31 December 2019

My Top 5 Books of 2019


Of the 135 books I read this year, there were many candidates for the top five and it was hard to narrow down my choices. As usual, I read a lot of thrillers, mysteries, crime and suspense, but my top five, and the further five on my longlist, are a little more diverse. And although I didn't pay attention to the gender of the authors when I was making my choices, all five of this year's top five, and four of my longlist, are written by women.
1. Searching for Sylvie Lee by Jean Kwok. At the start of Jean Kwok's novel, the titular Sylvie Lee leaves her family and home in Brooklyn to visit her dying grandmother in the Netherlands and then disappears. Her younger sister Amy, who has always felt overshadowed by her beautiful and accomplished older sister, is left to pick up the pieces of Sylvie's seemingly perfect life and to try to find her. But the more Amy digs, the more troubling secrets she uncovers. The premise sounds superficially like Gone Girl but this is a very different book, thematically and tonally. The story is told from the perspective of Amy, Sylvie and their mother, and just like with Kwok's Girl in Translation, the author really conveys the influences of the primary languages of the three characters — Dutch for Sylvie, English for Amy and Chinese for their mother — on their English narrative. Haunting and evocative, Searching for Sylvie Lee is perhaps too slow-paced to be a traditional thriller, and the mystery at the heart of the novel always comes second to the relationships between the central characters.

2. Blood Orange by Harriet Tyce. Criminal lawyer Alison's personal life is in free fall as her career flourishes and she takes on her first murder case, defending a woman who stabbed her husband to death. She has a doting husband and an adoring six-year-old daughter, but she also has a drinking problem and is having an affair with a rakish colleague. And as Tyce's cleverly constructed and evocative novel unfolds, Alison's professional and personal worlds collide and she struggles to hold it all together. Tyce's characterisation is spot on, although none of the central characters are especially likeable, and I found myself racing through the novel to reach its dark climax.

3. The Testaments by Margaret Atwood. Since I first read Cat's Eye at 14, I've devoured everything Margaret Atwood has written, and The Handmaid's Tale remains one of my all-time favourites. It's such a brilliant novel that a sequel could have been risky were it not Margaret Atwood putting pen to paper (or perhaps fingers to keyboard). Unsurprisingly, The Testaments is a highly accomplished novel that builds upon its predecessor, answering some, if not all, of its unresolved questions. Picking up 15 years after the events of The Handmaid's Tale, three women offer their testaments: Aunt Lydia, who achieved personal power as an enforcer of the totalitarian Gilead regime, and two young women growing up inside Gilead and in neighbouring Canada, respectively. Atwood is a master storyteller and her dystopian worlds are as richly painted as they are horrific.

4. What Red Was by Rosie Price. When I started to read Rosie Price's debut novel, I was reminded of David Nicholls' One Day, a favourite of mine, but it soon diverged. Kate and Max meet at university and soon become the closest of friends, despite their very different backgrounds. Max draws Kate in to his enticing world of privilege, and she allows her other relationships to fade away. But then one night something horrific happens that causes Kate's fragile new world to shatter, as she reexamines everything she thought she knew about friendship and love, loyalty and courage. A beautifully written character study, What Red Was is uncompromising, sorrowful and utterly gripping.

5. Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez. From office air conditioning temperatures, to medical research and urban planning, our world is predominantly designed for men, as Caroline Criado Perez convincingly demonstrates in her fascinating, and often shocking, book. Bringing together big data and case studies, Criado uncovers systematic gender bias across many domains, some I anticipated, others I had never even considered, such as inner city transportation networks.

