trivial Orwellania, not withstanding that such folks will undoubtably find something charming in Lynskey's research in any case: Who knew that the original opening paragraph of this book was quite so weak? Or a misprint resulted in an ambiguous ending...? This book shouldn't just make you want to read the novel again, it will likely pique your interest into delving deeper into Orwell’s writing for yourself. And if you don't, Big Brother is...


City of the Dead (2011) & The Bohemian Highway (2013)

Sara Gran

Imagine a Fleabag with more sass, more drug abuse, and — absent the first person narrative — thankfully hold the oft-distracting antics with the fourth wall. Throw in the perceptive insight of Sherlock and finish with the wistful and mystical notes of a Haruki Murakami novel and you've got Claire DeWitt, our plucky protagonist.

In post-Katrani New Orleans, where we lay our scene, this troubled private detective has been tasked with looking for a local prosecutor who has been missing since the hurricane. Surprisingly engrossing and trenchant, my only quibble with the naked, fast-paced and honest writing of City of the Dead is that the ends of chapters are far too easily signposted as the tone of the prose changes in a reliable manner, disturbing the unpredictability of the rest of the text.

The second work I include here (The Bohemian Highway) is almost on-par with the first with yet more of Claire's trenchant observations about herself and society (eg. "If you hate yourself enough, you’ll start to hate anyone who reminds you of you", etc.). However, it was quite the disappointment to read the third in this series (The Infinite Blacktop (2018) which had almost all the aforementioned ingredients but somehow fell far, far short of the target. Anyway, if someone has not optioned the rights for an eight-part television series of the first two novels, I would be willing to go at least, say, 90:10 in with you.


Never Split the Difference (2016)

Chris Voss

I was introduced to Chris Voss earlier in the year via an episode of The Tim Ferriss Show (and if that wasn't enough of a eyebrow-raising introduction he was just on an episode of Lance Armstrong's own podcast...) but regardless of its Marmite-esque route into my world I could not help but be taken hostage by this former FBI negotiator's approach to Negotiating as if Your Life Depended On It, as its subtitle hyperbolically claims.

My initial interest in picking up this how-to-negotiate volume lied much deeper than its prima facie goal of improving my woefully-lacking skills as I was instead intellectually curious about the socio-anthropology and to learn more about various facets of human connections and communication in general. However, the book mixes its "pop psych" with remarkably simple and highly practical tips for all levels of negotiations. Many of these arresting ideas, at least in the Voss school, are highly counter-intuitive yet he argues for them all persuasively, generally preferring well-reasoned argument over relying on the langue du bois of the "amygdala" and other such concepts borrowed superficial from contemporary psychology that will likely be rendered the phrenology of the early 21st-century anyway.

Whilst the book's folksy tone and exhale-inducing approach to pedagogy will put many off (I thought I left academia and its "worksheets" a long time ago…) it certainly passes the primary test of any book of negotiation: it convinced me.


The Way Inn (2014) & Plume (2019)

Will Wiles

I really enjoyed this authors take on modern British culture but I am unsure if I could really communicate exactly why. However, I am certain that I couldn't explain what his position really is beyond using misleading terms such as "surreal" or "existential" because despite these labels implying an inchoate and nebulous work I also found it simultaneously sharp and cuttingly incisive.

Outlining the satirical and absurd plot of The Way Inn would do little to communicate the true colour palette of the volume too (our self-absorbed protagonist attends corporate conferences on the topic, of course, of conferences themselves) but in both of these books Wiles ruthlessly avoiding all of the tired takedowns of contemporary culture, somehow finding new ways to critique our superficial and ersatz times.

The second of Wiles' that I read this year, Plume, was much darker and even sinister in feel but remains peppered with enough microscopic observations on quotidian life ("the cloying chemical reek of off-brand energy drinks is a familiar part of the rush-hour bouquet"...) that somehow made it more, and not less, harrowing in tone. You probably need to have lived in the UK to get the most out of this, but I would certainly recommend it.


Chasing the Scream (2015)

Johann Hari

It is commonplace enough to find RT ≠ endorsement in a Twitter biography these days but given that Hari's book documents a Search For The Truth About Addiction I am penning this review with more than a soupçon of trepidation. As in, if it would be premature to assume that if someone has chosen to read something then they are implicitly agreeing with its contents it would also be a similar error to infer that reader is looking for the same answers. This is all to say that I am not outing myself as an addict here, but then again, this is precisely what an addict would say...

All throat clearing aside, I got much from reading Johann Hari's book which, I think, deliberately does not attempt to break new ground in any of the large area it surveys and prefers to offer a holistic view of the war on drug [prohibition] through a series of long vignettes and stories about others through the lens of Hari himself on his own personal journey.

Well-written and without longueur, Hari is careful to not step too close to the third-rail of the medication—mediation debate as the most effective form of treatment. This leads to some equivocation at points but Hari's narrative-based approach generally lands as being more honest than many similar contemporary works that cede no part of the complex terrain to anything but their prefered panacea, all deliciously ironic given his resignation from the Independent newspaper in 2011. Thus acting as a check against the self-assured tones of How to Change Your Mind (2018) and similar, Chasing the Scream can be highly recommended quite generally but especially for readers in this topic area.


