[Review] The Year in Books 2019 — James Mcloughlin

2019, eh. That was quite a year. A heartening one for supporters of progressive politics and a boon for the environment. The year it started to go well. Or: not. The world in 2019 became (or remained) almost unbearable at times, and definitely so at others. 

Luckily for those of us yearning for escape, books were there once again like quiet little paper portals ready to take us humbly to other worlds. Even more fortunately, for me personally, I found myself with buckets of extra time to read this year on account of a typically-unreasonable London commute.

Traipsing from Sydenham to Woodside Park, Monday through Friday, could have been torture. It often was. But I was able to make the most of the time taken to read more than I have in a long, long while. 

At the outset of 2019, I set myself a challenge: 12 books in 12 months. Not an amount demanding superlative assessment, of course. But my reading pace has suffered much in recent times, thanks to time-consuming irritants like work, play and sleep. 

It gives me great pride, then, to announce that I surpassed my goal. I read 19 whole books in 2019. 19 in ’19, if you will. Here, then, is the rundown of my Year In Books (Ed: Yes, please do get on with it), with a glance to the year ahead.

I dropped my previous pretences and allowed myself to indulge whatever the literary buffet presented to me. In other words, I chose not to re-read Hemingway and Orwell for the millionth time, but to branch out and photosynthesise from a diverse array of literary light sources.

Nevertheless, the year started with a familiar name. Cormac McCarthy’s The Orchard Keeper, his debut novel, wasn’t exactly a new frontier for me. Familiar with his distinctive style from later publications, it was interesting to see its germination here, in a somewhat scattered story following a young boy and the outlaw that killed his father, as their narratives draw together towards a typically violent conclusion. Having worked back to this book from his later masterpieces, it naturally compared less favourably. Everything that came to fruition in blistering tales like Blood Meridian and The Border Trilogy is here in seed form: the mythic, archetypal characters, the epic and archaic prose, the senseless violence, the impenetrable protagonist.  It’s just not quite ready to blossom. This is one for McCarthy lovers and aficionados, but it’s probably too dense and unfocused for the casuals.

As ever, when I’ve finished a McCarthy novel, I need something a little lighter, in style if not in theme. I ventured into the world of biography for my next book, with Stuart: A Life Backwards, by Alexander Masters. A riveting, insightful and at times heartbreaking portrait of a troubled man inhabiting a desperate world. Masters travels back in time through Stuart’s life to see if we can ever really discern the starting point for addiction, mental health issues, and homelessness. It never sugar-coats Stuart’s delinquency, but provides a piercing insight into the chaotic and hellish world populated by those who fall through society’s cracks. This book was extraordinarily moving and, as is the mark of any great work of literature, gave me an entirely new perspective on a perennial and thorny issue. 

Next up: Milkman by Anna Burns. Every year, my Mum despairs of what to buy me for Christmas and asks me outright what I want. I usually send back a link to the Booker prize shortlist, a vain and transient attempt to keep up with what’s it in contemporary literature. Thus, Milkman made it into my Christmas 2018 stocking. As winner of the Booker in 2018, I went into it with simultaneously high and dubious expectations. You know such a book is going to be technically and formulaically interesting. What is usually doubtful is the quality of the story and the enjoyability of the book. Milkman lived up to all of that. 

It’s not a bad book. In some senses it is fascinating. But I did not enjoy reading it. Perhaps that was the point. It tells the story of an unnamed young woman in Belfast during the Troubles. She struggles to remain aloof and separate from the turmoil around her. Burns is brilliant at transcending the story beyond its very specific time and place, burrowing into the psychological trauma and communal neuroses of such social and political conflicts. It’s certainly an admirable intention. It’s just that the execution is exponentially tedious. At the 10,000th mention of ‘maybe-boyfriend’ and the Milkman affair, it’s hard not to roll one’s eyes. Probably a deserving Booker winner, in all fairness. Just don’t expect to be enthused through the pages. 

You might expect that I had had enough of ‘maybe-pretentiousness’ after this. Not so. I took up a battered, charity-shop copy of Bret Easton Ellis’ The Informers. I like Easton Ellis. American Psycho is awesome. This is not. I felt as bored as his characters very quickly. More a loosely-connected collection of shorts than a novel, The Informers struggles to summon the shocking brilliance and dismissive brutality of Ellis’ best work. Yes, the excessive drug-use, uber-hip, rich LA kids and angsty, self-destructive behaviour are all there, present and correct. It just doesn’t land in the way that, say, Less Than Zero does. And that cult-y, human vampire narrative thread is just…ridiculous. Ellis’ style, as ever, is accomplished and eminently readable. But this novel just isn’t very good.

