Another year is drawing to a close, and it’s time to look back at the books we have read and pull out some of the best.
Thank you for contributing to this list and making it so varied. I was delighted to see several books in translation this year. Some of you sent in mini-reviews, which are always welcome. (And I see one of you has been taken up with Harold Pinter’s plays!)
The books are arranged by category, the year they were published (for translations, I’ve used the year of the publication in English) and then by author.
Links lead to reviews on this blog. The links on the three travel books listed (all by women this time) lead to my reviews to Women on the Road. In cases where I don’t have direct links to these books, you will need to scroll down the page to find them.
What were your favourite reads this year?
Hope this list gives you ideas for books to read in 2020. Happy reading!
Contributions by Jo Grin-Yates, Kamakshi Balasubramanian, Keith Stimpson, Kristine Goulding, Paddy Torsney, Rishad Patell, Sally-Anne Sader, Sarah Waller, Suroor Alikhan, Tom Peak, Usha Raman and Will Finh Ramsay.
Big Sky by Kate Atkinson (2019)
The return of Jackson Brodie: really enjoy reading about this detective who has a very quirky but humane side to his character.
The Parisian by Isabella Hammad (2019)
This is a really ambitious debut novel, which explores currents of historical change in a grand setting.
The Murmur of Bees by Sofia Segovia (translated from Spanish by Simon Bruni) (2015, English translation 2019)
Her first book to be translated into English, it is set during the Mexican Revolution and the Spanish flu epidemic of the early 1900s. There are a lot of characters, but the main character is a very lovable mute with special gifts who has always been surrounded by bees since he was found by Nana Reja abandoned under a bridge. A lovely read and beautifully translated.
Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Torczuk (translated from Polish by Antonio Lloyd-Jones) (2009, English translation 2019)
By the Polish author and winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. A woman living alone in a forest observes the events unfolding around her as hunters are killed. Are the animals taking their revenge? Unusual and intriguing. It’s not just a whodunit, it’s also about animal rights, nature and astrology.
Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead (2019)
A forensic account of life in a reform school for boys in the Jim Crow era, and a friendship between two of its African-American inmates.
The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker (2018)
A retelling of The Odyssey from the point of view of Penelope.
Milkman by Anna Burns (2018)
There’s a reason this won the 2018 Booker Prize for fiction. None of the characters are named, none of the settings are named, none of the conflict is named, and yet it’s so clear that this is a personal, deeply emotional story about The Troubles in Northern Ireland. The protagonist starts as an average, unnoticeable teenage girl, trying to hide her boyfriend from her mother. But when first brother-in-law sniffs out her struggle, and rumours start to swell, middle sister becomes “interesting”. The last thing she ever wanted to be. To be interesting is to be noticed and to be noticed is dangerous. It’s a story where inaction causes all the tension and silence speaks louder than words.
Washington Black by Esi Edugyan (2018)
The story follows Washington Black, a field slave working on a Barbados sugar plantation. Chosen by the eccentric brother of the master, Titch, to be a manservant and to assist in building and testing a flying machine, the character of Washington grows and develops in parallel with Titch as Washington becomes more human. What follows is their flight along the eastern coast of America, and, finally, to a remote outpost in the Arctic, where Wash, left on his own, must invent another new life, one which will propel him further across the globe. While a compelling and touching story, I have read The Book of Night Women and Underground Railroad too recently to not draw parallels—and for Washington Black to fall a bit short.
Circe by Madeline Miller (2018)
A fantastically relevant retelling of a classical tale for the #MeToo era, and just a rollickingly gripping underdog story.
Warlight by Michael Ondjaate (2018)
Michael Ondjaate’s inimitable prose tells a story of love, betrayal and a lost childhood in post-war England.
There There by Tommy Orange (2018)
A group of Native Americans head to a powwow; each of them has a different motive for being there. The chapters move between the people and reveal a web of connections between them. A powerful book by a Native American writer.
Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens (2018)
The story follows the life of the so-called Marsh Girl, Kya Clark, an outcast living on the brink of society in a marsh in North Carolina. When a popular local man is found dead, rumours spread of her involvement. The story jumps between the present and the past to unravel the mystery, with a haunting background of the natural beauty of the marsh and a love story intertwined. Reminiscent of Barbara Kingsolver, the characters are engaging but the environment is its own force in the narrative.
Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Sadaawi (translated from Arabic by Jonathan Wright) (2013, English translation 2018)
A man in Baghdad, is appalled at the way blown-up bits of bodies are left to rot. Determined to give them a proper burial, he collects body parts so he can create a man. Maybe then this “man” can get a proper burial. But the spirit of a dead man, looking for a home, inhabits the creature and brings him to life. A brilliant twist on the Frankenstein story.
Pachinko by Min Jin Lee (2017)
A Korean woman goes to Japan just before the war in Korea and the Second World War. The book follows her as she grows old. There was so much I didn’t know about Koreans living in Japan. Beautifully written.
Elmet by Fiona Mozley (2017)
Shortlisted for the Man Booker Award, Elmet is set in rural Yorkshire in the present, although it could have taken place a hundred years ago. John, a paid fighter, struggles to protect his two children and to save the home he built himself on his ex-boss’s land. It is beautifully written and worth reading, but it is a grim story.
The Sultanpur Chronicles—Shadowed City: Achala Upendran
In her first novel—and the first in a series—Upendran has created a fantasy world based on Indian and oriental myths. A delight.
Men Without Women: Stories by Haruki Murakami (translated from Japanese by Philip Gabriel and Ted Goosen) (2014, English translation 2017)
I am not usually a fan of short stories, but Murakami packs so much into each story that you do not feel short-changed.
Conversations with Friends: A Novel by Sally Rooney (2017)
You’re inside the mind of (the very young) Frances as she talks about her life and her friends, all in one breathless go.
Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien (2016)
The early days of Maoist China make a panoramic backdrop for this family saga, where a young woman goes in search of a father, but finds a lost history.
A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles (2016)
Charming book about a Russian aristocrat who is forced to live in a hotel. In this confined space, he watches the changes in the Soviet Union and Russia.
The Gap of Time: William Shakespeare’ The Winter’s Tale Retold: A Novel by Jeanette Winterston (2016)
Winterston’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale. Love, jealousy and abandonment—she gives a new life to these familiar themes. Winterson writes beautifully about people and their attempts to muddle through life. I’m really enjoying these modern reimaginings of Shakespeare.
Outline: A Novel by Rachel Cusk (2015)
The words of the novel weave their way around the protagonist and her life, without ever getting inside.
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara (2015)
I haven’t had a book stick like this in many years. The narrative is gripping and the characters—who start deep and get deeper—are both compelling and deeply flawed in an utterly human way. Beautifully written but raw and stark. I had to put the book down a few times because I found myself getting too emotional. What a lovely read!
Let Me Be Frank with You by Richard Ford (2014)
Four pieces told through Ford’s Frank Bascombe character. Each piece is about the passage of time and the decay of ageing and its blows on the human soul—all shot through with wry touches of jaded humour.
We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2015)
It’s more of a short story than a novel, but published as a stand-alone book. It gives guidance to the young niece of the author on how to live a feminist, empowered life. As a new mom to a little boy, I found the words poignant and well-placed. It’s a quick read and one I will go back to again in the future.
The Selector of Souls by Shauna Singh Baldwin (2012)
This book is about two Indian women, one a middle-class housewife fleeing from her abusive husband and the other, a maidservant who goes home to her daughter. Shauna Singh Baldwin uses their stories to expose the struggle of Indian women, the rise of the right-wing and the politics of abortion.
Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese (2009)
A book about twins born in Ethiopia. Their mother is Indian and dies in childbirth, their English surgeon father can’t cope and leaves, and they are brought up by an Indian couple. Medicine, politics, love, betrayal and redemption—this is a wonderful book.
Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay (2007)
The story links the victims of the Vel’ d’Hiv’ roundup of Jews in Paris in July 1942 and a French family living in Paris in the present. Very moving and beautifully written.
