Top 10 Books of 2019

Finally, finally, I’ve completed a book challenge on Goodreads. Went for a steady 60 books for the year and only just made it. A few 200 page books in December saw me over the line. So here’s the top 10 for the year:

Ryan Gattis – Safe: A gritty, raw novel about the Los Angeles drug gangs. Gattis has an extraordinary ability to evoke empathy from characters mired in petty crime and the vagaries of the drug trade. Knockout ending, too.

Don Winslow: The Force: Not much I can say about Winslow. If you are into crime fiction in any way, he’s your man. A stunner.

Nathan Hill: The Nix. An amazing accomplishment for a first novel. The Great American novel in all its glory.

Raynor Winn: The Salt Path. A beautiful tale of heartbreak and redemption on the UK’s most beautiful walking trail.

Barney Norris: Five Rivers Met on a Wooded Plain. Five people impacted by a car accident. A lyrical, dreamy novel that stays with you long after completion.

Stephen King: Misery. A King book I’ve inexplicably missed. Great fun and brutal as hell.

Un-so Kim. The Plotters. You won’t look at assassins in the same way again. Which is cool, right?

Ken Kesey. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. I’ve never seen the film. The novel is stunning. A stick it to the man euphoria tinged with melancholy. The fishing trip scene is the funniest thing I’ve read all year. A bona fide classic.

Chris Petit: The Psalm Killer. Violent, sexual, brutal thriller about a serial killer in Ireland during the Troubles. Perfectly executed.

Graham Greene: The End of the Affair. My first ever Greene. And what a book to start on. Yearning, heartbreaking, unmissable.

I had a feeling that this years reads had been something of a disappointment, but some real gems have shone through. Kudos also to Ken Bruen and Lawrence Block (as always) for strengthening my belief that these guys are the best in the business.

I haven’t done a best of the decade mostly because to trawl through 500+ books seems a chore but if you’ve never read Remains of the Day, Any Human Heart or any Willy Vlautin novel than you need to rectify that immediately.

Happy New Year!

Where the Crawdads Sing

Looking at the Goodreads page for the novel Where the Crawdads Sing, this month’s choice in my occasional visit to the Germany book club, I was struck by how highly rated the book is. 4 and a half stars out of five from nearly 50,000 reviews is a stonkingly high commendation, definitely the highest I’ve ever seen on that website.  So the big question is, does it live up to the hype?

Happily, on the whole, yes it does. I only gave the novel 4 stars as it happens, but then I’m a hard taskmaster and something of a curmudgeon.  And it is easy to say that the book is beautifully written, especially for a first novel. The author Delia Owens has a lovely, almost poetic prose as she tells the story of the ‘Marsh Girl’ Kya Clark, an abandoned girl who lives in the marshes on the edge of town and leads a solitary life among the plants and animals.  Some reviews have criticised the slow pace of the early part of the book, focusing too much on descriptive passages instead of story, but I enjoyed the scene setting and the rich evocation of the landscape.

The book develops into a back-and-forth narrative between a coming-of age tale as Kya grows up and falls in love, and a murder mystery surrounding the unexplained death of a local white student, Chase Andrews.  Both strands are dealt with convincingly.  The latter was reminiscent to me of two other classic examples of courtroom drama surrounding racial injustice, A Time to Kill and the great To Kill a Mockingbird. For this book to be mentioned in the same vein is its testament. It has all the great hallmarks of the genre, genuine suspense, evidence that swings you one way then the other, and a verdict that is difficult to predict. I’m not going to give away the ending here but the twists on the final pages don’t feel deceitful and raise many questions about the validity of what has come before. A book that will have you discussing and arguing its outcome long past completion can only be a great one.

It’s not all judges and juries though. The coming-of age tale is one that could easily slip into cliche, so well worn are its tropes. But Owens manages to pull it off with instantly believable characters who, whilst not necessarily the nicest, are always honest and hard to dismiss. Kya walks the tightrope of doubt and loneliness and whether to give in to her desires with a balance that is eminently relatable to anyone who had a powerful yearning for someone as a teenager (which we all did, let’s face it).  Even when she makes poor decisions you can see the reasoning behind them, and her relationships, especially with the odious Chase, are very well drawn.

If there are gripes, I would comment that some of the developments that raise Kya out of poverty seem easy to come by.  If it was that straightforward to become a published author I would be shouting it from the rooftops of my penthouse suite in the Caribbean.  Kya does also seem to adapt remarkably well (and quickly, it must be said) to the loss of both her mother and brother when they walk out on her. But it all hangs together enough not to completely smash the suspension of disbelief.

As I said at the top, the strengths of the novel are enough to warrant its remarkable rating. I finished it a week or so ago and find myself thinking about it at random moments. Such is its power, and its quiet beauty.