By now I felt clubbed by austere protagonists and pretentious plotlines. As excitement built for Season 8 of Game of Thrones, I decided to give the books a try, with series opener A Song of Ice and Fire. George R.R. Martin has built a fantasy world every bit as detailed and nuanced as Tolkien’s Middle Earth. The prose style is similar, if a little more accessible: lengthy descriptions of everything from clothes to nature and architecture. It’s also a sweeping, epic moral tale in the mould of Lord of The Rings, with slightly more adult themes. Having seen the first series of the TV show already, there was little in the overall plot here to surprise me, but it was a rabbit hole of mythology and adventure that I relished getting lost in. After the tedium of Ellis and Burns, it was so refreshing to get lost in a story the way I used to as a kid. It’s about 3 times longer than Milkman, but reading it felt 3 times quicker because I actually enjoyed it. There’s surely some message here, kids. 

Anyway, I’m nothing if not quietly paranoid about tube-strangers judging me on the sophistication of my book choices. With this in mind, I changed tack after Thrones, and opted for Martin Amis’ The Pregnant Widow. There are probably many ‘problematic’ things about this novel. Amis is like that. Nevertheless, I loved it. There are several sentences, paragraphs, sequences that are so well written they amount to works of art on their own. This sees a softer Amis, charting the effects of the sexual revolution of the 60s on a cast of characters spending the summer in an Italian villa, 1970. There’s much objectification of the female body, which doesn’t necessarily sit well with contemporary perspectives. But there is little misogyny here. Instead, Amis draws a shattering and original portrait of the change in women’s attitudes to sex during the sexual revolution and the emotional effect this has on the dynamic between men and women. I loved this novel. It was intellectually stimulating and effortlessly entertaining, which I suppose is just about the highest praise one can bestow on a work. 

Next up, a satire of pretence. Paul Murray’s An Evening of Long Goodbyes is a rich, witty, character-driven novel with bolts of lasting poignancy. It follows Charles Hythloday, a man born into an upper-class Irish family fallen on hard times. Charles’ life of ease and delusions of grandeur and sophistication are about to come crumbling down like the decrepit mansion in which he lives. Luckily, we’re around to witness it. While the story meanders somewhat around the middle, this remains a gripping and hilarious tale that eludes prediction, and delights in throwing social antitheses together, as with Charles and his nemesis-cum-ally Frank. The dialogue is stunning in its tone and veracity and the character arc transformative. Another Christmas present, this one, and what a gift. A great find, by an author I hadn’t previously heard of, and will surely look out for in the future. 

Thumbing along the pile of Christmas books, I next found myself reading Stephen Kelman’s Pigeon English. It might be a lazy way to sum a novel up thus, but if you like The Curious Incident of The Dog in The Night-Time, you’ll enjoy this. It’s not as good, but the tone of voice and perspective is the same, the world looming large over a young and bemused protagonist. Harrison Opoku’s first-person narration is infectious, as he tells of his plot to bring the perpetrator of a knife-crime murder to justice. At times, it can get grating, as in the passages narrated by…a pigeon. But overall, this was a solid story of friendship, adventure and acclimation to a strange new home. 

Having first read Haruki Murakami in 2018, with A Wild Sheep Chase, I returned for more with perhaps his most famous work, Norwegian Wood. A more minimalist (if such a claim could be possible) novel, with less supernatural elements than others in his back catalogue, there is little in the way of inner mental exploration here, but in the voluptuous descriptions of setting, there is the room for contemplation that marks Murakami out as a master of his form. This breathing room enables the reader ample reflection on the themes and plot – essentially a love story between two tortured souls -, lending the emotional pay-offs a staggering, gut-punch weight at times. I often feel like I’ve never related to a protagonist more than some of Murakami’s, and that makes me want to spend time with them. Unfortunately, I’m no good at moderation, and this one was over far too quickly.

Once it was, I turned to another random charity shop purchase: Ian McEwan’s Amsterdam. I must admit, having seen McEwan’s name wonkily adorning many a second-hand shelf, I had assumed him in the same bracket as your James Pattersons, your Lee Childs, your Jodi Picoults. Not so. Amsterdam – in which two old friends form a euthanasia pact, but subsequently see their friendship turn sour – is a novel awash with moral dilemmas. Its Trumpian politicians and bungling press make it a very prescient work, for its time. The prose is conversational, easy – you could finish this in a day – and, although the ending is somewhat melodramatic, it was a rewarding read. Glad to be proven wrong, Ian. 

Not content with actually enjoying most of my literary choices so far, I thought I might torture myself with some classic Russian literature to even things out. I jest. War and Peace – or the 100 pages or so I’ve read – is good. Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Notes From Underground, however, is not. It is masterful in some ways, with profound psychological penetration into its protagonist. It’s just that the protagonist is so irritating, and the prose – a dense, annoying monologue – so dull, no enjoyment could be had in reading this novel. This was simultaneously the shortest and the hardest book of the year to finish. It felt like being stuck with a basement-dwelling neckbeard incel with a penchant for classical speech. I’ll give it one thing though: it was memorable. 

