Book Reviews

My Favourite Books Across the Decade

Favourite books

I’ve only just woken up to the fact that we’re a few days away from the end of a decade. It wasn’t until I saw Simon’s post on his favourite books of the decade that light began to dawn that soon we’ll be in the Twenty Twenties.

That got me thinking what I would include in my list of favourites.

I thought initially I’d choose one book for each year but that plan didn’t last long. Until I started this blog, I never kept track of what I was reading so there’s a black hole before 2012. There are a few books I’ve recorded in Goodreads for 2010 and 2011 but that’s probably guesswork on my part.

So instead I’m going to build a list of the 10 books I’ve enjoyed most from across all the years. Just one point to clarify though– they were not necessarily published this decade, just that I read them over the last ten years. My favourite book of 2019 may be in among the ten – but it might not be…..

I’ve gone for books that are not simply good, but outstanding. The principal test was whether it was a book I would want to re-read.

Bring Up The Bodies by Hilary Mantel

2012: Bring Up The Bodies is the sequel to Mantel’s terrific award-winning Wolf Hall, a book that breathed new life into the well-known story of King Henry VIII and his marital problems. It is the second part of her trilogy charting the rise and fall of the King’s right hand man Thomas Cromwell. I was blown away by Wolf Hall but Bring Up the Bodies is even more powerful. Now I’m counting down the weeks until the third episode The Mirror and The Light is published in March 2020

Cannery Row by John Steinbeck

2013: For years I thought I wouldn’t like John Steinbeck. Cannery Row changed my mind. The mixture of humour, the warmth and affection for his characters and lightens what is a fairly bleak tale of a motley gang of down and outs. I know this is not typical Steinbeck but it’s still encouraged me to give his more famous novels a go.

Harvest by Jim Crace

Another novel I read in 2013, the year in which it was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. Harvest is an exquisitely written novel about the threat to a village and a way of life. Grace doesn’t sentimentalise the countryside but he does shine a light on the human consequences of a rupture in a  traditional way of life resulting from a pursuit of “Profit, Progress, Enterprise”.

L’Assommoir by Emile Zola

No surprise to find my favourite novelist making an appearance on this best of the decade list. L’Assommoir is a dark story; stark and emotional; that traces a woman born into poverty and how she tries to find happiness. She succeeds but this being Zola, you know it can’t last. It has some tremendous set pieces set in the working class district of Paris.

The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje

I read The English Patient in 2015 and it remains one of my favourite Booker Prize winners to date. Set in Italy during World War 2, it features four people who are scarred emotionally and physically by the war. They come together in a deserted villa, hoping there to find some peace. This is a novel to read slowly and to savour.

Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeline Thien

Canadian author Madeleine Thien takes us to China to show the effect of the Cultural Revolution on ordinary people, in this case three talented musicians. Thein covers a vast swathe of history but it never feels like she’s forcing the facts onto you. Do Not Say We Have Nothing ends with the horrific standoff between the state and its citizens in Tianenman Square. It makes a great companion read to Wild Swans, Three Daughters of China by Jung Chang,

The Cove by Cynan Jones

It’s hard to put into words just how special this book is. From the first page The Cove hypnotises you with an intense and closely observed tale of a kayaker struck by lightning. Injured and adrift all he wants is to get back to to land and to his pregnant girlfriend.

The Vegetarian by Hang Kang

This was the most memorable book I read in 2017. It’s a really disturbing novel set in South Korea focusing on a young wife who decides she will no longer eat meat. It’s a decision that will lead to her mental disintegration. The final section of The Vegetarian is unforgettable.

The Salt Path by Raynor Winn

This is the only non fiction book to make it only my list. At the age of 50, Raynor Winn and her husband Moth lost their business and their home. Moth was diagnosed with a serious brain condition. With little money and no prospects they decided to embark on a 600 mile walk along a coastal path, sleeping under the stars. The Salt Path is a lovely blend of observations on nature and attitudes to homelessness but if the latter sounds bleak, rest assured that Raynor Winn has a great sense of humour.

All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville West

Older people often get stereotyped in fiction so it was a delight to come across a novel that rejects the idea you lose your ability to know your own mind when you age. The main character of All Passion Spent is a recently widowed 88 year old who rejects all her children’s plans and sets her own course. It’s such a beautiful, elegant and thoughtful portrait I look forward to reading the novel all over again.


