My favourite books of 2009

Books-of-the-yearAs we get ready to toast the turn of the decade, it’s time for me to name the best novels I read in 2009. All of them garnered five-stars when I reviewed them over the course of the year.

My top 10 fiction reads are as follows (in alphabetical order by book title):

‘A Far Cry From Kensington’ by Muriel Spark (first published in 1988)
To say I was utterly charmed by it would probably be an understatement. This is a deliciously enjoyable story that is so perfectly constructed it’s almost impossible to find fault with it — on any level. The prose is simple, the characters believable and the plot expertly drawn, so that you’re never quite sure where it’s going to take you and then feel overwhelmingly satisfied when you arrive at its destination.

‘A Woman of My Age’ by Nina Bawden (1967)
A Woman of My Age is definitely a product of its times, when women married young and were expected to stay at home and raise a family. But in Elizabeth Jourdelay, Bawden has created a headstrong and independent character who rails against society’s ‘rules’ and constraints.

‘Eight Months on Ghazzah Street’ by Hilary Mantel (1998)
Eight Months on Ghazzah Street is a psychological thriller of the finest order. It reads like a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown, but because Frances is an intelligent worldly wise woman, you know that her fears aren’t fickle. Mantel builds up the tension slowly but surely, revealing Frances’ increasing sense of foreboding through diary entries that are interspersed throughout the third-person narrative.

‘Flowers for Algernon’ by Daniel Keyes (1966)
Daniel Key’s Flowers for Algernon is a very special science fiction novel that reveals much about the human condition and the ways in which we relate to others. It touches on many issues including the way we treat the mentally handicapped, the ethics of scientific experimentation on animals (and humans), our desire to be ‘normal’, the differences between IQ and EQ, and the ways in which our childhood experiences impact on our adult lives.

‘The Merry-Go-Round-in the Sea’ by Randolph Stow (1965)
Essentially the book, which was first written in 1965, is a coming-of-age story. It is set in Geraldton, Western Australia, where the author, who now lives in England, was born. Although my Penguin Modern Classics edition claims it is “not a self portrait” there’s no mistaking The Merry-Go-Round in the Sea‘s semi-autobiographical roots. It has a truly authentic feel for the time and the place, and it’s easy to find yourself entirely immersed in this world, smelling the eucalyptus wafting on the breeze and feeling the hot sand of the beach between your toes.

‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ by George Orwell (1949)
The thing that struck me most was how much of this futuristic novel was deeply rooted in the time in which Orwell wrote it. There are echoes of war-torn London throughout this book […] Obviously there’s a lot of stuff that feels incredibly prescient today: the so-called War on Terror and its resultant erosion of civil liberties; the increasing reliance on media spin, particularly by government agencies; and the ever-present CCTV surveillance, especially here in the UK.

‘Once & Then’ by Morris Gleitzman (2009)
Once & Then is a powerful story about the strength and resilience of the human spirit. It’s about courage and hope, and surviving against the odds. And while it tackles one of the darkest times in 20th century history, Gleitzman does it sensitively without losing any of the important detail. There’s plenty of death here, and
cruelty, but it’s not sensationalist or gratuitous. ‘This story is my imagination trying to grasp the unimaginable,’ he writes in his afterward. I think he’s achieved it.

‘Pretty Monsters’ by Kelly Link (2009)
There are nine stories here, some of which have been published elsewhere in the past, and each one presents an intoxicating, hugely original world […] I’ve never read such a wacky collection of stories that gripped me, held me in their sway and slightly altered my perception of the universe when I came to each stunning conclusion. Where has Kelly Link been hiding all my life? She’s bloody brilliant.

‘The Shiralee’ by D’Arcy Niland (1955)
The book has a big heart. It’s funny in places and sad in others. It’s occasionally tender, occasionally brutal. It’s humble, knowing and wise. Sometimes it makes you feel ashamed to be human, at other times it makes you feel proud. And, above all, it makes you wish every book was written like this: forthright, absorbing and genuinely moving.

