This list is very much just for my own indulgence: The books I read this year did not correspond to any particular pattern, genre or time of publication, there is no system behind it and thus only a very arbitrary set of conditions for the candidates that could have made it onto this list in the first place. I’m very certain there is that one particular book out there that would have topped this list with ease, but that I simply never learned about, and likewise other books that are on this list which might not have made it if I’d read them at a different time, under different circumstances or in a different personal mood … Thus rather randomly, rather subjectively, and built on a mixture of personal taste and what little expertise my years of studying literature and general manic obsession with reading have brought me, these are the 10 greatest book I have read in 2019:
- The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy
This book is a mess, and for once, that fact works very much in its favor. There are tons of different narrative strands and forms that have little to nothing to do with one another, the language is at times so flowery that it’s hard to discern what is actually being said and at other times the minimalist non-speech of military reports. Sometimes it is a bizarre comedy, sometimes a coming of age drama, sometimes a portrait of queer culture in Indian culture, and then again a chronicle of the Kashmir conflict that is so bleak and violent at times that I literally had to put the book down repeatedly. The Ministry of Utmost Happiness tells the life-story of a trans-woman in the slums of New Dehli who builds a guesthouse for social outcasts in a graveyard, the triangular love story-cum-political-conspiracy of an activist caught between insurgents and Indian police forces in Kashmir, the exploits of a Muslim hustler who calls himself Saddam Hussein which are one more bizarre and hilarious than the other, and then also almost five decades of Indian politics, religious fanaticism, urbanization and conflicts from Ghandi to Mondi. It is absolutely chaotic, but widely immersive precisely because of that. Its topics feel real and relevant, the language gets more beautiful the farther the story progresses, it shocks but in the next moment balances those shocks with moments of surreal comedy. If you’re okay with reading about a man’s bones being systematically crushed in police custody in one moment and about a drunk diplomat freaking out because a stranger rode a horse into their living room in the next, then this might be a book for you very much unlike any other.
- Black Leopard, Red Wolf, by Marlon James
Of course, I love fantasy. I’ve always loved it and forever will, especially when it’s well-written and brings something new to the table that goes beyond dwarves slaughtering orcs because, well, orcs are evil and dwarves love slaughtering. This is precisely such a book.
Admittedly, some people might find Black Leopard, Red Wolf rather hard to read: It does not explain a thing to the reader, which is especially tricky because its world is largely built on African mythology and therefore full of powers, creatures and rules that most of us will not have read about before. Its protagonist, Tracker, has the ability to follow people’s scent across enormous distances, and is consequently hired by a group of shady royal functionaries, slave traders and witches to find a missing child that is maybe the heir to the throne … or maybe an enormous red herring … or maybe a lightning-bird-vampire in training … or maybe just a myth without foundation … And that’s the crux of it all. This book is decidedly non-linear, its world building complex but miscellaneous, the language is African patois for vast stretches, and its narrator Tracker will lie to us, hold back details, contradict his earlier statements and jump back and forth in the story.
But if you’re willing to put up with all that, this might quite probably be the most original fantasy novel to come out in 2019. Notwithstanding the language barrier it is amazingly written, and its so refreshing to for once read a fantasy novel that does not take place in an imaginary Europe but an imaginary Africa instead. it is also really, really violent and features perhaps the biggest amount of gay sex in any novel I’ve ever read, period, so once again: refreshing!
- The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
This is the story of an African American girl whose life takes hit after hit, brutally, inevitably, until there is nothing left but shambles. Some of these hits are small – casual racism, racialized beauty standard, bullies, a cat in the wrong place – and others so extreme that I will not spoil them here. All taken together, they result in a novel that left me with a broken heart and a wide open mouth. Needless to say that Toni Morrison is one of the greatest stylists of the last century, and what she does with words can only be described as music. The Bluest Eye is relatively short and took me only two days to read (which is perhaps a good thing, because at a greater length, the tragedies in it might simply become too much), but it feels like a gut punch. It is also so, so, so, so beautiful, and some of its observation about people – not just black people, not just Americans, but also humans in general – are just absolutely brilliant.
You don’t read this one for the story so much as for its execution and the thoughts behind it, but damn, does that execution and to those thoughts leave an impression!
- The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch
And from punches in the gut, we turn to the absolute opposite, even though … this book has its fair share of violence, of tragedy and darkness, but it is also just so much fucking fun to read! it is one of those stories that had me grinning all the way through just because it felt so immersive, so much like the fantasy world I had never before known I was missing.
