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Six Stunning Must Read Books of 2019

We’ve reached the mid point of 2019. It’s a good time to take a pause and reflect. 

A time to ask yourselves some questions. Have you:

  • kept up with your challenges and projects?
  • nailed that TBR stack?
  • found any knock out, truly brilliant books?

My answers to the above are, in order, partly,  no  and  YES.

I won’t bore you with how much I’m behind on my projects to read my classics club list or the Booker prize winners.   And I’ve already confessed about the rising state of my TBR.

Let’s talk about something far more interesting: six books I’ve read so far this year that were stunning. There’s  a psychological thriller, a classic novel, two memoirs  and two literary fiction titles.

Milkman by Anna Burns 

After a few years when the winning novel in the Booker Prize didn’t set my world alight, in 2018 we finally got a book that absolutely deserved the prize. Milkman by Anna Burns is an intense and powerful novel about trying to survive in a city where to be different, is to be in danger. The unconventional narrative form (no character is ever named) takes a little getting used to but don’t give up. If you do you’ll miss one of the most compelling novels I’ve read in years.

Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell 

Gaskell wasn’t alone among Victorian novelists in her anguish about the plight of workers in the newly industrialised cities. Like Dickens she wrote about their appalling living conditions, sickness and hunger. Mary Barton was her first novel and it’s a no holds barred tale about industrial strife in Manchester. This is a must-read novel for anyone interested in social issues.

The Woman in the Dark by Vanessa Savage 

Vanessa Savage’s debut novel is a spectacular psychological thriller. The Woman in the Dark is a  tale of a family’s descent into crisis when they move into a house whose previous  occupants were murdered. Within this she spins a disturbing narrative about the legacy of child abuse. Just one warning before you begin reading this: you’ll lose lots of sleep because you won’t be able to put it down .

The Salt Path  by Raynor Winn

Imagine you’ve lost your home and your business. You have nothing but a few hundred pounds in your savings. Your husband has just been diagnosed with a degenerative brain condition. Faced with that situation Raynor Winn decided to take a walk. Rather a long walk. Six hundred miles in fact. The Salt Path is her account of walking the coastal path, camping wild and encountering hostility because strangers thought they were untouchable homeless vagrants.  This is a memoir that can make you angry but it will also make you laugh because Winn has a wonderful eye for the absurd situations in life.

This is Going to Hurt: Secret Diaries of a Junior Doctor by Adam Kay

Adam Kay was a hospital doctor specialising in obstetrics for six years and kept a diary of his time on the front line of healthcare. This is Going to Hurt is  astonishingly funny but also sobering because Kay shows how poorly junior doctors are treated. Underpaid and expected to work well beyond their contracted  hours, the job puts a strain on friendships and relationships. This is an astonishingly frank novel but despite his criticisms, Kay is still a firm believer in the principles of public healthcare.

Circe  by Madeline Miller 

This was a book I wasn’t looking forward to reading. I did so only because it was selected by the other book club members.  But this re-imagining of Circe (the Greek sorceress who gets a brief mention in Homer’s Odyssey) was a revelation. Miller’s descriptions of the world inhabited by the Titans among the Greek gods is breathtaking. A more detailed review will follow but for now, I’ll just say that if you’ve not yet read this, do yourself a huge favour and go out now and buy a copy. You won’t be sorry.


 

Those are my six choices for the first half of 2019. It will be interesting to see if any of them still make the cut when I come to the end of the year.

What would you choose from your own reading so far this year? Any knock out reads for you?

Armchair BEA: On Literary Fiction

BEAIf there are two words guaranteed to divide the world of authors, publishers and academics, they would be Literary Fiction.

The orthodox view is that literary fiction is the very highest level of artistic merit; the kind of writing that all authors really aspire to achieve. It’s meant to distinguish the truly great from the mere readable or popular kinds of books (remember the fuss over the Booker Prize in 2011 when the judges said they based their selection on readability).

Some critics in North America set the feathers flying a few years ago by daring to suggest that the idea of literary fiction had run its course, that it had become just another genre, like humour, crime or adventure. Not so said the New York Review of Books last year – it was time that literary fiction be recognised as a genre of its own said editor Sue Halpern.

What is ‘literary fiction’? Generally it’s taken to denote a serious-minded novel of high artistic integrity in which style is more important than the actual content (maybe Will Self’s Umbrella falls into that category?); slow and thoughtful in pace allowing the characters’ inner lives and motivations become the focus. To many people that just means ‘highbrow’, maybe even ‘pretentious’ or ‘difficult’ and  ‘unreadable’. But for others it means the kind of book that makes it to the short list for the Booker Prize or the work of authors who win the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Who are these shining lights? Contemporary candidates from the West could include Michael Ondaatje, Iris Murdoch or Barry Unsworth plus many of the Booker prize winners. They’re all formidable writers and superb storytellers.

banvilleAs of this week I am going to add another name to the list: John Banville, winner of the 2005 Booker Prize with The Sea. It’s a wonderfully lyrical narrative about a widower who returns to the location of his childhood holidays where one summer, many many years earlier  something happened ( we don’t get to find out until about 10 pages from the end). It’s so good that the minute I finished it, I wanted to start all over again.

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