For anyone looking for last-minute present ideas or just a new book for the new year, our writers recommend their favourite reads of 2019.
Having worked as a writer with a women’s theatre group dedicated to women offenders and ex-offenders, I sometimes think that most ex-offenders are invisible. My book of the year, Hope Walks By Me (Barbican), is a collection of poetry and prose by the incarcerated. Assembled by the novelist/poet Russ Litten and writer Josephine Metcalf, it is clear, direct, powerful.
Published amid the Mueller report fallout, Dorian Lynskey’s The Ministry of Truth: A Biography of George Orwell’s 1984 (Picador) deftly reveals the grim contemporary relevance of Orwell’s masterpiece, exploring its influences and cultural impact while also bringing the flesh and blood author out from the novel’s shadow. As 2019 has rolled on, FaceApp, ‘send her back!’, Hong Kong riot police, prorogation and @CCHQPress propaganda have made this dissection of Orwell’s totalitarian dystopia increasingly essential, fascinating and horrifying
Theresa May cried when she learnt the result of the EU referendum. This is one of many revelations in May at 10 (Biteback), Anthony Seldon’s excellent biography. Failure is a lot more fascinating than success, and May’s was Shakespearean in scale. One can only wonder what kind of PM she might have been if it weren’t for the encumbrance of Brexit.
In James Sallis’ languid and dreamlike crime novels, plot and characters drift in the air like smoke. Sarah Jane (No Exit), the tale of a small-town America cop with a past, is typically sparse, menacing and keenly observed. Honourable mentions: Heaven, My Home by Attica Locke (Profile); The New Iberia Blues by James Lee Burke (Orion)
No less revelatory than the first volume of Lucian Freud’s biography (published in September), is Lucian Freud Herbarium (Prestel), by Giovanni Aloi, dedicated to the artist’s drawings and paintings of plants. He was fascinated by them, and he mined them for character just as he did all his subjects – who could forget the monstrously present yucca plant in Interior in Paddington, 1951? Drawing has always been the means by which artists think, which is why studies and sketches are so fascinating to look at. Ways of Drawing: Artists’ Perspectives and Practices (Thames & Hudson), introduced by Julian Bell, brings together thoughts, observations and practical instruction from artists and teachers connected with the Royal Drawing School, in a book that is as much a manual for artists as an absorbing retreat for art lovers.
I enjoyed The Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace-Wells (Allen Lane). This is a sober account of the likely impacts of global heating. An earlier New Yorker article by Wallace-Wells caused – if you’ll forgive the figure of speech – something of a meltdown on the web, and this is his book-length expansion of its minatory content. The prospects are indeed deeply dark – but Wallace-Wells remains Pollyannaish, expecting some technological fix, or humanity to pull its collective socks up so high, we hoik ourselves into a heavenly new state of heretofore unimaginable altruism and cooperation. My money’s on a real rather than virtual meltdown.
My book of the year is Agent Running in the Field by John le Carré (Viking, £20). When a confident stranger, Ed, challenges badminton club champ Nat, the new connection finds itself under scrutiny. Nat’s secret service years are in decline, until an SOS from the Russia department. It’s classic Le Carré, its teasing twists seasoned with the author’s own contempt for Brexit, furiously voiced by livid Ed.
I confess I haven’t done much reading this year as I’ve spent most of the time trying to get a book written, specifically Terra’s War, the final part of my science fiction trilogy. What I have read has been mainly non-fiction; both of Michael Wolff’s Trump White House exposés (Fire and Fury and Siege [Henry Holt], and on a lighter and louder note I got round to reading my pal Andrew O’Neill’s A History Of Heavy Metal (Headline).
I read so many newspapers that I’m usually behind the curve when it comes to reading new books until they come out in paperback. Strange to report in 2019, I managed to resist David Cameron’s memoirs, For the Record (William Collins), and Anthony Seldon’s biography of Theresa May. But I was greatly impressed by Richard Powers’ entrancing 2018 novel, The Overstory (WW Norton) which won a Pulitzer for combining narrative pace with a powerfully moving indictment of mankind’s reckless destruction of the planet’s trees. Don’t worry, trees, is its fatalistic message, you’ll still be here long after we’ve destroyed ourselves.
It wasn’t published this year but Empress Dowager Cixi by Jung Chang (Vintage Books) is easily the best I read in 2019 so why limit yourself to recent dross like Cameron’s memoirs? The Empress Dowager is possibly the most remarkable woman ever to have ruled a great nation – China for the entire late 19th century in an age where women could not be seen, let alone rule, in most of the Forbidden City. Cixi, a concubine, manipulated and cajoled herself to be one of the most powerful rulers China has ever known. Her reign is vital to understanding Mao and modern China, the great conundrum of the 21st century. Jung Chang, the revelatory biographer of Mao, does another X-ray job here.
My book of the year is The Great Romantic: Cricket and the Golden Age of Neville Cardus (Hodder), by Duncan Hamilton. Rightly feted as one of the greatest ever cricket writers, Neville Cardus’s mellifluent prose went beyond mere descriptions of events to change sports writing forever. This fascinating character is beautifully served by a wonderful book.