‘The Wilderness’ by Samantha Harvey (2009)
Samantha Harvey is an exquisite writer and a skilled novelist. The Wilderness is so accomplished on so many different levels — stylistically, creatively, intellectually — that it seems astonishing that this is her first novel.”

What books did you most enjoy this year?

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34 thoughts on “My favourite books of 2009

  1. Here’s my best reads of 2009:
    – “Watership Down” by Richard Adams (re-read)
    – “The brief wondrous life of Oscar Wao” by Junot Diaz
    – “True confessions” by John Gregory Dunne [crime]
    – “The Airport – JFK…” by James Kaplan [non-fiction]
    – “On the road” by Jack Kerouac (re-re-read…)
    – “The Given day” by Dennis Lehane
    – “Angela’s ashes” by Frank McCourt (recommended by Shane MacGowan…)
    – “That they may face the rising sun [Lake]” by John McGahern (thanks kimbofo…)
    – “Shiralee” by D’Arcy Niland (ibid)
    – “Gilead” by Marilynne Robinson
    – “The Thin red line” by James Jones
    – “Abide with me” by Elizabeth Strout
    – “Who will run the frog hospital?” by Lorrie Moore

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  2. I’m still working on my list… There are some great books in yours. Nina Bawden and Muriel Spark in particular are authors I love and I must read more of them. Pretty Monsters is now nearing the top of my bedside TBR pile, so I am looking forward to reading it.

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  3. I love your list and I really need to read something, anything by Muriel Spark and more by Hilary Mantel. Here’s my list (it was so hard to narrow it down…), listed alphabetically by author’s last name:
    In the Country of Last Things by Paul Auster
    A Long Long Way by Sebastian Barry
    Away by Amy Bloom
    Watching the English by Kate Fox
    Forever by Pete Hamill
    In Europe by Geert Mak
    Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
    The Mitfords: Letters Between Six Sisters by Charlotte Mosley (ed.)
    A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth
    The Color Purple by Alice Walker
    In case I don’t get to comment again before Thursday, have a very Merry Christmas and let’s hope your 2010 is full of great books and the time to read them all.

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  4. Thanks, bubba, I like your list – very diverse. Am pleased you enjoyed two you discovered via this blog… I’ve read a few from your list (Watership Down, Thin Red Line, Angela’s Ashes) and am intrigued by the airport book you mention. Oh, and I love the name of the Lorrie Moore book!

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  5. Hmmm… let me guess. Maybe 1984 and Flowers for Algernon? Am I right? Do tell. I ain’t gonna be online next week. Guess I’ll have to wait to find out in the new year.

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  6. I hope you enjoy Pretty Monsters… I get nervous when I hype a book and people go out and buy it, because everyone has such different tastes. As for Mantel and Bawden, they became two of my favourite authors this year, and I plan on working my way slowly but surely through their back catalogues. Could take a while… they have written a lot of books between them!

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  7. McGahern’s a good discovery to make, so I’m glad to have played a small part in introducing you to him. I hope I can say the same about D’Arcy Niland when you get around to reading The Shiralee.

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  8. A great list, Kinga! Glad to see Forever and A Long Long Way on your list, because they’re two faves of mine. I’ve heard a lot of good things about that Mitford book, so I’m going to have to get my hands on a copy. And I’ll be reading Wolf Hall when it’s available in paperback.

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  9. I’m working on my list, Kim, although The Wilderness will be on it for sure.
    I like that there are two book group reads on yours! I haven’t read Flowers for Algernon yet as didn’t have copy but borrowing Jackie’s at next meeting – looking forward to it (the meeting and the book).
    I also have to read and return your copy of Once and Again and I added The Shiralee to my wishlist when I read your original review so hoping to read that in 2010 too.

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  10. The Wilderness and Flowers for Algernon will be on my list too. I often think we have quite a different taste in books, but it looks as though we agree on which ones are at the top of the list.
    I need to make a note of a few of the other ones on your list.

