Top 10 Books of 2019

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So that was 2019! As ever, the year was quite a rollercoaster, with the world seeming to melt down around us as the population became more and more divided. It wasn’t all bad, though. My first paperback, The Third Wheel, was released at the start of the year and while it hasn’t troubled any bestseller lists yet, it’s plodded along satisfactorily. I also finally got to visit Edinburgh Fringe Festival for the first time last year which was an incredible experience. I’m already planning to head back again this year, so see you there, maybe?

Not only that, I also got to spend time with great friends – with two of them now having children of their own which means I can be a little bit childish again – explore parts of London I’d never touched, make a long overdue return to Legoland (because sometimes you don’t need children around to be childish) and generally just have a really fun time.

Above all, though, there are still books. While I read less this year than I have for a while, I still managed to find some cracking reads, and some particularly good non-fiction this year. This is evident by the fact that this year’s top ten list is a 50/50 split between fiction and reality. So, without further ado, here are the ten best books I read in 2019:

1. The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton

Aiden Bishop has woken up in a body that’s not his own, in a forest he doesn’t recognise, with no memory of how he got there. He makes his way back to the house, to find that the daughter of the host, Evelyn Hardcastle, has been murdered – as she has every day for many, many years. However, once all the drama is over, instead of a new day breaking, the same one starts again, but this time Aiden is in a different body while the same events play around him. Caught in a time loop, hopping between bodies, Aiden will only be free from this cycle when he manages to solve the murder. That is, if the footman doesn’t get him first…

Given I have read almost eight hundred books in the last decade, it is therefore quite a statement when I say that this was probably the best book I read all decade. A curious blend of Agatha Christie, Groundhog Day and Quantum Leap, it is an absolute masterpiece and an incredible debut from a very talented mind. Turton’s grasp on the characters is phenomenal. The more bodies Aiden inhabits, the harder it becomes to remember who he is, and instead he finds himself dominated by the personalities and memories of his hosts, each one stronger than the last. Each character is fully realised and so vivid, as is Aiden’s reaction to each of them. On one day he’s inside an enormously fat man and is very aware of his own physical bulk and how the world views him. The day after, he finds himself back in a thin man and struggles to acclimatise to the sudden loss of weight. He often struggles with the morality of some of his hosts too, which is fun to see and handled so delicately that it all feels believable.

You can read my full review here, or buy a copy of the book here.

2. Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell

This is a biography of George Orwell in the time that he was living in poverty, first in Paris and then later in London. In France, he finds himself desperate for work, and eventually finds a job as a plongeur (washer-upper) in a fancy Parisian hotel. The pay is terrible and the hours are long, but the stories he gets from his time there are numerous and unbelievable. When he finally gets time to write to friends at home, he escapes back to London, only to find that the job he has been promised won’t be available for a month and he finds himself a tramp, living on the streets and trying to carve a living out from the city’s underbelly.

Who knew that a book about washing up could be so compelling? Orwell takes us down into the grittiest parts of two of the world’s most cosmopolitan cities and removes any remaining shine on their surfaces. I’ve always been a fan of the idea of taking a time machine to the 1920s and exploring, but after reading about the kitchen hygiene standards of the time, I’ll definitely be packing sandwiches. The world he gives us is grimy, sticky, cold, rough and six inches deep in potato peelings and cockroaches. And yet, it’s fascinating.

You can read my full review here, or buy a copy of the book here.

3. Normal People by Sally Rooney

Connell and Marianne live in the same small Irish town, but have very different backgrounds. Marianne lives in a large house with her mother and brother, and Connell’s mother cleans for them. Despite this difference, the two begin a friendship of sorts, although Connell is so concerned that people at school will judge him for talking to weird friendless Marianne that he keeps everything about it a secret and doesn’t speak to her in public. When the relationship becomes sexual, the two find themselves incredibly compatible, but Connell’s pride threatens to ruin everything. Over the next five years, they continue to weave in and out of each other’s lives, learning more about themselves and each other.

