It’s been another mammoth year in the world of publishing, much to the delight of readers and reviewers. Whilst this should make the task of looking back and selecting my literary highlights something of a challenge, despite reading far and wide, it’s often a relatively easy process for me, as there are a small group of books that genuinely stand apart each year.
Much more of my reading this year has been given to non-fiction, so there’s a mixture of non-fiction and fiction in my selections, but one of the recurring themes is the Syrian crisis. There is nothing political in this, it is simply that there have naturally been a number of books focused on this area and the stories – both real life and fiction – engender an innate sense of humanity and hope that spoke to me as a reader. Contemporary fiction also features highly and there have been some standout books in both the romantic fiction and thriller genres. It was also pleasing to choose both established and debut writers, as well as a news correspondent, a pianist and a spy!
So, without further ado, in no particular order, these are my top ten reads of 2019:
Syria’s Secret Library by Mike Thomson – This was without question my book of the year – a moving, inspirational and hopeful true account of the citizens of a besieged Syrian town who, when faced with the most horrific and barbaric of circumstances, found salvation and hope in books. Defying those who wished to rob them of their humanity and, indeed, their lives, an extraordinary group of ordinary civilians created an underground library, hidden from those who sought to deny them, accessible to those who sought a safe haven. BBC correspondent Mike Thomson has shared a truly incredible story of the power of books, the power of reading, and, most importantly, the power of the human spirit.
The Pianist of Yarmouk by Aehem Ahmad – In a similar vein to Syria’s Secret Library, The Pianist of Yarmouk takes readers into the heart of war-torn Syria and offers the real-life story of one young man’s struggle and search for hope. Ahmad, a talented pianist, seeks to use music to create something positive amongst the rubble and devastation, but it becomes an increasingly difficult and dangerous experience as the situation in Syria deteriorates.
The End of Time by Gavin Extence – A fictionalised version of the Syrian crisis was taken up by, to my mind, one of the best contemporary fiction writers of the day – Gavin Extence. Coming three years after his last book, fans were on tenterhooks for his latest offering and it didn’t disappoint at all, with Extence’s trademark compassion, warmth and ability to place his readers in the shoes of characters whose lives and experiences are so remote from many of our own. His focus on two young brothers fleeing Syria and making the epic journey across Europe in search of a new life really humanised what has become a very messy political storm in recent years.
The Chain by Adrian McKinty – I think I must have been living under a rock to have not come across the books of Adrian McKinty before, because his 2019 offering, The Chain, was by far the standout thriller of the year for me. Books in the genre often come with colossal claims, but The Chain certainly delivered on all fronts. It is the epitome of a page-turning, edge-of-your-seat read, as well as being astonishingly fresh and inventive. Film rights were unsurprisingly snapped up and this may just be one of those books that could excel in both formats.
The Book of Love by Fionnuala Kearney – This may have been one of the earlier books I read this year, back in February, but it definitely made its mark. Up there with the very best romantic fiction, it delivered a beautiful yet heart-wrenching love story. Its premise and context were simple yet incredibly effective and there was an authenticity and honesty to the characters and their relationship whilst maintaining the romance and beauty. As with all of the best love stories, it offers a genuine emotional roller coaster.
What Happens Now by Sophia Money-Coutts – Sophia Money-Coutts burst onto the scene last year with her debut The Plus One, and her second offering, What Happens Now, merely served to cement her reputation as a bright new voice in contemporary fiction. Seriously funny and inescapably riotous, this book was a breath of fresh air, offering some much-needed light-hearted escapism.
The Beekeeper of Aleppo by Christy Lefteri – Another novel that focuses on the Syrian crisis, Christy Lefteri’s book is a similarly important novel for our times that juxtaposes the placidity and simplicity of central character Nuri with the horror and destruction of the world around him. Lefteri, who worked as a volunteer at a UNICEF-supported refugee centre in Athens, has written a beautifully poignant tale of the very best and the very worst of humanity.
Soldier Spy by Tom Marcus – Although not published in 2019, I was a couple of years late coming to the party with Tom Marcus’s debut account of life in MI5, but on reading it this year it has to make my top ten. Sharing his story of being a spy, it honestly reads like fiction rather than fact, with anecdotes that genuinely beggar belief. For your average man and woman on the street, this is the closest they’ll come to seeing inside the covert operations and meeting the mysterious figures that keep the country safely ticking, and it’s a truly fascinating insight.
Nightingale Point by Luan Goldie – After winning the Costa Short Story Award in 2017, Luan Goldie announced herself to the literary world. This year saw the release of her first full-length novel, Nightingale Point, and further served to establish her as a crucial new voice in contemporary fiction. Centred on a tower block on a working-class estate, Goldie explores the lives of several of the residents – their hopes, their dreams, their struggles and frailties that all come to a head one innocuous day when tragedy strikes. This novel is a tour de force and this author, I suspect, will be one to watch over the coming years.
This Green and Pleasant Land by Ayisha Malik – This is one book that I have been recommending left, right and centre this year, dealing as it does with issues of community, cohesion and tolerance, all written with warmth and understanding. It’s an open and inclusive novel that explores a variety of views and beliefs, with a story and characters at its core that are engaging and thought-provoking. TV rights have been optioned for this novel, but there’s no concrete plans as yet. Nevertheless, this book is definitely worth a read, and should a TV adaptation come to light, it will be great to see this deserving novel brought to the screen.