Books of the year

My favourite books of 2019

This year has been a rather eventful one for me — in all kinds of ways.

Repatriating after almost 21 years in the UK has posed many challenges, but I’ve not regretted it and I have loved being able to buy Australian books as soon as they’ve been released instead of waiting a year or more for an overseas publication date!

I undertook a few reading projects across the year, with mixed results.

All up, I read 87 books — choosing my favourite proved a tough call. Surprisingly, more than half of the titles I loved were non-fiction reads (I seemed to read a LOT of non-fiction books this year) and 50 percent of the titles came from Australia.

Without further ado, here are the books that made an impression on me this year. They have been arranged in alphabetical order by author’s surname. Hyperlinks will take you to my full review.

No Friend But the Mountain: Writing from Manus Prison by Behrouz Boochani (2018)
This award-winning memoir looks at Australia’s offshore immigration detention system from the point of view of a Kurdish-Iranian journalist caught up in it.

A Ladder to the Sky by John Boyne (2018)
A rip-roaring read about a would-be writer hellbent on topping the bestseller lists — at any cost.

Eggshell Skull: A Memoir about Standing Up, Speaking Out and Fighting Back by Bri Lee (2018)
This riveting memoir marries the personal with the political by charting the author’s first year working in the Australian judicial system as she grapples with an eating disorder stemming from her own sexual abuse.

Yellow Notebook: Diaries Volume 1, 1978-1987 by Helen Garner (2019)
This collection of sublime and pithy journal entries spans 10 years of Garner’s life and showcases her ability to capture the tiniest of details to elevate seemingly ordinary occurrences into scenes of extraordinary power.

Constellations book cover

Constellations by Sinead Gleeson (2019)
A brilliant collection of deeply personal essays examining the body, illness and how the relationship between the two shapes our identity.

The Arsonist: A Mind on Fire by Chloe Hooper (2019)
A true-crime story looking at the police investigation and subsequent court trial of a man charged with deliberately lighting a fire in Churchill, Central Gippsland that burnt 32,860 hectares and killed 11 people.

The Erratics by Vicki Laveau-Harvie (2018)
This year’s Stella Prize winner, Laveau-Harvie’s memoir recounts how she had to deal with her Canadian-based elderly parents — one of whom was trying to kill the other — from afar.

The Offing by Benjamin Myers (2019)
A beautifully rendered tale about the unlikely friendship between a teenage boy and an elderly woman in Yorkshire following the Second World War.

Shadowplay by Joseph O’Connor (2019)
This atmospheric Victorian Gothic drama focuses on Irishman Bram Stoker, actor and theatre director Henry Irving and leading stage actress Ellen Terry and follows their complicated, intertwined lives as they work together at the Lyceum Theatre in London in 1878.

The South by Colm Toibin (1990)
A luminous tale of art and love and sacrifice set in Spain and Ireland in the 1950s and 60s, which has lingered in my mind long after I finished reading it. In fact, I loved this book so much I added Toibin to my favourite authors page.

I trust you have had an exciting reading year and discovered some wonderful books and writers. Have you read any from this list? Or has it encouraged you to try one or two? What were your favourite reads of 2019?

Please note that you can see my favourite books of all the years between 2006 and 2019 by visiting my Books of the Year page.

Author, Benjamin Myers, Bloomsbury, Book review, England, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘The Offing’ by Benjamin Myers

Fiction – hardcover; Bloomsbury; 272 pages; 2019. Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley.

What a joy and balm for the soul Benjamin Myers’ new novel, The Offing, turned out to be! It tells the story of an unlikely friendship between a teenage boy and an elderly woman in Yorkshire following the Second World War, and I’d be really surprised if it didn’t make my top 10 at the end of the year.

Summer of love

The two main characters are Robert, the 16-year-old son of a coal miner, and Dulcie, an eccentric well-to-do woman who lives alone in a cosy cottage by the sea.

The pair meet by accident when Robert heads off on a solo trek with no real plan other than to escape a pre-ordained life in a Yorkshire coal-mining village, hungry to live life having seen what happened to boys not much older than himself who had gone abroad to fight for England. When he finally reaches the coast at Robin Hood’s Bay, he spots a vine-covered cottage.

The house was built of local stone and was covered by Virginia creeper that clung to it like an octopus to a rock in a storm, its tangled vines reaching tentacle-like around corners. I came upon the house from the rear and traced the strangulating plant’s root as it rose from the ground to run around the side of the building, its leaves fluttering in succession when a light breeze ran across it. It appeared as if in a dream.

Here he comes across Dulcie (and her large dog “Butters”) in her somewhat overgrown garden. She greets him warmly, as if it was perfectly normal to come across a boy on her private patch of land, and invites him to join her for a cup of nettle tea. During their one-sided conversation, for Robert is shy and uncomfortable talking to strangers unless it is to arrange odd jobs for which he’s paid in food and lodgings, Dulcie suggests he could help weed her garden.