I guess the biggest compliment I can pay the book is that I could have read another two hundred pages of it, at least. Perhaps after a while the idea would have grown stale, but when it finished I just wanted to know what happened next. That’s not to say that it ends badly, it doesn’t, and the ending emphasises the cyclical nature of life and in particular the relationship between Connell and Marianne.

You can read my full review here, or buy a copy of the book here.

4. The Golden Age of Murder by Martin Edwards

This fascinating book explores the history of the Detection Club, an exclusive London club for writers of crime fiction, and discusses the world of detective fiction when it was at its peak between the two world wars. Combining literary criticism, true crime, biography and trivia, Martin Edwards – the current President of the Detection Club – takes us into the society’s inner workings to meet and mingle with the superstars of the age including Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers and G. K. Chesterton and learn about their lives, all of which seemed just as fascinating and mysterious as their novels.

It’s a heartwarming book in many ways, as Edwards delves into the relationships between the members of the Detection Club, he uncovers evidence that they all had a strong bond with one another, referencing one another in their books, jumping to each others’ defence when they got a bad review, and even collaborating to write books together to raise funds for the club. They enjoyed discussing murder together, sharing ideas, and trying to solve true crime cases that the police had failed to find answers to. As Edwards himself says, it’s impossible to cover everything about these people and their projects, but it’s nonetheless a pretty comprehensive introduction.

You can read my full review here, or buy a copy of the book here.

5. Mythos by Stephen Fry

Starting from Chaos, Fry takes us on a journey from the first beings like Gaia, Ouranos and Nyx, through the reign of the titans, to the rise of Zeus and the Olympians and into the Silver Age where gods mingled with mortals and neither tended to come out of it well. We meet and learn the stories of everyone who matters including Hades (misunderstood Lord of the Underworld), Hera (the most jealous wife in history), Midas (the cursed king), Sisyphus (the twice-cheater of death), Arachne (who dared call herself the world’s greatest weaver) and Helios (the driver of the sun’s chariot).

Fry is one of those modern polymaths who can do absolutely anything he turns his attention to – except for, apparently, singing and dancing – and he clearly takes a lot of joy in retelling these tales, adding his own unique spirit to them. They don’t need much in the way of adaptation to be palatable for modern audiences, so he instead revels in adding inconsequential details and silly jokes, all of which are hugely appreciated.

You can read my full review here, or buy a copy of the book here.

6. Question Time by Mark Mason

In his attempt to answer the question, “What makes the perfect quiz question?” Mark Mason sets off around the country, taking in the World Quizzing Championship, pub quiz machines, radio quizzes and speed quizzes to brush up on his trivia, learn why people love quizzing, and generally have a good time. It’s basically a tour of Britain disguised as a book of trivia – or maybe the other way around. Whatever the case, it’s an utter joy.

It had such an impact that I even finally got around to hosting my first quiz night, and I’ve got four more lined up already. Books can really change every aspect of your life. Trivia is one of those things that unites people and everyone loves a good fact. This book is absolutely teeming with them and is a fun and funny exploration of the world of quizzing.

You can read my full review here, or buy a copy of the book here.

7. The Iron Bird by Robert Woodshaw

During the Second World War, young Bel-imperia Pinch, a lappet-faced vulture with dreams of being educated under the wise owls of the Cloisters, finds herself working begrudgingly for her undertaker father, assisting in his role as undertaker of Hesper House and Zoological Gardens. The fledgling knows there must be more to life than burying the dead, and when she meets someone who informs her that she will one day be greater than Chartwell, the elephant seal currently serving as Prime Exhibit, she prepares to develop a core of iron to achieve her goals.

The novel is a brilliant allegorical tale that should be a key text for anyone interested in recent history. I know I’m someone who complains that there aren’t enough new ideas these days, and many might think that the parallels to Animal Farm here means this counts as a “rehash”, but I happen to disagree in this case. In a lesser writer’s hands, perhaps this wouldn’t work so well, or would be more derivative. I couldn’t do it. Woodshaw has produced a book that sparkles with wit and warmth, and that’s not easy to do when you’re writing about a woman who, according to many, lacked basic human empathy.

