The Reading Life – 2019

January 31, 2020 | No Comments

Books 2019

Let’s face it, the reading life never disappoints even if many things in our private lives (like my utter inability to get this first sentence to format properly), and unfolding in the wider world, persist in being utterly crap. During 2019 I discovered the poets Wislawa Szymborska and W.S. Graham, and this alone could define a ‘good’ year. Combined with Alfie, the new addition to our family, it has been a very good year. After mourning the passing of my beloved Dougie and swearing off dog-ownership as too heartbreaking to consider again, I gave in. After all, life can either be shite, or be shite plus a dog….



I didn’t match 2018’s grand slam of over one hundred books, partly because I wrote more and read less. Given how hard I’ve found it to get to the page, I see this dip in consumption as a win. The 79 or so books on the list below (I’ve counted the titles several times and not once come up with the same total…) fell again, accidentally, into a gender split of roughly fifty-fifty. Go figure. Less gratifying is that I’m still not reading enough writers of colour, or works in translation. Do better, girlfriend.

When deciding what to read, I often (lazily) refer to a list of go-to writers—Rachel Cusk, W.G. Sebald, Ali Smith, Kevin Barry, Deborah Levy—because I know they’ll never let me down. But I love adding new literary ‘besties,’ and now I have the works of Olga Tokarczuk, Olivia Laing (gifted in both fiction and non-fiction), Elizabeth Hardwick (I know, I should have read her before now, right?) and Ottessa Moshfegh, to hoover up with fangirl delight. Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation was a particular stand-out—managing to be both heartbreaking and hilarious—a combination hard to pull off and disappointingly rare. And literary bestie Jo Baker wrote another wonderful book, The Body Lies, (after her remarkable A Country Road, A Tree), which again didn’t receive anywhere near the recognition it deserved.

Form. Form is what excites me the most at the moment. Perfidious Albion, The Order of the Day, Flights…. Amazing books written in completely different ways.

Given I spend a lot of time simmering with rage over the continuing madness of Brexit, Trump, and rampant inequality, I don’t whether I should feel resentful or grateful that the books on my list by Fintal O’Toole (Heroic Failure) and Caroline Cruado-Perez (Invisible Women) have kept me on the boil.

And just as I needed some chunky historical-murder-intrique-romance diversion from all the bad news, I finally discovered C.J. Sansome’s Shardlake series set in the late 15th and early 16th centuries. I’ve ploughed through the first four, and I think I’ve only two left to go. I’ll need to find a replacement series of entertaining page-turners pretty sharpish. Sansome and I have very different views on Scottish politics, but I admire his writing enormously. Dorothy Dunnett set the gold standard of this style of literary adventure novel with the Lymond Chronicles and she has yet to be matched. If you haven’t read her yet, run—don’t walk—-to your nearest independent bookstore.

Although I’d heard Gordon Burns’ Happy Like Murderers being compared to Capote’s In Cold Blood as another outstanding example of new journalism, I’d avoided reading it up till now due to its subject matter. It’s a remarkable investigation, (if controversial, due to Burns’s somewhat flexible notions of veracity), into the life of the serial killers Fred and Rosemary West. I highly recommend it—but with hefty trigger warnings. Somehow Burns managed to simultaneously humanise and indict the Wests, though what I found even more horrifying was his forensic examination of the society in which their despicable crimes had been both enabled and ignored. I’ll never forget Happy Like Murderers, and I never want to read it again.

So, what’s next? In 2020 I’ll attempt to read more books written prior to 1950. I’ve become too dazzled by the new and buzzy to the detriment of reading broadly. And second, I must visit my own ‘to read’ pile before heading to the bookstore. Even though I have north of fifty un-read books sitting on a shelf (OK, way, waaaay north of 50, that’s a downright fib, I’m too embarrassed to mention the actual number), I tend to reach for my latest purchase, as if books, like carry-outs, grow cold. After a while my ‘to-read’ pile seems stale—like new clothes I’ve hung in the wardrobe without clipping the labels off—as if thrills are confined to browsing and picking, rather than wearing.

