My Top Ten Books of the Year

The ten best books I read in 2019.

Becky Chambers, Record of a Spaceborn Few (2018)

The third book in Becky Chambers’s beloved Wayfarers series immerses us in the world of the Exodan fleet. Told from the perspectives of several characters, Record is a heartbreaking, but optimistic, story about the nature of ‘home’ and the search for meaning and purpose in our lives.

Recommended if you like cosy, character-based science fiction and Star Trek.

Lucy Worsley, Jane Austen at Home (2017)

Lucy Worsley tells the story of Jane Austen’s life through the places where she lived and stayed. The result is a fascinating, fresh and feminist perspective on the novelist, which roots her writing in her domestic life.

Recommended if you’re interested in women’s history and writing.

Jane Hirshfield, After (2006)

Beautiful, life-enriching poems in a wide-ranging collection that delves deeply into the human condition.

Recommended if you’re grappling with life.

Sarah Schulman, The Cosmopolitans (2016)

Set in Greenwich Village in 1958, The Cosmopolitans centres on the relationship between Earl and Bette, a black gay actor and a white secretary. Schulman takes a small number of characters, living in restricted circumstances, and creates a novel of intense depth and meaning. This is the best novel that I’ve read in some time and one that will stay with me.

Recommended if you’re looking for a challenging, thought-provoking read.

Hallie Rubenhold, The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper (2019)

The Five is a meticulously researched work which recreates the lives of the five women who were identified as victims of ‘Jack the Ripper’. It’s an absolutely fascinating book about the lives of ordinary women in Victorian London and a brave intervention into ‘Ripperology’ that finally gives these women the respect and care denied to them by history.

Recommended if you’re interested in works that challenge male-dominated interpretations of history.

Armistead Maupin, The Night Listener (2000)

The Night Listener wins the prize for most gripping page-turner this year. A lonely gay writer enters into a telephone friendship with a young boy who is dying of AIDS. Or does he? This is a clever, twisty thriller that explores the darker side of our need to be loved. A couple of things in this book made me uncomfortable, but it’s one heck of a read.

Recomended if you want something gripping to read on a plane or train

Amy Bloom, White Houses (2018)

Another work of gay historical fiction, White Houses re-imagines the love affair between First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, and reporter, Lorena ‘Hick’ Hickcock. Spanning a lifetime, the tenderness in the relationship between Eleanor and Hick as old women is particularly moving. There were a couple of things that I found problematic (CN: child rape), but it’s a beautifully written book that just carries you along.

Recommended if you’re interested in lesbian history and enjoy novels by people like Michael Cunningham.

Mary Oliver, Red Bird (2008)

Red Bird is the poetry collection that most got under my skin this year. A fragile speaker faces up to death and loss, and the various birds that appear in the poems represent emotional and psychological states. The red bird is a flash of hope in a wintery ‘landscape’. It may also have appealed because I’ve been getting into bird watching.

Recommended if you need some comfort through a hard time, or just like poems about birds.

James Tiptree Junior (Alice Sheldon) , Her Smoke Rose Up Forever (1990)

This collection makes the list because so many of the stories really are masterpieces of science fiction, but it’s the ‘best’ book that I least enjoyed. It took me ages to get through it because I found the stories so disturbing, if also brilliant.

Recommended if you want to experience a powerful imagination that has been hugely influential on science fiction, but be aware that it comes with a content note for pretty much EVERYTHING.

Vonda McIntyre, Dreamsnake (1978)

I’ll finish with one of my favourite books of the year. Dreamsnake is a wonderful story, and far more optimistic than I anticipated. A young healer, called Snake, must try and find a new dreamsnake after hers is accidentally killed. An engaging heroine, interesting characters and a beautifully realised world, I loved it.

Recommended if you enjoy feminist science fiction and works by authors like Ursula K. Le Guin.

Books that almost made the list …

James Shapiro’s 1599: A Year in the Life of Shakespeare (2005), is a really interesting book that puts Shakespeare firmly back in his historical and material context and, provides a fresh perspective on his work and life.