The Sellout (2016)

Paul Beatty

"I couldn't put it down…" is the go-to cliché for literature so I found it amusing to catch myself in quite-literally this state at times. Winner of the 2016 Man Booker Prize, the first third of this were perhaps the most engrossing and compulsive reading experience I've had since I started "seriously" reading.

This book opens in medias res within the Supreme Court of the United States where the narrator lights a spliff under the table. As the book unfolds, it is revealed that this very presence was humbly requested by the Court due to his attempt to reinstate black slavery and segregation in his local Los Angeles neighbourhood. Saying that, outlining the plot would be misleading here as it is far more the ad-hoc references, allusions and social commentary that hang from this that make this such an engrossing work.

The tranchant, deep and unreserved satire might perhaps be merely enough for an interesting book but where it got really fascinating to me (in a rather inside baseball manner) is how the latter pages of the book somehow don't live up the first 100. That appears like a straight-up criticism, but this flaw is actually part of this book's appeal to me — what actually changed in these latter parts? It's not overuse of the idiom or style and neither is it that it strays too far from the original tone or direction, but I cannot put my finger on why which has meant the book sticks to this day in my mind. I can almost, just almost, imagine a devilish author such as Paul deliberately crippling one's output for such an effect…

Now, one cannot unreservedly recommend this book. The subject matter itself, compounded by being dealt with in such an flippant manner will be unpenetrable to many and deeply offensive to others, but if you can see your way past that then you'll be sure to get something—whatever that may be—from this work.


Diary of a Somebody (2019)

Brian Bilston

The nom de plume of the "unofficial poet laureate of Twitter", Brian Bilston is an insufferable and ineffectual loser who decides to write a poem every day for a year. A cross between the cringeworthiness of Alan Partridge and the wit and wordplay of Spike Milligan, the eponymous protagonist documents his life after being "decruited" from his job.

Halfway through this book I came to the realisation that I was technically reading a book of poetry for fun, but far from being Yeats, Auden or The Iliad, "Brian" tends to pen verse along the lines of:

No, it's not Tennyson and "plot" ties itself up a little too neatly at the end, but I smiled out loud too many times whilst reading this book to not include it here.


Stories of Your Life and Others (2014) & Exhalation (2019)

Ted Chiang

This compilation has been enjoying a renaissance in recent years due the success of the film Arrival (2016) which based on on the fourth and titular entry in this amazing collection. Don't infer too much from that however as whilst this is prima facie just another set of sci-fi tales, it is science fiction in the way that Children of Men is, rather than Babylon 5.

A well-balanced mixture of worlds are evoked throughout with a combination of tales that variously mix the Aristotelian concepts of spectacle (opsis), themes (dianoia), character (ethos) and dialogue (lexis), perhaps best expressed practically in that some stories were extremely striking at the time — one even leading me to rebuff an advance at a bar — and a number were not as remarkable at the time yet continue to occupy my idle thoughts.

The opening tale which reworks the Tower of Babel into a construction project probably remains my overall favourite, but the Dark Materials-esque world summoned in Seventy-Two Letters continues to haunt my mind and lips of anyone else who has happened to come across it, perhaps becoming the quite-literal story of my life for a brief period. Indeed it could be said that, gifted as a paperback, whilst the whole collection followed me around across a number of locales, it continues to follow me — figuratively speaking that is — to this day.

Highly recommended to all readers but for those who enjoy discussing books with others it would more than repay any investment.


Operation Mincemeat (2010)

Ben MacIntyre

In retrospect it is almost obvious that the true story of an fictitious corpse whose invented love letters, theatre life and other miscellania stuffed into the pockets of a calculatingly creased Captain's uniform would make such a captivating tale. Apparently drowned and planted into the sea off Huelva in 1943, this particular horse was not exactly from Troy but was rather a Welsh vagrant called Glyndwr who washed up — or is that washed out? — on the Andalusian shoreline along with information on a feigned invasion of Sicily in an attempt to deceive the Wehrmacht. However, this would be to grosslly misprice Ben MacIntyre's ability to not get in the way of telling the story as well the larger picture about the bizarre men who concocted the scheme and the bizarre world they lived in.

In such a Bond-like plot where even Ian Fleming (himself a genuine British naval officer) makes an appearance it seems prudent to regularly recall yet again that truth can be stranger than fiction, but the book does fall foul of the usual sin of single-issue WW2 books in overestimating the importance in the larger context of a conflict. (Indeed, as a diversionary challenge to the reader of this review I solicit suggestions for any invention, breakthrough or meeting that has not been identified as "changing the course of World War II". Victor Davis Hanson rather handsomeley argues in his 2017 The Second World Wars that is best approached as multiple wars, anyway…)

Likely enjoyed by those not typically accustomed to reading non-fiction history, this is genuinely riveting account nonetheless and well worth the reading.