My book journey of 2019

My annual catch up of every book I read in 2019. Find the 2018 edition here and the 2017 edition here.

  1. Viking Britain: A History by Thomas JT Williams

viking britain

A history book that I admired rather than loved. This is a thoroughly expert look at the sometimes brutal Viking period of the British Isles. The book is at it’s best when it places the reader right there at the time through small narrative inserts such as catching sight of a longboat silently cutting through the river mist on a cold morning. The book successfully conveys the scale of the settlement from Scandinavia and I felt the author taking pride in addressing many of the misconceptions of the Viking period that have grown through history and modern media. Williams also successfully conveys the impact of the period and how this is still underplayed compared to other ages of these isles.

2. The Italian Teacher by Tom Rachman

italian teacher

A very rewarding novel with a lovely sense of place, time and character that, in it’s later stages, evolves into a thriller as a daring deception raises the stakes higher and higher. The depiction of the enthralling but ultimately repulsive artist Bear Bavinsky as the brilliant sun around which his meeker son, Pinch, and the rest of the characters orbit is a joyful one that turns sour. As a reader you want to be in those Italian restaurants just as much as the hangers on around Bear, listening to his stories and basking in his opinions before, as the novel progressed, you realise that his vices and relationship failures come at a cost. A very good book.

3. Chamber Music: Wu-Tang and America by Will Ashon

36 chambers

Enter the Wu-Tang Clan (36 Chambers) is a masterpiece of East Coast hip-hop and an album that blew my mind back in the mid-90s. This slight book contains interviews with the main players in Wu-Tang and contextualizes the album, its artwork and its skits in the city and upbringing of those Staten Islanders. The book captures the rawness of the initial ideas and recordings of the album and gives some useful depth to the stories behind the lyrics and the themes of the group. It’s niche, granted, but a must for Wu-Tang fans.

4. Any Human Heart by William Boyd

any human heart

The best book of the year. Recommended to me by my wife, this is a towering novel that will grip your heart and not let go. It’s rare to read a novel and find characters so well defined, so well drawn that you feel that you have always known them. Through the 20th Century we follow Logan Mountstuart who a brash, privileged young man who enjoys early success and the finer things in life but, as his disappointments and adversity stack up, your wariness of him diminishes and your empathy builds. It has been an age since I have read a novel with such exact and lifelike characters; they breathe from the page back at you. The diary format works brilliantly and captures the scale of a life well lived. Marvellous.

5. Life Moves Pretty Fast: The Lessons We Learned From Eighties Movies by Hadley Freeman

life moves

A more disposable sashay then followed through some of the classic films of the 80s, this is part autobiography, part film culture appreciation that feels like an extended magazine article. As a child of the 80s who will still, even now subject those around him to long diatribes on the value of Trading Places as a Christmas movie or the worthwhile lessons on self-reliability in Witness, I am prime fodder for this sort of book and I did enjoy it, yet it left me as soon as I had closed the back cover.

6. Washington Black by Esi Edugyan

washington

A novel that I wanted to like but found the mix of brutal reality and fantasy hard to find believable. We follow the unspeakably hard early life of a slave on a Caribbean plantation who is given a wing to shelter under when his master’s brother chooses him for a manservant. The themes of freedom and the safety of home follow our hero to adventures in the Arctic Circle, the Eastern coast of America and then onward to Britain. There is plenty of adventure to be found but the narrative seemed haphazard to me while the mix of the viciousness of the early chapters on the slave plantation seemed at odds with the more whimsical methods of escape and exploration that followed.

7. Snap by Belinda Bauer

snap

I didn’t like this one. The mystery of Jack and his missing mum whipped along but I found the tenuous links between groups of characters jarring before the greater depths of connection were later revealed. Another negative were the police characters drawn right from the top shelf of cliche detective tropes.

8. The Extraordinary Life of Sam Hell by Robert Dugoni

sam hell

A novel with a lot of heart and a central group of characters who’s humanity and goodness shine through. Sam Hell is born with red eyes immediately singling him out among his peers for unwanted attention from bullies and mean spirited teachers. Through his perseverance and the support of his hardworking and religious family he is able to find belonging and acceptance in a small group of friends who then, in the second half of the novel set forty years later, assist him confront old demons. A worthy story with a lot of hope.