At its core, The Lies of Locke Lamora is a heist thriller set in a magical version of Venice called Camorr. The titular hero is one in a group of professional conmen called “The Gentlemen Bastards” who come up with amazingly elaborate strategies to rob Camorr’s nobles of their fortunes, and meanwhile have to deal with various other members of the criminal underworld, the city’s secret service and an enigmatic stranger called “The Grey King”. There are masquerades, people jumping out of windows, murderous fish, bomb threats and tons of atmosphere. There are fantastically three-dimensional characters, some of whom will feel like friends, and others which you’ll wish you could stab yourself, there’s a story with so much momentum that it becomes impossible to stop reading, there are very cool twists on established fantasy tropes, competent writing and some brilliant jokes. I also recently read the first of six intended sequels, called Red Seas under Red Skies, which did not quite reach the bar set by this debut novel, but was still easily enough fun for me to be happy that there’s five more books of Locke Lamora’s adventures awating.
- The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter
This book is a collection of short stories that are re-workings of popular fairytales. There is Bluebeard, Beauty and the Beast, Puss in Boots, Red Riding Hood, and several werewolves and vampires. What I loved about them was that, while they are all reworked in highly subversive ways – women characters get a lot more agency, traditional beauty standards are systematically deconstructed, power structures laid bare, and natural facts such as sexuality and menstruation aren’t simply swept under the rug as they are in all contemporary children’s renditions of those fairytales – they also all epitomize the qualities that makes them fascinating in the first place. Carter does a magnificent job at working out the gothic wonders of those stories: Bluebeard becomes a complexly layered psychopath into whose castle you would never even want to set a foot after this, the Beast is both attractive and lonely in a way that has nothing romanticized about it, and the wonders of its castle will take a simple peasant girl’s breath away. She is a fantastic writer whose able to do all the highbrow antics with ease – references to opera and the Greek classics, a pastiche of commedia del arte pieces, poetic descriptions and deep philosophical insights to sustain an infinite number of academic papers – but who also clearly revels in the (sometimes pitch-black) magic of those stories. What we get in The Bloody Chamber are therefore essentially more realistic, grown-up versions of the stories we grew up with, which we can take at face-value and whose darker implications aren’t just brushed over with Disney censorship, but who also still contain all the monsters, castles, wonders, horrors and redemption moments we could wish for.
- Ulysses by James Joyce
The thing is … this book could easily stand at the very top of this list, or not on it at all. It is absolutely insane. It took me half a year, the help of an audiobook and numerous explanative videos to get through it and have some idea of what the hell is going on at any given point. It is, without doubt, one of the most impressive literary feats ever accomplished: the way Joyce juggles with references, styles, registers and unorthodox techniques over nearly a thousand pages is breathtaking, unfair, insane, all at once. Technically, Ulysses tells simply one day in the lives of Leopold Bloom and a few of his acquaintances walking through an early 20th century Dublin. Yes, technically. And other than that, there are sentences running on for dozens of pages, a chapter written entirely in sound effects, virtually every political event that was in any way relevant a hundred years ago in any corner of the world, William Shakespeare’s ghost, speaking doorknobs, cannibals, Trojan heroes, gender-switched BDSM fantasies, Old English poetry, theories of linguistics, psychoanalysis, particle physics, astronomy, Catholicism and witchcraft; there are brawls, music, public masturbation, sections dedicated to numerous organs of the human body, and, and, and …
In short, there is absolutely no way anyone will get through this book or will enjoy any of it without a ridiculous amount of effort. It is also, doubtlessly, one of the most brilliant things ever written, and eventually only leaves you with the question: If something brilliant stands on the shelf and no one reads it, is it still brilliant?
- Viriconium, by M. John Harrison
Sorry, but the books aren’t going to get much easier from here on. In many ways, Viriconium presents exactly the same conundrum as Ulysses, only perhaps with the craziness dialed a few steps back.
It is, technically, four short novels and half a dozen short stories that are collected in one volume, all of which deal with a fantastical city sometimes called “Viriconium” and sometimes “Uriconium” in some way or other, and all of which contain a number of other common elements like leitmotivs: there’s a dwarf in almost every story, there are mechanical birds, strange futuristic knives that remind you of light sabers, there an inn called the “Bistro Californium”, and there are quite a few dancers, sometimes with the same names. But other than that, nothing ever really stays the same.
As far as I understand, M. John Harrison explicitly wrote this book as an attack on obsessive world building in fantasy literature, and he sure as hell succeeded in that. While names, people and places reappear from story to story, they look and act different each time around, have different topographies and backstories. Sometimes the dead return, and at other times they never existed at all. Sometimes, the setting is real life London and sometimes a post-apocalyptic future. The language likewise changes constantly: Some of the stories are straightforward, albeit still masterfully written, while there is at least one novella in Viriconium about which I still have no idea what it was actually about other than that it had something to do with insects … But the result of all this is, to my own surprise, gorgeously hypnotic. It’s fantasy, yes, but it’s more like a piece of abstract art, something that you feel rather than pinpoint. It certainly helps that, hot damn, Harrison is a wizard when it comes to language, maybe the single greatest stylist I’ve ever read in any genre, and whatever he chooses to write, he writes perfectly.
Once again, this book is definitely no easy read, but its one of the most impressive things I’ve ever laid my hands on.