The Crime Writer (2016) by Jill Dawson is a gripping homage to Patricia Highsmith in which the author finds herself embroiled in something very like one of her own fictions.

Jane Harper’s The Dry (2016) didn’t quite live up to the hype for me, but was still a good atmospheric page-turner and one of the better crime novels I read this year.

Theodora Goss’s European Travel for Monstrous Gentlewoman (2018) is delightful fun, but I found it a bit overlong.

Help the Witch (2018) by Tom Cox is a rather eerie but kind-hearted collection of short stories and a nice winter read.

2018 Reading Round-Up

I was aiming to write regular posts about the books I enjoyed during 2018. In this, I mostly failed! I may still get around to writing about some of them, but in the meantime, here’s a long, rambling post about everything I read this year.

Science Fiction & Fantasy

Image shows the cover of Trail of Lightening which features a young woman dressed in black standing on stop of a red car driven by a young man. She holds a gun and lightening plays around her.

My favourite book was Trail of Lightening by Rebecca Roanhorse. Set in the post-apocalyptic world of Dinétah (formerly the Navajo reservation), this story about a monster-hunter had me gripped from the beginning. It takes what is now quite a well-worn trope (young woman with special powers hunts monsters) and does something fresh with it. I’m really looking forward to the sequel. Check it out of you like Buffy, Wynonna Earp or Seanan Maguire’s books.

 

Image shows the cover of the novel which features the title in large white stylised letters on a black background surrounded by a design based on moments in the book, green plants, a knife, a key, a puma, a pen and in the bottom right corner, a woman with a pistol.

The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter by Theodora Goss came a close second. It’s is a lovely read in which the daughters of all your favourite nineteenth-century Gothic “mad scientists” get together and start to investigate their origins. I managed to write a post about this one.

 

 

 

The biggest surprise was Boy’s Life by Robert R. McCammon, which came as part of a Humble Bundle I bought last year. I guess this is the joy of bundles, they make you try things that you wouldn’t usually pick up. The representation of women is not great and McCammon goes full throttle with the “magical negro” trope, but I got a lot out of this book. It captures something about the way children use fantasy to interpret their experiences of the world and the exploration of loss and grief is really powerful. I’m still thinking about it months later.

Image shows the cover of Children of Time. It features a spaceship approaching a green planet.

I read some good SF novels. The most enjoyable was probably Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky, with its story of a ship looking for a new home for its cargo of frozen humans, only to arrive at a promising planet and find it already occupied by sentient spiders, the result of a science experiment gone wrong. I don’t think it quite lives up to the superlative praise it received, but it’s fun, hopeful and quite moving at the end.

 

 

400 Billion Stars by Paul McAuley is a thoughtful, beautifully written and very serious story about a telepath press-ganged into investigating alien life on an eerie planet. I will read more of his work. After Atlas, Emma Newman’s novel about the forms that slavery might take in the future, is very good, but so bleak and depressing I can’t say I really enjoyed it.

I quite liked Taylor’s Ark by Jody Lynn Nye, but didn’t warm to the protagonist and found it rather slow-going. She has several series though and I will try some of her other works. Caught in Crystal by Patrcia C. Wrede is a very light and pleasing fantasy with the unusual feature of a protagonist who is middle-aged and a mother.

Image shows the cover of All Systems Red. It features a painting of Murderbot in its full armour and helmetI read some novellas. I’m enjoying the adventures of Martha Well’s Murderbot (along with pretty much everyone else it seems) and read the first two in the series, All Systems Red and Artificial ConditionBinti by Nnedi Okorafor is lovely, but a little too YA for my tastes – get it for your daughters and nieces though! Carolyn Ives Gilman’s Arkfall is a nice, gentle SF story about an underwater civilisation.

 

 

I read far less short stories that usual. Ted Chiang’s collection Story of Your Life and Others is excellent, but the stories are very dense and challenging and, honestly, a lot of it went over my head! Maybe it wasn’t the right time for this one. I was quite excited by the conceit behind Alien Artifacts (ed Josh Palmatier at al), but found the stories disappointing. None of them really stood out for me.