He ends up staying the entire summer.

Close friendship

Over the course of the novel, the pair develop a close friendship and Robert blossoms under Dulcie’s tutelage, for want of a better word.

Through their conversations — filled with Dulcie’s forthright no-holds-barred opinions in her trademark colourful (and often laugh-out-loud funny) language — he learns about art and history and cooking and poetry, about compassion and empathy and pain and loss. He learns about the real world outside of Yorkshire and comes to understand that there were two sides to the war.

‘We’d be ruled by Nazis now if they had got their way,’ I said.
Dulcie shook her head, tutting. ‘Worse, Robert. Much worse. We would be ruled by those remaining English stiffs employed by the Nazis to do their bidding. Chinless wonders and lickspittles. There would be no room for the poets or the peacocks, the artists or the queens. Instead we’d be entirely driven by the very wettest of civil servants – even more so than we already are. A legion of pudgy middle managers would be the dreary midwives of England’s downfall.’

As he gets to know Dulcie — and the people in the local village — he realises that for all her warmth and upbeat nature, she holds a terrible secret close to her chest and when he uncovers it, it serves not as an end to their relationship but cements their platonic love for one another even more.

Dulcie herself learns and grows from her relationship with Robert, whom she comes to regard as the son she never had.

And while The Offing is a lovely and heartwarming portrait of intergenerational friendship, love and forgiveness, it’s also a hymn to nature, beauty and the arts. Myers’ descriptions of the landscape, of the ocean, of the weather and of the transformative power of poetry are beautifully evocative, rich and lyrical. His sentences drip with vivid detail and yet his prose has a quiet, understated restraint to it.

The story is both humble and uplifting. It slips down like hot chocolate — smooth, rich and soothing — and brims with wit and wisdom. I loved it.

If you liked this, you might also like:

Room for a Stranger by Melanie Cheng: Heartwarming tale of an unlikely friendship that develops between a Chinese university student and the elderly lady who provides his lodgings.

Book lists, Books of the year

My favourite books of 2017

I always love this time of year. It’s not only a chance to put my feet up (and read a few extra books), it’s also when I look back over my reading year to choose the 10 books that made the biggest impression on me.

This year wasn’t a typical reading year. My day job really ate into my time, and when I did have the time, my brain was too tired to focus on reading.

Or at least that’s the impression I had until I looked back over this blog and my GoodReads account to see that I’d actually read 74 books (10 more than 2016). Interestingly, 90 per cent of those were from my TBR — in other words, books that I’d purchased myself rather than review copies supplied by publishers.

Over the course of the year I gave myself a few projects. I read the entire shortlists for the:

(And agreed with all the winning choices, which have made my top 10 below.)

I also took part in 20 books of summer (though I only read 15) and read 10 books by Australian women writers as part of the 2017 Australian Women Writers’ Challenge.

Unsurprisingly, my top 10 favourite reads of the year are a mix of fiction by mainly Australian, Canadian and Irish writers, and because I really delved into my TBR, there’s less reliance on new books, with several being published in the 1950s and 60s.

So here’s my list. The books have been arranged in alphabetical order by author’s surname. Hyperlinks will take you to my full review.

Bird in a Cage by Frédéric Dard

Bird in a Cage by Frédéric Dard (1961)
A cleverly plotted tale of suspense (and murder) set in Paris on Christmas Eve.

My Name is Leon

My Name is Leon by Kit de Waal (2016)
Bittersweet coming of age story about a mixed race boy going into foster care in the 1980s. Winner of the 2017 Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year Award.

Smile by Roddy Doyle

Smile by Roddy Doyle (2017)
A deceptive and compelling novel about a middle aged Irishman coming to terms with his past.

Careful He Might Hear You by Sumner Locke Elliott

Careful, He Might Hear You by Sumner Lock Elliott (1963)
Set in Great Depression era Sydney, this warm-hearted and rambunctious novel explores one family’s emotional tug-of-war over a six-year-old boy.

In a strange room by Damon Galgut

In a Strange Room by Damon Galgut (2010)
Lush, hypnotic novel that explores longing and desire through the prism of travel.

Down in the city by Elizabeth Harrower

Down in the City by Elizabeth Harrower (1957)
Disturbing story of an unlikely marriage between two people from opposite ends of the social spectrum.

Solar Bones

Solar Bones by Mike McCormack (2016)
Award-winning stream-of-consciousness novel that charts one man’s struggle to be a good father, brother, son and husband.


Beastings by Benjamin Myers (2014)
Gothic horror story about a priest and a poacher pursuing a woman, who’s stolen a baby, across the wild and windswept landscapes of northern England.

Bellevue Square

Bellevue Square by Michael Redhill (2017)
This year’s Giller Prize winner (and Shadow Giller winner) begins as a psychological thriller before morphing into a mesmerising tale about medicine and mental illness.