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  11. I love your list and I am taking notes. It has been a year of discovery for me with three new authors of which I am going to read more of their work. Orwell, Yates, Lively and Johnston. Others I have enjoyed as follows_
    The Devils Advocate by Morris West
    Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates
    The Easter Parade by Richard Yates
    To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee
    Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively
    Consequences by Penelope Lively
    Sophies Choice by William Styron
    The Earth Hums In B Flat by Mari Strachan
    Wanting by Richard Flanagan
    Ice by Louis Nowra
    This Is How by MJ Hyland
    Fool’s Sanctuary by Jennifer Johnston
    1984 by George Orwell

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  12. I cannot recommend The Mitford book enough. Very enjoyable read. And Wolf Hall was amazing in its detail and the viewpoint and the style. You’ve read more by Mantel than I have, I wonder what you’ll make of it.

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  13. hi, some of my favourites for the year –
    This is How by MJ Hyland
    Jasper Jones by Craig Silvey
    The Given Day by Denis Lehane
    & Cloudstreet by Tim Winton

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  14. Fascinating lists…and I’m posting mine next week, though I’m going with 12 like Tom at A common reader: http://www.acommonreader.org.uk/2009/12/twelve-from-the-shelves.html. Seems fair enough. After all there are 12 months in the year aren’t there? And, more importantly, it means I get to choose 12 books. I had drafted mine and had 11, now I feel I have an embarrassment of riches! You have some wonderful oldies in there kimbofo – it’s great (re)discovering older books isn’t it?

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  15. Here are my favorites for 2009:
    The Lieutenant by Kate Grenville, I fell hard for some Australian writers;
    Cloudstreet by Tim Winton, I couldn’t get enough of the soap opera of the Pickles and Lambs;
    Hiding in the Spotlight by Greg Dawson, story of two sisters who survived the Nazis with their music and landed in the town where I lived in the 70s;
    Brooklyn by Colm Toibin, told with careful deliberation and loving detail;
    Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout, you gotta love a woman who regularly says to her long-suffering husband, “For Gawd’s sake, Henry!”;
    The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan, wonderfully told story of the mining and destruction of the topsoil in the US dustbowl;
    Portrait of a Lady by Henry James, the language just made me happy;
    The Master by Colm Toibin, the quiet intensity was exhausting.
    It was a year of good reading, heavily influenced by Kimbofo. Thanks for your thoughtful musings.

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  16. I’ve added several of these books to my TBR list as you’ve reviewed them; actually, I’ve added a LOT of the books you’ve reviewed to my list. Thank you for sharing your thoughts this past year, Kim. I can’t wait to see what you review this year.

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  17. I’ll have to pop by and check out your list. I do like the idea of choosing 12, which makes me wonder what other two I would add. Probably Colm Toibin’s “Brooklyn” and maybe Shirley Jackson’s “We have always lived in the Castle”

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  18. Thanks for your lovely comment, Charlotte. You’ve certainly chosen some great books, some of which are in my TBR pile (Grenville and Strout). I like the sound of the Dawson book…will have to go look it up.

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  19. Well, the list is fairly eclectic, so I’m not surprised you haven’t read all that many off it. I’ll have to go check out your list — I bet I won’t have read any from yours! 😉

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  20. It’s a wonderful book, and am so glad I read it this year. Previously, I’d read the short story at school, but that was a lifetime ago and I’d forgotten all about it. I think the novel will stick with me for a long time yet.

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  21. I’m reading Hilary Mantel’s ‘Wolf Hall’ at the moment. It’s absolutely gripping. Her take on Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn, Thomas More and particularly, Thomas Cromwell- characters most of us know well from school history lessons (and from BBC television series) is extremely interesting. The writing is excellent.

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  22. I’m waiting for Wolf Hall to be released in a small format paperback before deciding to tackle it. In the meantime, I have a few of her other books in the queue.

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