I re-read a couple of beloved books, The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin and The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers.

Crime Fiction

Image shows the cover of What the Dead Know. It features a photograph of a girl in a red dress walking behind a tree. As she emerges her body has faded and become translucent.

What the Dead Know by Laura Lippman is probably the best serious, literary work of crime fiction that I read in 2018. Clever, elegant, haunting, but very dark and disturbing. I admired it more than I liked it.

Alafair Burke’s The Ex is good too. I saw the twist coming, but it didn’t really matter. I also read the second in her Ellie Hatcher series, City of Fear, which is entertaining, but comes with a massive content warning for depictions of sexualised violence against women.

I really liked The Crow Trap by Ann Cleeves, the first in her popular Vera Stanhope series, but was disappointed by the second novel, Telling Tales which is full of boring, unsympathetic characters – the only interesting person is dead and even Vera is sick of everyone by the end! I’ll probably try the next one though.

Image shows the cover of The Stranger Diaries. It features a painting of a flowering plant against a blue background with writingThe last book I finished in 2018 was The Stranger Diaries by Elly Griffiths which is a really fun Gothic mystery. A good one to take on holiday.  I also loved Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz, a meta-fictional response to Agatha Christie and two solid mysteries for the price of one. These are both books written with the intention of entertaining the hell out of you, while also making some good points about the function of literature.

 

 

Speaking of Agatha Christie, I worked my way through all the Miss Marple novels in 2017 and was finishing up the short stories at the beginning of this year. The Thirteen Problems and Miss Marple’s Final Cases were both decent reads, but not really a patch on the novels. I also read one Poirot novel this year which was The Murder on the Orient Express. I knew the ending and it still had me gripped. I guess that’s why we call her a genius.

I thoroughly enjoyed Sovereign, the third in C.J. Samson’s Tudor detective series. This series is far more dudely than I would usually read, but it’s a world to sink into and has me hooked.

Image shows the cover the novel Stoner McTavish. This edition features a painting of the Grand Teton mountains with a Stoner sitting on a black horse in the foreground.

 

Special mention goes to Stoner McTavish, the first in Sarah Dreher’s much-loved lesbian detective series. It has its flaws but is very enjoyable and I would hate to see Stoner fall into obscurity. I wrote a post about this one.

 

 

I was disappointed by Stephen King’s Finders Keepers. Mr Mercedes certainly wasn’t King on top form, but it was a good read. Finders Keepers had an interesting premise, but I found the characters dull and too much of it was told from the POV of the extremely boring villain. I probably won’t bother with the next one.

General/Literary Fiction

Image shows the cover of Astray. It features a sepia toned photograph of a chain of old keys

I’ve been really off literary fiction for the last few years, so there isn’t much in this category. I liked the haunting stories in Emma Donoghue’s collection Astray enough to write about it.

Otherwise, it was all re-reading. I read Sexing the Cherry by Jeanette Winterson and Rubyfruit Jungle by Rita Mae Brown, both for a lesbian book group I occasionally attend. I’m not really a Winterson fan, with the exception of Oranges and the memoir, which is basically another version of Oranges! I disliked Sexing the Cherry even more on reading it again. I’m still fond of Rubyfruit Jungle. It’s an important novel from a queer historical perspective, if not a great work of literature.

I usually re-read something by Jane Austen and this year it was Persuasion.

Non-Fiction

Image shows the cover of Forbidden Lives. It is a plain brown cover with the title and author's name in black capitals and a small Welsh dragon in black on the right hand sideMy favourite work of non-fiction this year was Forbidden Lives: LGBT Stories from Wales. As a Welsh LGBTQ person myself, I was delighted to see a book published about our history. I’m very aware of what a challenge this book was in terms of doing the research. The result is a collection of fascinating stories that in many ways highlight, and even celebrate, the ambiguities and elusiveness of queer lives in the past.

 

I read CN Lester’s Trans Like Me which I found an accessible and moving personal account of transgender experience. It covered a lot of issues and didn’t shy away from areas that might be considered challenging.