What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

31 thoughts on “My Favourite Books Across the Decade

  • The English Patient is the only one of these I’ve read, but I do have a copy of Bring Up the Bodies on my kindle (I’m waiting for the third book to be released. This year I think?).

    • Yes the Mantel book is coming out this year – March is the UK publication date. My copy is already on order – this is one publishing event I won’t want to miss 🙂

  • I really love the way you describe the Vita Sackville West title.

  • Was it hard to choose? I hope the final book in Mantel’s series comes out in 2020, it’s been a long, hard wait! Hope you had a wonderful Christmas!

    • It definitely was hard – I had a very long shortlist and in the end had to resort to forced rating to get that down to 10…
      As for Mantel, it’s scheduled to be published in UK in March. I’ve already ordered my copy!

    • It was an unexpected treat for me too Karen – it was mentioned on one of the Guardian Good Reads episodes by the actor Bill Patterson who said he reads it every year. So I thought it had to be good to sustain so many re-readings….

  • Good choices, of which I’ve only read Vita’s. I just can’t face trawling back through to do this – because what if one of my non-books of the year is actually one of my books of the decade?

    • You would have considerably more books to trawl through since you read so much more than I do in one year so I completely understand how much of an effort that would mean.

  • A list to keep handy when visiting the library or second hand bookshops. There are some I’ve read but several I need to investigate. As for themodernnovel’s comment. I wonder how old (s)he is: (S)He became 1 year old at the end of her/his first year of life. This decade became 1 year old on 1/1/11 and ends (will be 1 day short of 10 years old) on 31/12/19.

    • It seems certain official bodies say the century doesn’t start until the following year because of some oddity regarding the Gregorian calendar. But ordinary people feel it makes more sense to start a year on 0.

  • I hate to tell you this but the decade actually ends 31 December 2020. i.e. a year away

      • And, anyway, who cares. You can do it again next year and see how close you are to this list then. I prefer going with what feels logical too. Perhaps the first calendar was 1/1/1? But that wasn’t actually the first year of life (who can pinpoint that?) so why not go with the same way we do our ages. No-one says you’re 10 years old on your 11th birthday after all!

        PS I enjoyed your list but don’t really plan to do my own.

        • My dad used to get frustrated because his mother would say he was in his xx year – which made him sound older. So when he was 7 years old, she would say he’s in his 8th year. Strictly true of course but not welcome

        • Haha Karen, I sometimes do that to tease my friends, particularly in the year before the big one, like on the 59th birthday I’ll say to enjoy their 60th year! See, I’m mean like your grandma!

        • You mean? Nope I don’t believe that. You just have a wicked sense of humour for which I’m sure your friends love you

        • I hope so, Karen! I only do it those I hoe I know well and who know me x

  • I like the re-read test. It’s one that I now apply before I add a book to my shelves otherwise it goes to a friend or the charity shop. Happy reading, Karen!

    • I had a much bigger re-read pile earlier this year but I really challenged myself whether I would in fact re-read each of the books. Half of the pile went as a result…

  • May the new decade bring you many more enjoyable hours of reading.

  • A fascinating list, I too loved Bring up the Bodies. I also enjoyed Harvest very much, a really evocative and beautifully written novel. The English Patient was a favourite of mine some years ago too, and I have been looking for an excuse to re-read All Passion Spent for a long time.

    • How lovely to find our thoughts tracking so well Ali

  • Interesting list Karen! Some I’ve read and one I DNF! (the Mantel – my book group loved it, I didn’t!).
    Cheers to another decade of great reads.

    • I can understand why the Mantel isn’t to everyone’s taste. The narrative style took some getting used to

  • Yes the end of a decade but I hadn’t really thought much about it. 1999 and all the excitement of the millennium seems far away.

    • What a fuss was made of the millennium – remember all the predictions that the world would come to an end because the computers couldn’t cope with the change over? No catastrophe ensued which was just as well because I was an on call person for the chemical site where I worked. If anything had gone wrong it could have meant evacuating thousands of people. Not a way to endear yourselves to the neighbours


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