2019 In Review: Some Books I Loved (Part 2)

on Friday, December 27, 2019
Greetings from the very Tiger Balmy sickbed! Turns out 2019 gave us a great crop of books. I wasn't expecting this list to be so long and I'm not even down to my Top 10. I still hope to read four or five books before the year is out so the list might grow yet. But for now, here's a bunch more books I loved this year.

The Diver's Game by Jesse Ball
Jesse Ball can do no wrong and here he out Attwoods Attwood with a terrifyingly plausible take on an alternative present. For fans, think of it as a companion of sorts to The Curfew.

Doggerland by Ben Smith
I haven't delved into the whole cli-fi thang anywhere near as much as I'd like to, but from my limited experience I have to say, Doggerland is bloody excellent. Bleak, propulsive, frightening and eerily believable, it had an almost Cormac McCarthyesque darkness in the relationship between the three characters. One of very few books that I literally could not put down. Also, I couldn't help but wonder whether this is what Waterworld might have been like if it that steaming shit-heap of a film had actually been good.

Space Invaders by Nona Fernández
I have a strange obsession with The Disappearances and this is one of the most beautiful and moving stories about that terrible time in Chile's history I've read. Centred around a group of children who remember a classmate who one day stops turning up to school, and the infamous Caso Degollados case, it frames the horrors from a child's perspective, giving the whole thing a wide-eyed clarity that more worldly, jaded narratives simply could not. Gorgeous and chilling.

Halibut On The Moon by David Vann
Several harrowing, soul-crushingly bleak and excruciatingly intense novels down the line, we might just have hit "Peak Vann". Halibut On The Moon sees this master of the existential abyss coming full circle, revisiting the event that inspired his incredible first novel-in-stories, Legend of A Suicide, and shaded all those that followed. Imagining the final few days of his father's life, days that we as readers already know will end in suicide, Vann demonstrates unparalleled insight into a mind tumbling over the edge. That he is able to mine such deeply personal trauma is remarkable. That he does it to such great effect, without melodrama, judgement or self-pity, is truly extraordinary.

The Man Who Saw Everything by Deborah Levy
At this point in her career, Deborah Levy really can't do any wrong and this, in my opinion, is her best novel yet. It's high concept sliding doors as historical stocktake. Read it to see just how exciting contemporary literature can be.

Exquisite Cadavers by Meena Kandasamy
Speaking of exciting, this little novel absolutely blew me away with its structural innovation, smashing down the wall between the author and the work they produce. Exquisite Cadavers is a dual narrative. Its primary (imagined) story is about Karim, a Tunisian immigrant, and Maya, his English wife. Struggling to make ends meet, and in the face of constant casual racism, theirs is a love circumscribed by the realities of Brexit-era London. Meanwhile, in the margins, Kandasamy tells her own story of writing the book, giving us a glimpse into the way her own life and observations - particularly of the abysmal treatment of women, political dissidents and minorities in Modi's India - inform Karim and Maya's story. Absolutely astounding.

To Be Taught, If Fortunate by Becky Chambers
I was hand sold this by a local bookseller who knows my taste and thought that, even though I don't read a great deal of science fiction, I'd love it. To Be Taught, If Fortunate is a series of linked stories about Adriane, an intergalactic explorer who finds a different planet/system in each chapter. Unsurprisingly, each is significantly different and brings new, often morally challenging, considerations to her voyage. What makes the book brilliant though is what's going on in the background. As the stories progress, Chambers drops little hints that things on earth aren't going quite so well and that Adriane just might be the last person alive. A quite ingenious book and an excellent illustration of why it's worth getting to know your local booksellers. Hi Grumpy Swimmer!

Call Me Evie by JP Pomare
It's been a long time between drinks for me when it comes to reading a thriller but I'm pretty damn happy this was the one that broke the drought. Dark, propulsive, sinister and downright great fun.

Witness: Lessons from Elie Wiesel's Classroom by Ariel Burger
We are all familiar with Elie Wiesel the great Holocaust survival novelist, Nobel Laureate and humanitarian activist. Yet Wiesel considered himself first and foremost a teacher. Burger, who was Wiesel's teaching assistant for several years, gives us unparalleled insight into this aspect of the great man's life. It is a deeply moving account of a mentorship that evolves into friendship, full of touching personal reflections and important lessons from a master.

The Topeka School by Ben Lerner
Is it possible for a book to be propelled almost entirely by the quality of its writing? Strip away the lyrical splendour of The Topeka School and you've got the story of a nerdy high school debater and two shitty marriages (his parents and their friends). Ok, I'm being somewhat reductive - there are issues of small town dynamics, the pressure of having "famous" parents (or being that parent), and the genesis of childhood violence - but still... Now, back to the writing. Holy shit, is Ben Lerner the most effortless prose stylist of the modern generation? Seriously, this book could have been about moss growing in a cave and, in his hands, it would still have been better than most of the books I've read this year

Well that just about covers them all. Next up, the Top Ten. But before I do, a quick shout out to two albums that I just discovered and that were too late to make my list of favourites for the year. I'm absolutely loving the new Reaganomics album, The Ageing Punk. A total explosion of fun, even if it does hit a little close to home.

Also, Moon Tiger released Crux back in August and I totally missed it. Thanks to a few Top 10 lists I've been reading over the past few days I went and checked it out. Wow. Think Scurrilous-era Protest the Hero, but a bit more fun and proggy. Definitely one of my best new discoveries of the year. Awe At All Angels has fast become one of my favourite songs of the year.


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