The BookBrunch team, and contributors to our Q&A series, reveal their reading highlights of the year
Australian crime writing is enjoying a golden period at the moment. Two of the best novels I read this year, both set in parched and unforgiving landscapes, were The Lost Man (Abacus) by Jane Harper, who was already on my must-read list; and newcomer Chris Hammer's Dagger-winning debut Scrublands (Wildfire).
I've read so many great books this year, but there are two that stand out as likely to have a lasting impact on me. Surprisingly, given that I read mostly fiction, they are both non-fiction titles, and I listened to both as audiobooks. Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez (Chatto) is a shocking expose of how most things are designed for men, meaning that women's requirements are completely overlooked. The second is Underland by Robert Macfarlane (Hamish Hamilton). Macfarlane journeys through the world beneath our feet, discovering not just the past but also our potential future. Powerful and erudite, this book also really makes you think about the world in a different way.
My book of the year is Brian Bilston's Diary of a Somebody, Paul Baggaley's leaving gift to Picador, and a book that makes me smile every time I dip in to it. It's warm, tender and clever, and has great fun at the expense of the pomposities of modern poetry. Runners-up are Raynor Winn's The Salt Path (Penguin) - a memoir of the granite-like endurance of the human spirit - and On Chapel Sands by Laura Cumming (Chatto), a brilliant piece of investigative journalism by an art critic using the family photo album to solve a mystery nearly a century old. Any one of these three will not disappoint.
The first book that I loved in 2019 was The Binding by Bridget Collins (Borough Press) - it's an entirely unique concept and the writing was rich with detail and romance. Maureen Johnson's Truly Devious series (HarperCollins) is full of brilliant mystery and wonderful characters - I can't wait for the third volume. The Heavens by Sandra Newman (Granta) was completely different to anything I have ever read before and I've thought about it a lot since finishing it. The Flatshare by Beth O'Leary (Quercus) was bubbly, sweet and heartfelt. Sweet Sorrow by David Nicholls (Hodder) and Big Sky by Kate Atkinson (Doubleday) were both eagerly anticipated and did not disappoint. Water Shall Refuse Them by Lucie McKnight Hardy (Dead Ink) was a slice of atmospheric folk horror that made me shiver. Fleishman Is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner (Wildfire) was possibly my favourite book of the year - sharp, dark, truthful, and funny. Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens (Corsair) seemed to have absolutely everything - atmosphere, mystery, romance - and I loved it. How High the Moon by Karyn Parsons (Puffin) was one of the best middle grade novels I have read in some time. Finally, In Other Lands by Sarah Rees Brennan (Big Mouth House) is a fantasy novel that overturns every single trope and that I have already reread since finishing it for the first time in March.
The Offing (Bloomsbury) by Benjamin Myers just pips David Wallace-Wells' The Uninhabitable Earth (Penguin) to the top of my heap - showing how difficult, and in many ways nonsensical, comparisons such as this are. But they are fun and can be interesting. Ben's previous books have an edge and hardness that flash like flint; this book has a softer, more serene and inclusive focus. It narrates the story of a growing and mutually beneficial relationship between a young man learning about life and an elderly lady who discovers more about hers from him. In 2019 it was particularly enjoyable to read a subtle, uplifting book that made one feel better about the world, and the author's ability to describe nature and the nurturing of a rather lovely connection between the two main characters will make you smile and glow inwardly. In my view, the book was well worthy of Booker attention - I have recommended and given copies of The Offing to many, many friends, and their reactions have all been positive. I shall be reading it again over the holidays, as a treat.
Like many people, I was introduced to the work of David Nott through his incredible Desert Island Discs appearance. What a man! In War Doctor (Picador), he details his experiences in some of the most dangerous places on earth, and I cannot count how many times I was left in floods of tears. I'm totally with Adam Kay that Nott "needs a knighthood".
Staying the course with dodgy first person narrators is one thing, but to be in the mind of a quite cruel and twisted man is another. Yet Hanya Yanagihara's protagonist Dr Perina in The People in the Trees (Atlantic) is a compelling character who stands out as one of the most memorable voices of the year. With all the hype it received last year, and the hailing of Sally Rooney as "the first great millennial novelist" (New York Times), I'd love to say Normal People (Faber) was all just media puff. While there were parts I thought were weak (Marianne's cartoonishly evil family), I was carried away by Rooney's brilliance, especially her ability to write dialogue that rings so true. This year gave me my first experience of reading Anita Brookner, and what a delight. Hotel du Lac Penguin) may appear to be a simple and rather uneventful story following a romantic novelist's escape to a Swiss hotel, but I loved the well-observed small talk and seemingly old-fashioned air of it all. Every page was a pleasure.
And here are the favourites of some of our Q&A contributors
Emma House, Oreham Group - An American Marriage by Tayari Jones (Oneworld).
Kate Wilson, Nosy Crow - My favourite was, I think, the clever and subversive Fleishman Is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Anker (Wildfire).
Jane Harris, Bonnier - The Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace-Wells (Penguin) - terrifying.
Orna O'Brien, London Book Fair - Milkman, Anna Burns (Faber).
Jenny Kuehne, Frankfurt Book Fair - Probably 4,3,2,1 by Paul Auster (Faber).
Alan Staton, Booksellers Association - I've just finished the new Kate Atkinson novel (Big Sky, Doubleday) and loved it. It's been a long wait for the return of Jackson Brodie.
Clare Harington, Hachette - Joe Country, the latest Slough House novel by Mick Herron (John Murray), in which he proves you can start with a great idea and just keeping improving it - each book in the series is even better than the last, and I hope he keeps writing them forever; and Andrew Miller's Now We Shall Be Entirely Free (Sceptre).
Karina Urquhart, BIC - It has to be The Heart's Invisible Furies by John Boyne (Black Swan).
Robin Cutler, IngramSpark - Becoming by Michelle Obama (Viking). I listened to the audiobook, which was brilliantly read by the author.
David Prescott, Blackwell's - Petty by Warren Zanes (Macmillan US) - a biography of Tom Petty, unsurprisingly.
Helen Kogan, Kogan Page - I really enjoyed William Boyd's Love Is Blind (Penguin) and of course our Business Book of the Year Award winner The Leadership Lab by Chris Lewis and Pippa Malmgren. John O'Farrell's book Things Can Only Get Worse? (Black Swan) really struck a chord with me.
Nic Bottomley, Mrs B's Emporium - On holiday I read The Harmony Silk Factory by Tash Aw (4th Estate - not new of course), which was superb.
Andrew Johnston, Quiller Press - Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 (Flamingo) - I've always meant to read it - but the typos in the paperback were infuriating!
John Bond, Whitefox - Stefan Zweig's Beware of Pity (Pushkin). Nicola Barker recommended it in an article I read about her recently. I thought it was astonishing and utterly heartbreaking. And I loved David Nicholls' Sweet Sorrow (Hodder).
Michael Schmidt, Carcanet - The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon (Penguin) - not very modern, I appreciate.
Jo Howard - It has to be Mick Herron's Joe Country, but I am biased!
Chris McLaren, SaltWay - Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (Vintage) – possibly the best book I've ever read (after The Water Babies, of course).