A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley (2003)
This Pulitzer Prize winner from 1992 holds up as an astounding piece of literature from one of America’s best authors. A modern-day king Lear.
The Cure for Death by Lightning by Gail Anderson-Dargatz (1996)
The coming of age story of a 15-year-old girl, Beth Weeks, on a farm in Canada. Her father went a little crazy ever since he went into the forest after a bear that attacked Beth. Beautifully observed, tender and angry.
A Slight Ache: Harold Pinter (2015)
A couple invite a match seller into their home. The seller’s silence destroys one of them and gives the other strength.
Betrayal: Harold Pinter (2013)
Pinter deals with betrayal, not only by people but also by time.
Victoria Station: Harold Pinter (1982)
A radio dialogue between a minicab controller and a driver waiting for instructions.
Becoming by Michelle Obama (2018)
A welcome nostalgia trip in the current climate, harking back to a time when US politics was going in the right direction and anything seemed possible, but also a sobering contrast with the state of affairs today.
The Return: Fathers, Sons and the Land in Between by Hisham Mathar (2016)
A man’s journey to find his father and rediscover his family and his war-torn country of Libya.
Wave: A Memoir of Life After the Tsunami by Sonali Deraniyagala (2013)
For anyone dealing with grief who needs some reassurance that crazy is normal at times! Plus an evocative depiction of multicultural family life.
The Country Under my Skin: A Memoir of Love and War by Gioconda Belli (translated by Kristina Cordero with the author) (2002, English translation 2003)
A fabulous feminist memoir of the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua.
Indira Gandhi: A Biography by Pupul Jayakar (1995)
An intimate biography of the first woman prime minister of India by her close friend and confidante. It provides us an in-depth account of her personality that is often seen as hard and ambitious, but that had a layer of softness beneath it all.
Dreyer’s English by Benjamin Dreyer (2019)
Taking us through his rules of good writing, Benjamin Dreyer manages to be simultaneously ironic and sincere. Whether you care about the Oxford comma or not, if you’re “persnickety about language,” you will enjoy this book.
Bullet Proof: A Journalist’s Notebook on Reporting Conflict by Teresa Rahman (2019)
A journalist’s often harrowing account of covering insurgency in northeast India.
The Line Becomes a River: Dispatches from the Border by Francisco Cantú (2018)
A non-fiction account of a well-educated Mexican-American who becomes a border control agent on the US-Mexican border during the early 2000s. While the author clearly isn’t a professional writer (yet), the reader gets a glimpse of his voice and the turmoil of the work he undertakes. Also, this is clearly a topical book given the current geopolitical situation.
Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup by John Carreyou (2018)
John Carreyou’s investigation into the rise and fall of Silicon Valley startup, Theranos, reads like a thriller.
Rebel Sultans: The Deccan from Khilji to Shivaji by Manu Pillai (2018)
Manu Pillai excavates the little-known history of the six kingdoms of the Deccan (South India), between the fourteenth and seventeenth centuries.
The Order of Time by Carlo Rovelli (translated from Italian by Simon Carnell and Erica Segre) (2017, English translation 2018)
A book on the nature of time. It is elegantly written and a little esoteric, and I would highly recommend it.
Land of the Dawn-Lit Mountains: A Journey Across Arunachal Pradesh—India’s Forgotten Frontier by Antonia Bolingbroke-Kent (2018)
One of my favourite travel writers. Antonia Bolingbroke-Kent bikes (on a motorbike, not a bicycle) her way through northeast India, visiting parts of the country that are not well-known by the Indians, never mind foreigners. Fascinating.
Revolutionary Ride: On the Road to Shiraz, the Heart of Iran by Lois Pryce (2017)
One of the first travel books I have ever read. It was a great one to start with: I would never have imagined that a book could make me want to visit a country and, in particular, Iran, due to the bad publicity it gets in our part of the world.
Indonesia etc.: Exploring the Improbable Nation by Elizabeth Pisani (2015)
Pisani visits the many islands that make up Indonesia. The fact she can speak the language gives the reader a real insight into the country.