And here are five more books that I enjoyed, which almost made my top five:
  • A Nearly Normal Family by M.T. Edvardsson. Like Malin Persson Giolito's Quicksand, which I loved, fellow Swede M.T. Edvardsson's novel has a teenage girl accused of murder at its heart. A Nearly Normal Family is divided into three sections in which the girl and each of her parents narrate their side of the story, with plenty of inconsistencies. The novel is a slow-burner but I found it very compelling, and Edvardsson's portrayal of the three central characters, whose motives and incentives only sometimes overlap, is acutely observed.
  • Divide Me by Zero by Lara Vapnyar. By turns hilarious and tragic, Lara Vapnyar's highly unique novel introduces us to Katya, a 40-ish Russian woman living in Brooklyn and trying to deal with a failed marriage and a dying mother. Throughout the novel, Katya flashes back to her childhood in Russia as well as more recent periods, examining her relationship with her mathematician mother at every step. Each chapter features one of Katya's mother's mathematical lessons for life, which act as the framing device for what could be a rather chaotic story. 
  • Fleishman Is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner. Sharing elements with both Searching for Sylvie Lee and Divide Me by Zero, Taffy Brodesser-Akner's widely acclaimed novel centres on the titular Toby Fleishman, a wealthy (but seemingly not wealthy enough) New York doctor whose wife Rachel has gone missing. Funny, sharply written and clever, Fleishman Is in Trouble is also deeply sad.
  • The Psychology of Time Travel by Kate Mascarenhas. This inventive novel opens in 1967, when four pioneering female scientists invent a time machine. Fifty years later, the consequences of this are still being being felt, especially by the nearest and dearest of the time travellers. And when a message from the future warns of an impending violent death, unravelling the mystery of whodunnit — and indeed who was killed and why — becomes an urgent priority. I enjoyed spending time with Kate Mascarenhas's characters, even if the storyline becomes a bit mind-bending in places.
  • The Liar’s Girl by Catherine Ryan Howard. Soon after arriving at St John's College, Dublin, Alison falls hard for Will Hurley, before her world falls apart when Will is arrested for the murder of several young women including her best friend Liz. Alison leaves Ireland, and her past, behind to start a new life in the Netherlands but when another young woman is found dead in Dublin's Grand Canal, the Garda persuade Alison to return home to help them investigate. Intriguing, twisty and well-plotted, Catherine Ryan Howard's novel was a fast but very enjoyable read for me.
The full list of the 135 books I read in 2019 is as follows (as usual, italics are for re-reads):
  • Becoming — Michelle Obama
  • Cult X — Fuminori Nakamura
  • In the Vines — Shannon Kirk
  • Attached — Amir Levine & Rachel Heller
  • The Apprentice — Tess Gerritsen
  • What Happened That Night — Sandra Block
  • Conquistadors — Michael Wood
  • An Anonymous Girl — Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen
  • The Au Pair — Emma Rous
  • The Suspect — Fiona Barton
  • The Hunting Party — Lucy Foley
  • Call Me Evie — J.P. Pomare
  • Abandoned — Allison Brennan
  • Dead If You Don't — Peter James
  • Jar of Hearts — Jennifer Hillier
  • Normal People — Sally Rooney
  • The Night Olivia Fell — Christina McDonald
  • Tombland — C.J. Sansom
  • The Hiding Place — C.J. Tudor
  • The Mother-in-Law — Sally Hepworth
  • Smart Women Finish Rich — David Bach
  • The Lonely Witness — William Boyle
  • A Trick of the Mind — Penny Hancock
  • It Should Have Been Me — Susan Wilkins
  • The Silent Patient — Alex Michaelides
  • Broke Millennial — Erin Lowry
  • Forget You Know Me — Jessica Strawser
  • Something in the Water — Catherine Steadman
  • No Exit — Taylor Adams
  • The Rosie Result — Graeme Simsion
  • The Family Next Door — Sally Hepworth
  • Liar — K.L. Slater
  • The Darkening Hour — Penny Hancock