Image shows the cover of Eat Up. It features cartoonish drawings of good on a pink background

Then there was Ruby Tandoh’s Eat Up, a delightful and thoughtful book of essays about food and eating which also has a queer and feminist sensibility. A very healing book, I think, and recommended for anyone trying to recover from eating disorders, or just wanting to get off the diet roller coaster.

 

 

 

The rest was a bit of a mixed bag. I’m fascinated by con artists and fraudsters, so I was keen to read The Confidence Game by Maria Konnikova. It was worth reading, but felt a bit padded out and repetitive. I would have liked more stuff on how to resist falling prey to confidence tricksters. I was a bit disappointed by Neanderthals Rediscovered by Dimitra Papagianni, but this was mainly because I wanted more on the actual lives of Neanderthals and this book is more the story of scientific advances and the study of the subject. How Jesus Became God by Bart Ehrman is readable, like all his books, but not as fascinating as Misquoting Jesus.

Steve Hagan’s Buddhism Made Simple does what it says on the tin and offers a nice, simple introduction to Buddhism, if that’s what you’re looking for.

Food

The best recipe book I bought this year was The Modern Cook’s Year by Anna Jones. I feel I should say that I don’t entirely approve of Anna Jones’s general attitude to food and eating.  I’m all for eating your vegetables, but I find her approach rather restrictive and a bit inclined to pander diet fads like “clean-eating”. Also, many of these recipes are not cheap to make. Having said that, I do own all of her books because the actual recipes are innovative and delicious and The Modern Cook’s Year is a beautiful book full of ideas.

The most useful book I bought was The Roasting Tin by Rukmini Iyer. My partner and I both work full-time and this book has helped us to feed ourselves well without too much work and washing up. I just bought the follow-up, The Green Roasting Tin, which looks just as good, and is exclusively vegan and vegetarian.

Final Thoughts

Overall, this was a mostly enjoyable, if unfocused, year of reading. I mainly read genre fiction. The majority of the books were by women (72%/20%), and a reasonable number by queer/LGBT authors, but I could do better at reading more books by people of colour.

If I had the time over again, I would set a page limit at which to ditch the book if I’m not liking it, because I still wasted too much time slogging all the way through some books that I didn’t enjoy.

2010 in Film

The best films I saw this year

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)

Director: Andrew Dominik

I wish this film wasn’t overlong and didn’t have such a boring bit in the middle because the beginning, and especially the ending, contain some of the most beautiful scenes I’ve ever seen on film.  It’s an almost-brilliant film about masculinity and relationships between men.  Brad Pitt is looking better and better as he gets older and Casey Affleck is great throughout.  Plus, it has a Nick Cave soundtrack and Nick himself appearing at the end to sing a murder ballad. I may have to buy it on DVD just so I can watch the scenes I like again.

In the Mood for Love (2000)

Director: Kar Wai Wong

The first “wow” film of 2010. A man and woman in Hong Kong form a relationship when they both suspect their spouses of infidelity. This is such a stunning film to watch, it’s almost painful, as it juxtaposes the overcrowded, grimness of the world in which the protagonists live, with the beauty of their relationship; an ultimately enigmatic exploration of friendship, desire and loss.

Doubt (2008)

Director: John Patrick Shanley

A nun’s attempt to protect children under her care from a priest who she suspects of being a paedophile turns into a gripping analysis of patriarchy, homosocial culture and the price of standing up for what you believe in. This is probably the most overtly feminist film I saw all year.  More here.

Let the Right One In (2008)

Director: Tomas Alfredson

I quite liked this film when I first watched it, but thought it a little overrated. However, as time has passed I find myself quite haunted by it and thinking scenes over again. I’ll definitely be returning to it for a second watch soon.  A film that poses the question of whether society makes life so unbearable for young people that running away with a vampire may be the better option.

Rebel without a Cause (1955)

Director: Nicholas Ray

Another tremendous film about masculinity and homosocial culture. Rebel Without a Cause sees a possible way out of the pain in friendship and tenderness, only to have that possibility destroyed by the violence of homophobia and misogyny. It seems as relevant now as ever.  More here.