You can read my full review here, or buy a copy of the book here.

8. Meddling Kids by Edgar Cantero

In 1977, the Blyton Summer Detective Club – a group of teenagers made up of Peter, Nate, Andy, Kerri and their dog Sean – stopped the Sleepy Lake monster, who turned out to be yet another greedy, desperate lowlife in a rubber mask who would have gotten away with it, if it wasn’t for those meddling kids. Thirteen years later, the young detectives have grown up but not forgotten their adventures. And the more they try not to think about them, they realise that maybe it wasn’t as simple as it seemed. The events can’t be explained away by a guy in a mask. Something weirder was going on, and it’s time to find out what…

Although already very funny despite the horror, the greatest stylistic device is that the book is very self-aware, pointing out its own construction and breaking the fourth wall so naturally that you completely buy into it. Cantero slips in stage directions, title cards, references to the very paragraphs and sentences he’s writing, and at one point even ends a chapter, only to have one of the characters refuse to let it end there and carrying on regardless. If you grew up on The Famous FiveScooby Doo or Buffy the Vampire Slayer, this is the book for you.

You can read my full review here, or buy a copy of the book here.

9. The Art of Failing by Anthony McGowan

An author and creative writing teacher, McGowan records a year in his life in this book with entries for almost every day. Almost without exception, something embarrassing, shocking, humbling, sad or ridiculous happens to him in every entry, but at the same time they are almost all hilarious. He seems a genial sort of chap, plodding through life just trying not to do anything that lands him in trouble, but that’s clearly easier said than done. Whether he’s trying to buy shoelaces, fix a puncture, or trying to change the battery in the smoke alarm, there is something that is going to go wrong. He’ll usually end up drunk, with another puncture, or for some reason being convinced that the only way home is to wade through the Serpentine.

Written with complete charm and a continual sense of humour, even when he’s being glared at by his long-suffering wife for the hundredth time that week, the book genuinely made me laugh out loud repeatedly. A particular favourite was when McGowan accidentally posts his sandwich along with a letter – something up until now I’ve ever known a Mr Man character to do (Mr Forgetful, if you’re curious) – and forlornly wishes that he’s stamped and addressed the sandwich, then at least he could have eaten it tomorrow when it got delivered. It’s a lovely book that asks all the important questions in life. What am I doing with myself? Is writing a real job? And if Clement Atlee’s socks had been softer, would there have been an NHS?

You can read my full review here, or buy a copy of the book here.

10. The Binding by Bridget Collins

Emmett Farmer is a country boy, recovering from a long unexplained illness that rendered him weak, but he refuses to let it change him and he continues to work on the family’s farm. That is, until a letter comes that summons him to the position of apprentice to a bookbinder. Neither he nor his family can afford to pass up this opportunity, and so he is sent off to meet Seredith, the binder. Under her tuition, he learns that books are not what they seem. Each one contains a memory that someone wanted to forget. Emmett soon makes the shocking discovery that one of the books has his name on it…

Frankly, this is just a beautiful book. I mean the prose, but the book itself as a physical object is simply stunning. It would have to be, given the content. The writing is beautiful and easy, almost melodic at times, and it creates a world not unlike ours, but just subtly different enough to be captivating. Emmett Farmer is a great every man, but not as passive as he first seems. The boy has a core of steel and is willing to go to great lengths to protect those he loves. How the magic works is never fully explained, but that works. It isn’t about how it’s done, but instead about why and how it is handled. Collins does this with great beauty and wisdom.

You can read my full review here, or buy a copy of the book here.

And that’s 2019 – not only the end of the year, but the end of the decade. Let’s hope we’re all still here in a year’s time to see what new books have captured our imaginations.