9. American War by Omar El Akkad

american war

Again, a book I wanted to like but one that left me a little cold. Set in a future after a second American Civil war, the novel depicts a believable world full of distrust and danger but one without the necessary empathetic characters to really draw you into that world. Sarat, who grows to become our principal character, has guts and determination and battles through a whole world of hurt but never quite managed to gain my interest.

10. The English and their History by Robert Tombs

enhlish history

This was a great history book but one that took me a long time to get through. Tombs takes the approach of looking at how the English history has shaped itself, how our national stories and mythology have become separated from the reality and, in turn, affect the ongoing story the country is building for itself. Many times throughout the book, Tombs skillfully explains how the actual events have become detached from the popular history that has then flourished with interesting detail.

11. Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

pachinko

A wonderful, epic novel that follows a Korean family from 1910 who, through twists of fate, eventually emigrate to Japan and strive to improve their lot against a society reluctant to embrace them. Pachinko is the name given to public arcades full of games machines which are associated with Koreans in Japan. The themes of chance and opportunity that spring from this are tightly woven throughout the book. The list of characters is long and a mix of family, friends and enemies but one, Sunja stands head and shoulders above them all. We first meet her as a young girl, diligently working in her parents guesthouse before her life is irrevocably changed first by the death of a parent and then by the attentions of a wealthy businessman. Throughout the novel surprises you with sudden twists of fate both hopeful and tragic and, by the end, you can only admire the scope of humanity that a even a simple tale of a family can include.

12. Straight White Male by John Niven

straight white

Throughout Straight White Male it is clear that Niven is a dexterous and skilful writer with an ear for dialogue and accent but, looking at his wiki now, I can understand why he has adapted so many of his works as film scripts. Our hero is Kennedy Marr, a mid 40s writer with oodles of success in his past, a brash, flash LA lifestyle and a daughter he barely sees back in England. Debts and events conspire to bring the two together as Kennedy moves back to work on big budget blockbuster and take up a teaching post at a University. There’s plenty of fun to be had here as Niven does build a main character holed with flaws but one who still holds your empathy even when making clearly terrible decisions.

13. How To Be Right…in a World Gone Wrong by James O’Brien

how to be

O’Brien is not a broadcaster I discovered through his radio show or the short, viral clips of him finding that some people who call talk radio during the day are not the sharpest tools that LBC use across their social media. I became aware of him through the podcast interviews he conducts with guests from a wide range of backgrounds. I liked his empathy and ability to draw thoughtful conversations out of guests and could understand where his brand of logical reasoning could find an audience in today’s polarised media landscape. The book is briefly entertaining in its clear sighted approach to some of the major political issues of recent years but I found the transcripts of radio phone in conversations less agreeable. It’s certainly true that modern politics is losing the war against opinion dressed as fact, falsehoods spread as truth and voters minds already being pre-set against opposing views but O’Brien struggles to find the most difficult tightrope of all to tread; to expose the fallacies behind the opinions of his challengers while also bringing them with him.

14. The Destroyers by Christopher Bollen

destroyers

I admired this novel rather than liked it. Following a group of wealthy young souls all escaping to (hiding on?) and reconnecting on a Greek island for a summer where past lies and misdemeanors come out. None of the characters are especially likable and so their problems in life and with each other don’t really engage or entice. It’s a long book without much payoff.

15. Elmet by Fiona Mozley

elmet

A book I rattled through in ten days (which is quick for me) which I very much liked in places, this is a seemingly simple tale of a brother and sister and their initially idyllic country life with their hulking giant of a father. A man built for fighting and the outdoors but who is still able to show compassion with his children. At times the descriptions of nature and of the simple meals the family prepare reminded me of Enid Blyton’s passages about prosaic day-to-day events before the brutality of the outside world invades the novel in the final third to end with more mature themes. It’s a sad novel about the loss of family and the safety of home.

16. Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men by Caroline Criado-Perez

women data

I finished the year with a head spinning run through the consequences of the hidden data gap and biased data collected around gender and the enormous effects on women across the full spectrum of modern, daily life. Sometimes a book comes along that investigates an issue of such importance or striking obviousness that much reaction to it struggles to move on from disbelief; this is one such book. At time the statistics and figures come so thick and fast I found it hard to keep up with the impact and implications of such overwhelming evidence. Along with books such as The Spirit Level, a publication that you hope anyone interested in working in politics or public policy would read.

A really enjoyable year of reading!

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