  • Lethal White — Robert Galbraith
  • Dirty Little Secrets — Jo Spain
  • The Wife — Alafair Burke
  • Blood Orange — Harriet Tyce
  • Heads You Win — Jeffrey Archer
  • Nine Perfect Strangers — Liane Moriarty
  • Money — Laura Whateley
  • Before She Knew Him — Peter Swanson
  • Invisible Women — Caroline Criado Perez
  • Murder in the Crooked House — Soji Shimada
  • Freefall — Jessica Barry
  • Catch Me If You Cannes — Lisa Dickenson
  • Bermondsey Horror — Albert Borowitz
  • Lock Every Door — Riley Sager
  • The Secretary — Renee Knight
  • Run Away — Harlan Coben
  • In the Dark — Cara Hunter
  • The Better Sister — Alafair Burke
  • I Thought I Knew You — Penny Hancock
  • No Way Out — Cara Hunter
  • Coffee: A Global History — Jonathan Morris
  • Clean My Space — Melissa Maker
  • Looker — Laura Sims
  • The Ghost Fields — Elly Griffiths
  • The Woman in Blue — Elly Griffiths
  • The Chalk Pit — Elly Griffiths
  • The Dark Angel — Elly Griffiths
  • The Stone Circle — Elly Griffiths
  • As Long As We Both Shall Live — JoAnn Chaney
  • The Temp — Michelle Frances
  • The Neighbour — Fiona Cummins
  • The Furies — Katie Lowe
  • My Lovely Wife — Samantha Downing
  • The Stranger Diaries — Elly Griffiths
  • I Know Who You Are — Alice Feeney
  • Save Me from Dangerous Men — S.A. Lelchuk
  • A Good Enough Mother — Bev Thomas
  • The Turn of the Key — Ruth Ware
  • The Missing Years — Lexie Elliott
  • The Night Before — Wendy Walker
  • The Last Night Out — Catherine O'Connell
  • Girl Most Likely — Max Allan Collins
  • Sorry I'm Late, I Didn't Want to Come — Jessica Pan
  • Tear Me Apart — J.T. Ellison
  • Under My Skin — Lisa Unger
  • The Lies They Tell — Gillian French
  • Pretty Ugly Lies — Pamela Crane
  • Beneath the Surface — Fiona Neill
  • The Last House Guest — Megan Miranda
  • The Charmed Life of Alex Moore — Molly Flatt
  • If I Die Tonight — A.L. Gaylin
  • Lessons from Madame Chic — Jennifer L. Scott
  • What Red Was — Rosie Price
  • The Lost Night — Andrea Bartz
  • Fleishman Is in Trouble — Taffy Brodesser-Akner
  • How Could She? — Lauren Mechling
  • Bitter Orange — Claire Fuller
  • The Liar’s Girl — Catherine Ryan Howard
  • Some Choose Darkness — Charlie Donlea
  • The Last — Hanna Jameson
  • Winning Minds — Simon Lancaster
  • The Daughter — Michelle Frances
  • Good Girls Lie — J.T. Ellison
  • Cari Mora — Thomas Harris
  • She Has Her Mother's Laugh — Carl Zimmer
  • A Gambler's Jury — Victor Methos
  • Now You See Me — Chris McGeorge
  • Never Have I Ever — Joshilyn Jackson
  • Don't Believe It — Charlie Donlea
  • Down the River, Unto the Sea — Walter Mosley
  • The Perfect Wife — JP Delaney
  • After the End — Clare Mackintosh
  • Feel the Fear (and Do It Anyway) — Susan Jeffers
  • Big Sky — Kate Atkinson
  • The Psychology of Time Travel — Kate Mascarenhas
  • The Escape Room — Megan Goldin
  • The Family Upstairs — Lisa Jewell
  • Wrong Place — Michelle Davies
  • False Witness — Michelle Davies
  • Dead Guilty — Michelle Davies
  • Necessary People — Anna Pitoniak
  • Guess Who — Chris McGeorge
  • Beyond All Reasonable Doubt — Malin Persson Giolito
  • Searching for Sylvie Lee — Jean Kwok
  • The Testaments — Margaret Atwood
  • Nothing Ventured — Jeffrey Archer
  • A Nearly Normal Family — M.T. Edvardsson
  • Stone Mothers — Erin Kelly
  • Man of the Year — Caroline Louise Walker
  • The Girl Who Lived Twice — David Lagercrantz
  • The Tattooist of Auschwitz — Heather Morris
  • The Sudden Departure of the Frasers — Louise Candlish
  • American Royals — Katharine McGee
  • The Missing Girl —Jenny Quintana
  • The Poison Garden — AJ Banner
  • In the Woods — Tana French
  • Come a Little Closer — Karen Perry
  • Your Truth or Mine? — Trisha Sakhlecha
  • The Guardians — John Grisham
  • Divide Me by Zero — Lara Vapnyar
  • City of Windows — Robert Pobi
  • The Likeness — Tana French
The photo is of the wonderful Mr B's Emporium of Reading Delights, which I visited on my recent trip to Bath.

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