Did you know that as well as reviewing everything I read, I also write novels, too? My books blend black humour with light horror, crossing genres with ordinary characters dealing with extraordinary circumstances. Head over to wherever you buy books to take a look at my two offerings. The first, The Atomic Blood-stained Bus, introduces you to a cannibal, an ex-god and the last witches of Britain, while the second, The Third Wheel, follows a man who is tired of being single while all his friends get married, but has a change of priority when aliens invade the planet. I hope you enjoy!

“Down And Out In Paris And London” by George Orwell (1933)

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“The Rue du Coq d’Or, Paris, seven in the morning.”

As someone who has long worked in customer service, currently funding my wine and book purchases being a barista and waiter, I’ve long had a sense of community with those seen at the bottom of the pile by many others in society. I’ve never been someone with a high-flying corporate job, or a role that brings in buckets of cash, and in some ways maybe that’s for the better, although there are definitely advantages to having money. One of my colleagues, however, was reading Down and Out in Paris and London which goes into great detail on what it’s like to be on the fringes of society, and so I was inspired to finally pick up by copy too and explore.

This is a biography of George Orwell in the time that he was living in poverty, first in Paris and then later in London. In France, he finds himself desperate for work, and eventually finds a job as a plongeur (washer-upper) in a fancy Parisian hotel. The pay is terrible and the hours are long, but the stories he gets from his time there are numerous and unbelievable. When he finally gets time to write to friends at home, he escapes back to London, only to find that the job he has been promised won’t be available for a month and he finds himself a tramp, living on the streets and trying to carve a living out from the city’s underbelly.

Who knew that a book about washing up could be so compelling? Orwell takes us down into the grittiest parts of two of the world’s most cosmopolitan cities and removes any remaining shine on their surfaces. I’ve always been a fan of the idea of taking a time machine to the 1920s and exploring, but after reading about the kitchen hygiene standards of the time, I’ll definitely be packing sandwiches. The world he gives us is grimy, sticky, cold, rough and six inches deep in potato peelings and cockroaches. And yet, it’s fascinating.

It is the people living on society’s fringes that make this story so great. The one that particularly struck me was Bozo, a London screever, who is perhaps the only person in the book to say that poverty doesn’t matter, because you’re still free inside your head. Unlike most of the others, he has time to still study and is very literate and educated. Although Orwell rarely looks down on those in the same situation as him – and indeed, the book ends with him saying that his time in poverty has taught him never to judge those who end up there – there is a sense that he considers himself more educated and more of a “gentleman” than others. In one London doss house (“spike”), someone learning that he’s had money in the past gives him special privileges. With Bozo, he actually gets taught some things, however, as the screever is a keen astronomer, whereas Orwell admits he hadn’t even noticed before that stars were different colours. Oscar Wilde famously said, “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.” Maybe Orwell has spent too long face down in his washing-up water.

Ultimately, it’s quite a tragic book. Orwell escapes poverty eventually, and his experience, while horrific, is temporary. The book shines a light on those who live like this for years, decades, or even their whole lives. There are people who find cigarette butts on the pavement just for the tiniest hit of tobacco, those who have eaten nothing but bread and butter for months, and men wandering the streets with a plethora of diseases that they cannot afford treatment for. It’s a remarkable book and one that should be read by everyone, whether or not they have felt the harsh reality of poverty. It’s especially vital reading now, given that we seem to live in one of the richest societies in the world but have a ridiculously high poverty level. Our governments could learn a lot from this, and not from Orwell’s other works as they seem to have done previously.

My second novel, The Third Wheel, is now available on Amazon and Waterstones! It tells the story of Dexter, a twenty-something teacher who is struggling with the fact that he alone among his friends is single and isn’t ready to grow up. But when aliens invade, it puts a lot of his problems into perspective. Mixing comedy, science fiction and horror, the novel promises to have something for everyone. I hope you’ll take a look!

“Nineteen Eighty-Four” by George Orwell (1949)

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1984-orwell

This was not meant to be an instruction manual.