Scarred from this foray into the unknown, I turned back to what I know for my following book. Killing Commendatore, by Haruki Murakami, is a sizeable novel. It is also, in many ways, classic Murakami. However, there are some edgy bits that don’t work – whenever the narrator brought up the young girl’s breasts in unnecessary detail, yet again, I found myself edging the covers together in case the commuter next to me got the wrong impression. The ending is a bit of a slog – the whole thing could have done with about 200 pages lopped off. Nevertheless, and this goes back to what I said before about Murakami’s protagonists, I relished opening Commendatore up every day, and sinking back into that slightly bizarre, labyrinthine world. 

Book number 13 on the list was a re-read. I first read Catch-22 when I was 18, in my first year of uni and painfully aware of how few ‘great works of literature’ I had read. I liked it at the time, but I’m not sure I quite got it. This time round, I felt much more empathy for Yossarian, and the humour landed every time. The broken-record loop of existential chaos, nihilism and absurd illogicality of war is overwhelming at times, but it builds emotion upon emotion until you’re left breathless at the end. A truly timeless classic, unmatched for wit or incision of theme ever since. 

Next, another re-read. Blood Meridian, as you should already know, is a masterpiece. I referenced it above. It is hard to do justice to this novel. Suffice to say, I think my attention span has improved since last I read it, because I was more immersed this time round, taking every step with Glanton’s gang, feeling the pop of every bullet, parched with every desert crossing. The Judge has to be one of the great modern villains, and there can be few more chilling edicts than ‘that which exists without my knowledge exists without my consent’. And that ending…well. Just read it. 

Zadie Smith is one of my favourite authors. Swing Time did not alter that. Her prose is just so easy to read, her observations of that quality and languidness that would have you believing you could just as easily do it yourself. Some bits of this are out of focus, slightly, and it doesn’t quite live up to others such as White Teeth and NW. Nevertheless, it remains a staggering panorama of a life spent living in-between. 

On to another heavyweight of British literature next, with Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity. This is, at times, a charmingly offbeat, amusing love story. At times. Rob, the main character, becomes very grating somewhere around the second third of the book. It’s funny at times, in a cynical way. But it does drag. Most of the other characters are endearing, though, and it’s a satisfyingly unique spin on a well-trodden break-up-realise mistakes-get back together again narrative. 

Having gorged on Amis earlier in the year, I felt a craving to do so again. To go for Martin, however, would run the risk of fellow-commuter judgement. Having grown cunning from my time with George RR Martin, I satisfied my craving by turning to Kingsley Amis instead, and Lucky Jim. A deserved comic classic. It is biting, sarcastic, funny and, at all the right times, empathetic. Jim is a searing takedown of the haughty attitudes and values of the cultural and social establishment of its time, a theme Martin has attempted to continue through his own works. I have to say, however, that this was much more accomplished and, at times, heartfelt, than most of what I’ve read from Martin. Not that it’s a competition, mind. 

It was coming up to the end of the year when I opted for Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything Is Illuminated. I had my sights set on the 20-book mark, for no reason whatsoever, and went for something short in pursuit of this goal. I erred. This novel may be short, but it’s not the kind you breeze through. It demands attention, it rewards re-reading paragraphs, it sits on you. And, truly, it is absolutely marvellous. At first, I struggled with the various narrative voices, but as it all began to come together, it was a dream. Like getting into the rhythm of a long run, if you know such a feeling. A young Jewish-American, led by a Ukrainian interpreter, visits the land of his ancestors to find out more about his grandfather’s life during World War 2. 

I have rarely read a novel so impactful – hilarious in one scene, gut-wrenchingly tragic in the next. Foer handles the different voices so well that it seems like the most natural thing in the world to switch from epistolary pidgin-English to historical account from chapter to chapter. Read it. 

Coming up on Christmas, the 20-book mark seemed like a doomed dream. If I had the handle of reading in the pub while talk of politics and football swam around me, I might have done it. As it was, I did not. Nevertheless, I had time for one final slice of literary joy: The Moon and Sixpence by W. Somerset Maugham. 

This book had come highly recommended (multiple times) by a dear friend who knows his stuff. He did not disappoint. Somerset Maugham has such a ridiculous clarity & poise of prose, and his characterisation is infinitely enviable. Charles Strickland must be one of the most detestable characters I have encountered in literature, and that is testament to the author’s talent in lifting personality from the page. This novel could also inform contemporary discussions around society’s continued acceptance of arsehole geniuses, as well. Not bad for a chap who snuffed it in 1965.

And that, ladies and gentlemen that remain, brings to an end my Year in Books, 2019. I’m excited to read as much or more this year. I’m presently leafing through the second book in the Game of Thrones franchise, and Bill Bryson’s The Road to Little Dribbling is my bedside book at the moment, too. This year, my aim is to branch out further – no re-reads (maybe), more women and authors from diverse backgrounds.

What are your reading goals for this year? Who are you most excited to read? Let us know below or on social media.


James Mcloughlin is Creative Editor at New Critique.

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