I’m writing this on 31st January, 2020. It’s probable that by the end of today Trump will have been acquitted of high crimes and misdemeanours and I will no longer, apparently, be a European.

Words may be the only thing that lie between us and madness.


  • The Peculiar Life of a Lonely Postman by Denis Theriault
  • Everything Under by Daisy Johnson*
  • Drive Your Plough Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk*
  • The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker*
  • Dissolution by C.J. Sansom
  • Tiger by Polly Clarke
  • Annie John by Jamaica Kincaid
  • Transcription by Kate Atkinson
  • The Black Prince by Iris Murdoch
  • Now We Are Dead by Stuart MacBride
  • How to Be a Public Author by Francis Plug*
  • Cousin Pons by Honore de Balzac
  • Wild Fire by Ann Cleeves
  • Normal People by Sally Rooney
  • Now We Shall Be Entirely Free by Andrew Millar*
  • Lethal White by Robert Galbraith
  • The Hunters by James Salter
  • The Way of All Flesh by Ambrose Parry
  • The Tartar Steppe by Dino Buzatti*
  • Ulverton by Adam Thorpe
  • Dark Fire by C.J. Sansom
  • My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh*
  • Fragrant Harbour by John Lancaster
  • Sovereign by C.J. Sansom
  • Southern Mail / Night Flight by Antoine de Saint-Exuprey*
  • Big Sky by Kate Atkinson
  • Flights by Olga Tokarczuk*
  • Frankisstein by Jeanette Winterson
  • The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead
  • Night Boat to Tangier by Kevin Barry
  • The World of Suzie Wong by Richard Mason
  • The Order of the Day by Eric Vuillard*
  • Conviction by Denise Mina
  • The Man Who Saw Everything by Deborah Levy*
  • Perfidious Albion by Sam Byers
  • My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinka Braithwaite
  • Sleepless Nights by Elizabeth Hardwick*
  • Revelation by C.J. Sansome
  • A Treachery of Spies by Manda Scott
  • The Dutch House by Anne Patchett
  • The Body Lies by Jo Baker*
  • Crudo by Olivia Laing*
  • Spring by Ali Smith*
  • Lanny by Max Porter


  • Poverty Safari by Darren McGarvery
  • Notes on a Nervous Planet by Matt Haig
  • The Minister and The Murderer by Stuart Kelly
  • Notes to Self by Emilie Pine
  • Educated by Tara Westover*
  • The Spy and The Traitor by Ben MacIntyre*
  • The Library Book by Susan Orlean
  • Stet by Diane Athill
  • The Order of Time by Carlo Rovelli
  • The Lonely City by Olivia Laing*
  • The Story of Alice by Robert Douglas-Fairhurst
  • Constellations by Sinead Gleason*
  • Invisible Women by Caroline Cruado Perez*
  • Dadland by Keggie Carew
  • Dreyer’s English by Benjamin Dreyer*
  • Seduction and Betrayal by Elizabeth Hardwick
  • How to Write an Autobiographical Novel by Alexander Chee
  • A Place in the the Country by W.G. Sebald
  • Out of Sheer Rage by Geoff Dyer
  • National Service by Richard Vinen
  • Happy Like Murderers by Gordon Burns*
  • Meander, Spiral, Explode by Jane Allison
  • Coventry by Rachel Cusk*
  • Across the Land and the Water by W.G. Sebald
  • Jog On by Bella Mackie
  • How to Come Alive Again by Beth McColl
  • A Certain Idea of France by Julian Jackson
  • Heroic Failure by Fintan O’Toole*


  • The Complete Poems by Keith Douglas
  • Map: Collected and Last Poems by Wistawa Szymborska*
  • New Selected Poems by W.S. Graham*
  • Selected Poems 1908-1969 by Ezra Pound
  • Deaf Republic by Ilya Kaminsky*
  • Your Silence Will Not Protect You (incl. essays) by Audre Lorde
  • The Shadow of Sirius by W.S. Merwin*

* recommended