“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”

I tend to use books as escapism. I think we all do. We dive into fictional realities and live out new lives in new worlds, just for a time, to get away from the troubles and torments in the real world.  But then, sometimes you want to read something that reminds you of the world you know. I don’t think I ever believed, really, that one day this classic and shocking novel would be one we turn to as representative of the world we find ourselves in now.

I first tried reading 1984 as a teenager, but could never get into it. I tried again about five years ago and was immediately hooked. With the news that, last week, sales of the book had climbed 9500%, Amazon had sold out, and the publishers were having to issue a 75,000-copy reprint to keep up with demand, I felt compelled to read it again and see just what exactly I had forgotten and why it was more relevant than ever. I came out the other side shocked.

Our hero is Winston Smith, a thirty-nine year old member of the Outer Party who lives in a totalitarian society where cameras and microphones in every house and street mean that privacy is now a thing of the past. People are arrested and disappear for even thinking bad thoughts about the Party (the ruling authority) and its leader, Big Brother. People are expected to display unwavering loyalty to the government and any hint of rebellion is quashed before it can get started. Winston, however, has noticed that there’s one corner of his flat that seems to be out of sight of the telescreen, and inspired by this and his sense that there must be more to life than what he sees, he begins writing a diary.

Winston works in the Ministry of Truth, the department of the government responsible for all media output, ensuring that whatever is said matches up to the Party wants it to say. Winston is employed to make changes to old newspapers, books and reports to literally rewrite history and show the Party to be infallible. Everyone knows this happens, but through a new process called doublethink, they are made to convince themselves that no changes were ever made. Anyone who has listened to the quotes coming out of America this week regarding “alternative facts” will find this chillingly real.

Winston has found himself the focus of the desires of a young woman named Julia, and they must secretly plot to find some privacy in a world where even loving someone is an act of rebellion. Together they seek out any truth to the rumours that there is a Brotherhood; a movement of people who are ready to overthrow the government and bring about a new way of life. However, Big Brother is always watching, and trust is very hard to come by these days.

I remembered easily from my first read of the book the appearances of Big Brother, Winston’s awful life, the ongoing war with the two other superstates, Eastasia and Eurasia, the telescreens, the ill-fated love affair and his experience in Room 101, but there were many things I had forgotten, such as what Winston’s job actually was, and how he finds out the truth of what’s going on via a book written by an earlier rebel. With the current state of the world, the novel takes on a whole new hue, as we start to look at what the media are actually telling us and politicians seem quite content to simply make things up rather than rely on empirical evidence.

There’s a long period in the second act in which we learn a lot about how the world got to this state and how it actually works behind the scenes, which is quoted from a textbook and drags a little, but otherwise the book is pacey, engaging, shocking and very powerful. Winston is a flawed hero; Julia, a flawed heroine. They are both trying to eke out a little happiness in this horrendous new world but with the Thought Police potentially around every corner, ready to arrest you for daring to think something that goes against the Party, it’s nigh on impossible. Particularly haunting are the scenes involving children who are already being taught to act as spies and rat out their parents if they ever have an improper thought, and the whole time Winston is imprisoned. (These don’t count as spoilers, not for a book nearly seventy years old.)

The book is also very familiar if you’ve never read it before. The TV shows Big Brother and Room 101 both take their names from here, and concepts of doublethink, Newspeak, thoughtcrime and the Thought Police have all passed into the language. This is a staggeringly important book, and one that may change the way you think of politics and how we are treated. If nothing else, it should make you wonder just how trustworthy some news outlets are, especially the ones that seem to lack an unbiased stance.

Everyone should read this book. I know it’s considered a negative of the liberals to go and hide in a book when things get tough, but books contain a multitude of answers. This is an extreme example of a world that could exist, but at times it feels like one we may just end up sleepwalking into. Rise up and challenge the government. Question them, don’t take their abuses, don’t let them spread lies as if they’re truths, fight the good fight.