My Top Ten Books of the Year

The ten best books I read in 2019.

Becky Chambers, Record of a Spaceborn Few (2018)

Book cover shows a human figure in silhouette sitting on the ground looking up at a starry night sky.

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)

Book cover shows a portrait of Jane Austen in silhouette surrounded by a stylised flower design.

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)

Book cover is a painting of a wooden door opened onto a landscape.

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)

Book cover is a black and white photograph of people in a 1950s diner.

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)

Book cover is a photograph of a woman in Victorian dress standing in a street at night

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)

Book cover is an image of a water tank with a Christmas star on it

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)

Book cover is an image of two glasses of martini and an ash tray with two cigarettes

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)

Book cover is a painting of a red sun reflecting on water

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)

Book cover is a stylised design featuring a woman holding a book

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)

Book cover is an image of a woman's face surrounded by a snake-like design.

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.

Sarah Schulman, The Cosmopolitans (2016) #20BooksofSummer

A copy of The Cosmopolitans resting on a brown wood table. The cover features a black and white photograph of a diner from the 1950s.

Set in Greenwich Village in 1958, The Cosmopolitans centres on the relationship between Bette, a white secretary, and her neighbour, Earl, a black, gay actor.

Earl and Bette have developed a close friendship over the course of thirty years, a friendship based in their shared experiences of being ejected, unjustly, from their families and having to make their own way in a hostile world. They have created a family of choice, eating dinner together, providing sympathy, celebrating birthdays and Christmas. But, Earl and Bette are also people who have, in a sense, become “stuck”, remaining in the same patterns as the world changes around them.

At this historical turning point, just before the beginning of the 1960s, Bette and Earl’s lives are invaded by Bette’s young cousin, Hortense, an aspiring actress whose disruptive presence will explode all the pain this relationship has been designed to contain.

The encounter with Hortense creates a crucible, revealing the truth that despite their long friendship, Bette and Earl have never really understood each other’s pain. They haven’t truly seen each other. Bette simply doesn’t fully understand the extent of Earl’s anguish and loneliness, as a middle-aged, failed actor, who’s life is heavily curtailed by homophobia and racism. Earl, meanwhile, does not truly understand the way that Bette’s family’s betrayal has frozen her in a kind of emotional limbo, endlessly waiting for her opportunity to make the people who hurt her tell the truth.

The Cosmopolitans beautifully evokes the world of 1950’s New York and the emotional lives of its characters. It’s one of the most insightful novels about human relationships that I’ve ever read. This story, which has just a handful of characters, delves deeply and uncompromisingly into the nature of love and friendship. It is about cruelty and lies; it is about truth and accountability. It is very much a novel about ethics and picks up the theme of “shunning” that recurs in Sarah Schulman’s fiction and non-fiction. It asks a lot of difficult questions: why do we tell lies and destroy each other’s lives? What does it mean to love another person? What does it mean to really see another person? Without trying to reduce The Cosmopolitans to a “message”, I took away these thoughts: trying to annihilate another person in response to our own pain is never a good strategy; we have to talk to make things better, and healing can only happen when something is made right.

The Cosmopolitans is an intertextual work that engages with Honore de Balzac’s 1846 novel, Cousin Bette, which sadly I haven’t read. It also speaks to the work of James Baldwin and, at the end, even becomes a little meta in relation to the author herself.

Recommended.

A Tribute to Ursula Le Guin

I missed this at the time it was published, but want to flag up Vandana Singh’s lovely and moving post, True Journey is Return: A Tribute to Ursula K. Le Guin

The best tribute I can give Le Guin, as a writer, is to honor her teaching and be conscious of what messages I’m putting out into the world.  Am I asking the hard questions?  Are there hard questions I’m avoiding?

Jenny Factor, Unraveling at the Name (2002)

Image shows the cover of Jenny Factor's poetry collection Unraveling at the Name, which features a single white lily standing in a clear glass vase

These dense, formal poems demand a lot of attention. They need to be read slowly and thoughtfully. Presented in three parts, Unraveling at the Name takes the reader on a deeply personal and uncompromisingly sexual journey through the experiences of young womanhood, marriage, awakening same-sex desire, divorce and single-motherhood. The experiences described by the speaker are common enough, but by elevating them through highly formal poetic structures Jenny Factor captures deep emotional truths about how life feels. Marilyn Hacker, blurbing the book, praisingly calls her use of the fifteen-sonnet heroic crown an “extravagant gesture”. and I think that’s the precisely the point.

Unraveling at the Name is Factor’s only collection and I really hope she publishes another one day.

Poetry Foundation, Jenny Factor