If you are wondering what to read to take you through the dark days of January and February, here are my books of 2019, with links to the blogs they feature in.
Most likely to change the world - Like many other people this year I read The Salt Path by Raynor Winn, an incredibly book about a couple walking the south west coastal path. Theirs couldn’t have been a more different journey than my own (I am just over half-way through the 660 mile trail) and it is incredible to read their story of homelessness and illness, and, ultimately, triumph in the face of extreme adversity. I would like to think that this book will help to change the world, or at least attitudes to homelessness.
Learned most from - I hugely enjoyed reading The Gatekeepers by Chris Whipple. As the subtitle says it is a book how the White House Chiefs of Staff define every presidency and it was a really interesting read. I discovered that the most effective chiefs of staff are not always ones that match my own politics. They are defined by fundamentally knowing and never forgetting that it is the President and not them who is in charge, by staying firmly in the background, by knowing how to delegate, by understanding that they are in charge of making the operation work, by being ruthless in ensuring the President spends his time on the most important things, and by being willing to speak truth to power when no-one else will.
Most captivating - The Woman Who Breathed Two Worlds by Selina Siak Chin Yoke is a beautiful novel set in Malaysia in the early twentieth century and was ideal reading for my holiday to Malaysia in April. It follows the life of Chye Hoon, born into the Nyonya community of Chinese in Malaysia in 1878, through the first world war and up to the Japanese invasion of Malaysia at the start of the second world war. It conjures up life at the time, along with the landscapes of Penang and central Malaysia. I was utterly captivated.
Most changed my everyday life - I read three great books about how to write fiction this Autumn (see my blog on Reading about Writing). They were incredibly helpful companions to a course I took on creative writing, and they all deserve a mention here: The Art of Fiction by David Lodge, How Novels Work by John Mullan and How Fiction Works by James Wood. They have changed my everyday life already, by teaching me new skills to use in all kinds of writing.
Most enjoyment from - I lost myself completely in the absolutely wonderful Century Trilogy by Ken Follett (see my blogs on the first two books - Fall of Giants and Winter of the World). At around 900 pages each these three books kept me (relatively) sane in a rather crazy year at work. They follow the main political events of the twentieth century through the eyes of three generations of families, in America, England, Russia and Germany. These are truly some of the best books I have ever read and I can’t recommend them enough.
Most able to make a complex subject easy to understand - when I look at the list of the 50 or so books I read this year I realise that almost all of them were fiction. This is unusual for me and I think stems from a desire to switch my work brain off this year. I am not sure any of the non-fiction ones I did read any were particularly aimed at making a complex subject easy to understand, but my favourite non-fiction book this year was definitely Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup by John Carreyrou. It tells the unbelievable true story of the Theranos scandal and how the Elizabeth Holmes pulled the wool over the eyes of so many, who frankly should have known better.
Most un-put-downable - I was given an Elly Griffiths book by my sister last Christmas and liked it so much I promptly read all eleven in the Ruth Galloway series. Perfect crime fiction with a great heroine, beautiful settings and some history thrown in. They were ideal for getting me through last January and February.
Least enjoyment from - I confess that I just didn’t enjoy Labyrinth of the Spirits by Carlos Ruiz Zafon (see my blog on Late summer reading). It is the fourth and final book in the ‘cemetery of forgotten books’ series set in Barcelona, which roams from the Spanish Civil War to the present day. It’s a series I really enjoyed, but I just got a bit lost with this one. I suspect my head wasn’t in the right place to read it.
Most surprised by, in a good way - The Sing of the Shore by Lucy Wood (see my blog on Cornwall reading) is not the kind of book I usually read. Each short story focuses on a Cornish character surviving in an extreme landscape. It is a lyrical and haunting book that uses language beautifully to tell a story of a hidden Cornwall. If, like me, you enjoy holidaying in Cornwall, this will show you a very different side of the county.
Would most recommend for holidays - I read Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver on a flight to Cyprus this October and it was perfect holiday reading. It is set around a falling-down house in New Jersey in two time periods, the present day and the late 1800s and, as is always the case with Barbara Kingsolver, it is full of great female characters.
Talked most obsessively about - I am still on a high from being lucky enough to go to an event in London in November to hear Hilary Rodham Clinton in conversation with Julia Gillard. These are two of my favourite women (see my blogs on Hilary’s books What Happened and Hard Choices and on Julia Gillard) and it was truly inspiring to hear them speak. Hilary was promoting her new book The Book of Gutsy Women, which she wrote with her daughter Chelsea, and which I promptly bought and read in December. I have talked obsessively about the event and the book ever since. It is a book to give us hope, packed full of inspirational women who are a reminder that a different kind of world is possible.