- The Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe
A small step down on the ladder of complexity, but only a small one … Technically speaking, The Book of the New Sun is actually four books, but they are all rather short individually and meant to be read in one go. They tell the story of Severian, an apprentice of a guild of professional torturers, who is exiled for showing mercy to a prisoner, and who thereafter travels a magical continent that is in equal parts Middle Earth and the world from Blade Runner.
The brilliant thing about this book is that, as such, it reads rather easily. The language is beautiful but never as opaque as in Viriconium; and there are enough only slightly altered fantasy tropes to keep the strangeness from getting too much. Here you have a hero with a magical blade who is some kind of chosen one, here you have a love-story, here a rebellion against a tyrannical ruler, and then there are some evil gods at the edge of it all …
And then you start thinking back about what you’ve actually read.
You start piecing things together.
You start paying attention to things you previously only glanced over.
And all of a sudden, magnificently, like one of those magic-eye pictures, the whole story becomes something entirely different … It is one of the greatest wow-experiences I’ve ever had with a book.
I don’t want to reveal anything more here, because this needs to be experienced for oneself. The Book of the New Sun is like a literary magic trick, while also being a masterfully written, thoroughly suspenseful fantasy/sci-fi epic. It takes the best of Nabokov and Melville, and then adds monsters to the mix. Severian, the book’s protagonist, speaks with a tongue of honey – but always remember that there is nothing at all that forces him to actually speak the truth.
- V by Thomas Pynchon
This is one of those rare books that has absolutely no right to be anywhere near as good as it is. The premise is simply too preposterous: We get stories of bohemian New York City life, an Italian spy thriller, insights into the colonial atrocities of South Africa, a quest for a mythical Tibetan underground city, robotic soldiers with faces made from ivory, a priest who lives in the sewers to convert the rats away from Marxism, dark family secrets, two world wars, plastic nose surgery and so many bonkers random tangents and side-stories that it makes your head spin. But Thomas Pynchon, you get the feeling, must have a whole barrage of souls to sell to the devil for literary skill, because he nails every single one of them. Mind you, this is the man’s debut novel, which he wrote in his early twenties! It’s bizarre, miscellaneous, pointless and constantly over the top, but it is also so masterfully executed that it becomes like watching a trapeze artist spin and spin and spin, just to pull off those tricks no human should reasonably be able to pull off.
I guess V. is another one of those instance where you’ll either love it or put it aside after a couple of pages. It is certainly one of the strangest things out there, like something James Joyce might have written if he’d been addicted to Speed. But I cannot help but admire the sheer artistry of this. Pynchon does all at once, and no matter if he writes about molecular biology, colonial sentiments or Hegelian philosophy, he sticks every single landing, seems to know everything there is to know about any given topic, and uses his preposterous premises more as a challenge to himself than anything else. I’m mind blown, that’s for sure. But I also needed to switch to a couple of episodes of How I Met Your Mother after this, simply to make reality balance out again.
- Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke
This is one of those rare, magnificent novels that simply does everything right. It made me feel like I feel about my very favorite books of all time: Harry Potter, the Witcher series, The Neverending Story, and perhaps The Golden Compass. Books that I would recommend to anyone unconditionally, because anyone will find access to them and discover something precious, no matter if they’re a child, a manual laborer, a literature professor or someone who’s never touched a fantasy book in their lives.
In summary, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is about two magicians in early 19th century England who gradually bring magic back into the public eye. They are strangers at first, then friends, then bitter rivals, and then … well, let’s not give too much away for now.
A lot happens in this book, but none of it ever feels like too much. The story is easy to follow throughout, the characters are so memorable and fully fledged that it’s no problem to keep track of them even if they appear by the dozens. We’re taken from northern England to London to the Napoleonic wars to Venice to the land of fairies. We’ll encounter King George III, Napoleon Bonaparte, Lord Byron and Lord Wellington along with countless fictional personages. Real and alternate history are woven together seamlessly, but you don’t have to know any of it to understand what’s going on. There is no open sexuality or violence, but enough sinister implications to give you sleepless night if you manage to catch them. Perhaps the most terrifying instance of fairies I have ever encountered. Whole baskets of Easter eggs to uncover. A fantasy world that you simply want to go play and lose yourself in, which manages to at the same time say a lot about the realities of England, about the effects of history, ambition, war and Imperialism. Language that is purposefully antiquated but never hard to read. Characters that you’ll fall in love with, and a plot that resolves in all the most satisfying ways while also remaining multi-layered and completely unpredictable for most of the novel. Footnotes that sometimes contain stories within stories. Wit but never arrogance, humor but never silliness, magic that never feels arbitrary, and, as just a small bonus, a BBC television show that does everything right in translating this novel to the screen.
This book, simply put, is the reason why I love reading.
Some honorable mentions that, even though they were fantastic in their own right, just didn’t quite make the cut:
The Road by Cormac McCarthy
Crossing the River by Caryll Phillips
The Rules of Attraction by Brett Easton Ellis
A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James
Fragile Things by Neil Gaiman