Museum of Modern Love by Heather Rose

The Museum of Modern Love by Heather Rose (2017)
This year’s Stella Prize winner asks what is art and what is its purpose, framing the story around a real-life performance art exhibition staged in New York by Marina Abramović.

Have you read any from this list? Or has it encouraged you to try one or two? What were your favourite reads of 2017?

20 books of summer (2017), Author, Benjamin Myers, Bluemoose Books, Book review, England, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, UK

‘Beastings’ by Benjamin Myers


Fiction – Kindle edition; Bluemoose Books; 280 pages; 2014.

I have a penchant for stories told in strong, distinctive voices using sparse, pared-back prose and Benjamin Myers’ Beastings certainly ticks all those boxes.

This simple tale is essentially a chase novel in which a priest enlists the help of a poacher to pursue a young woman who’s stolen a baby. This cat-and-mouse game occurs on foot across the wild, weather-beaten landscapes of northern England over the space of a few days. And believe me when I say it’s real heart-in-the-mouth stuff for all of its 280 pages.

This book reads like a thriller but it also has all the elements of a Gothic horror story: dark woods, strange noises in the night, danger at every turn and a deranged man hellbent on finding his quarry dead or alive.

English Gothic

When Beastings opens we know very little: only that “she” has fled a house with a “bairn”, a kind of mercy mission to rescue the baby (and possibly herself) from an abusive man.

Over time, as she hurriedly makes her way across a rain-ravaged Cumbria, other pieces of her story begin to fall into place: that she is dumb, but not deaf; that she was raised by nuns and that when she came of age was placed with a farmer and his wife to help around the house.

Her pursuer is the priest in charge of the orphanage in which she was raised. His motivation for finding her is not as holy or as well-intentioned as he makes out. As the narrative unfolds we discover he is capable of extraordinary violence and that this does not bode well for the young woman he is trying to find.

Strange and beguiling tale

There’s a lot to admire in this strange and beguiling tale, not least Myers’ vivid descriptions of the landscape as a living thing, often beautiful and monstrous at the same time:

The girl stood to look at the lake again which had become less silver. Now it was dark and still and she looked at the way the mountain’s fells plunged straight down into the water over at the far side without even stopping to create a shore. In places the scree dropped near-vertically into the dark waters and it scared her to think how deep it might be and what lay at the ice-cold bottom of the lake down there and how long it had been this way. The vast unknown of the water made her feel as uneasy as the solidity of the silent mountain provided comfort.

But in these wild places, the woman finds a world full of fascinating (and not always scary) elements, too. And even while she’s struggling to find food in this alien environment, she finds comfort in beauty, in birdsong, in the simple act of being able to bathe in clear ice-cold water:

She walked around the tarn and into the trees and then sat down. It was getting dark. The trees across the tarn were becoming washed out through the twilight haze and were blurring at the edges. She watched the water and listened to the sounds of the birds getting ready to roost. She sat for a long time. She watched the sky turn and the clouds soften and the light wane then she stood and stripped to her underwear and unclothed the baby and walked into the open. She waded into the water. The cold felt like nails being driven into the soles of her feet. The girl tried to walk quickly but her feet sank into the tarn bed’s silt. It billowed up around her as she disturbed it. Turned it cloudy. It felt unctuous on her skin. Oily almost.

These evocative, almost gentle, descriptions are in stark contrast to the priest’s mission in which he becomes increasingly agitated, angry — and righteous:

All I care about is serving Him snapped the Priest. Everything I do is for Him. If I had it my way I wouldn’t have to listen to another mangled word of English from your ugly rotting mouths. If I had it my way I’d whip your stupid eyes. But such is the way of this calling. And as you yourself said you’re not a believer so why should I care about you or your gammy leg or any of your other misfortunes. You are a sinner and you are going the way of all sinners: to hell.

A superb suspense story

There’s no denying that Beastings is a rather dark and unsettling tale; there’s no wit here and little or no light relief. It plunges you into a world that feels like it’s from another century, perhaps the early 19th, but there are modern elements (electricity and telephones, for instance) which suggest it might be set in the here and now, which makes it all the more creepy.

As a suspense story, it is superb (I furiously kept turning the pages, wondering what was going to happen next), but as a stylistic work of prose it is astonishing — there’s nary a comma in it, but that certainly doesn’t detract from its power. And the ending, when it comes, is a brutal one: I was shell-shocked for days afterwards.

There’s still a lot of reading left in the year for me, but I already know Beastings is going to make my top 10 for 2017. Yes, it really is that good.

If you liked this, you might also like:

The Dig by Cynan Jones: A sparsely written tale, which pits two men against each other — a sheep farmer and a ratting man — and debunks the myth of a bucolic countryside once and for all.

This is my 6th book for #20booksofsummer. I bought it in July 2015, not long after I read Simon Savidge’s review, for the ridiculous bargain basement price of 49p!