Moon (2009)

Director: Duncan Jones

I loved this film which seems to return us to the themes and feel of 70s SF, in this case exploring the relationship between the individual and society, anxieties about artificial intelligence, and the lengths to which we might go to ensure an energy supply. It shows that you don’t need a huge budget and a ton of CGI to make a good piece of science fiction. Some people didn’t like the slow build, but I did.

Thirst (2009)

Director: Cahn-wook Park

Another good vampire film that, like Let the Right One In, uses the vampire to ask philosophical questions about the nature of existence.  I felt that this was little overlong and quite misogynist, but it’s also very interesting as it shifts from a film about a Catholic priest who accidentally becomes a vampire, to a film about guilt and the way people treat each other.

Brief Encounter (1945)

Director: David Lean

I thought this was going to be a woman’s weepy and found myself watching a gruelling film about frustrated desire which questions the point of living without love.  I also saw a gay allegory in this film in the story of middle-aged, married lovers who can’t be together and this may be why it affected me so much.

The Lives of Others (2006)

Director: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck

A chilling, but ultimately moving film, about the price of power and the possibility of redemption.

All Over Me (1997)

The best lesbian film I saw this year –  a naturalistic, gritty, serious, and very touching coming of age drama. This one feels authentic.  Longer post here.

Hero (2002)

Director: Yimou Zhang

This has a terrible message at the end, but what a stunning film it is to watch. The cinematography is amazing and I loved the layered story with its twists and turns. I also liked the representation of women, as people who are excellent at what they do.

A Matter of Life and Death (1946)

Director: Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger

I only watched this the other day and had to add it to the list. It’s a surprisingly subversive fantasy from 1946 that questions not only Anglo-American relations, but the point of war itself and the role of the British Empire in causing all the trouble.  It’s also a meditation on survivor guilt and post traumatic stress disorder.  The opening in which a pilot attempts to make a connection with a radio operator during what he believes to be the last moments of his life is still really powerful. The representation of heaven as a gigantic bearoacracy must have been pretty challenging for the time.  The world has changed and you can feel film being pushed forward by this movie.

Worth watching, but …

Dark Victory (1939)
Creepy little melodrama that would have been great if only they hadn’t cast a plank of wood as Betty Davies’s love interest while giving Humphrey Bogart a bit part.

The Wind that Shakes the Barley (2006)
A very good, but unbelievably depressing and bleak film about the origins of the IRA

Set it Off (1996)
A heist movie about four black women who’ve been screwed over too many times in their lives and decide to take something back for themselves.  I liked this a lot and it begins really well, but I think it gets very over-the-top and a bit superficial  towards the end.

Inception (2010)
Very entertaining as long as you don’t think about it too much.

Breakfast on Pluto (2005)
A film about gender and queer experience that just doesn’t quite have the courage of its convictions.  It seems to want to be about a trans woman without saying it’s about a trans woman.

House of Flying Daggers (2004)
Beautiful to look at with good twists, but I found the ending in a CGI snowstorm a bit silly.

And the worst films I watched all year

X-Men Three – The Last Stand (2006)
Quite an entertaining start soon leads into epic race and gender fail.  According to this film women who have power are mad and evil and have to be controlled by men until they get get loose, after which they must be literally penetrated to death by the men who “love” them. Oh, and most of the baddies are people of colour.

Dracula: Prince of Darkness(1966)
In which they cast Christopher Lee as Dracula and don’t allow him to speak. This is a big mistake.

The Wolfman (2010)
Where to begin?! How can three fairly decent actors make such an attrocious film? Benicio Del Toro, Anthony Hopkins and Emily Blunt aren’t even trying here and should be deeply ashamed of themselves.

The Oblong Box (1969)
Race fail, disability fail, nasty salacious bits to try and encourage you to keep watching a film you know you shouldn’t. Ugh!

10,000 BC (2008)
CGI mammoths cannot save this film. Race fail dreck.