For quite a few years now, I’ve posted a list of books I’m not recommending books for Christmas. My reason for “not recommending” is that I’ve always considered book-buying to be a personal decision, best left to the reader. But I do like to highlight the best of what’ve read during the year, as much as for myself as for others. This list is always a reminder of what helped to guide me and shape me during the previous 12 months.
It’s also a way to see just how out-of-step I am with the general culture. The past weekend, the St. Louis Post-Dispatchpublished its list of its (or the book editor’s) 25 favorite books of 2019. I read two of the 25 – A Better Man by Louise Penny (what’s not to like about Inspector Gamache?) and The Long Call by Ann Cleeves – both mysteries. I can agree on Louise Penny, but the new Ann Perry book was disappointing. At the end of the Post-Dispatch article, they list best or favorite books from Publishers Weekly and a host of local booksellers. I hadn’t read any of those, either. I must be a real cretin. Or countercultural. Or both.
What’s nice about this year’s list was how difficult it was for me to select one book in each category. I read a lot of really good books, so if a work is noted at all, it means I really, really liked it or loved it as well.
I surprised myself here. Except for books I’ve read to my grandsons, all of the children’s books I read this year are by British authors. The best include a traditionally-told story, Poppy Field by Michael Morpurgo (he of War Horse fame); a wonderfully written but horrifying tale in The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne; and three rather strange ones: The Boy Who Hit Play by Chloe Daykin, The 1000-Year-Old Boy by Ross Welford, and Boom! by Mark Haddon (which made me laugh out loud). My nod for best goes to The 1000-Year-Old Boy; the story captured me on page one and never let go.
I’ve been reading (and buying) mystery stories since I was six years old, and I’ve never outgrown them. (T.S. Eliot loved mysteries, too, so I’m in good company.) Louise Penny published the afore-mentioned A Better Man; she hasn’t written a bum one in the entire Inspector Gamache series. Magpie Murder by Anthony Horowitz was amazing – a book within a book within a book. The British Library keeps publishing its Crime Classic Series, and they’re all good stories. I read two by Jonathan Dunsky – A Debt of Death and The Dead Sister – that reinforce my admiration for Israeli noir. The Eric Ward series by Roy Lewis, first published in the early 1980s, are being republished, starting with The Sedleigh Hall Murder. And I discovered two new police detectives – Scott Hunter’s DCI Brendan Moran and Keith Moray’s Torquil Mackinnon – which I thoroughly enjoyed.
My choice for best is a tie – Dunksy’s A Debt of Death and Lewis’s The Sedleigh Hall Murder, which are as different as night and day. The first is about an Auschwitz concentration camp survivor who is a private detective in 1950s Tel Aviv, and the second other an attorney gradually going blind from glaucoma in 1980. I’ve now read all of Dunsky’s books (another one is coming soon) and the first four of Lewis’s (with a bunch more being republished), so I’m a happy mystery reader.
My reading of history books was less in 2019 than last year, but I read some really good ones. Dominion by Peter Ackroyd continues the author’s history of England series and covers the Victoria era. Andrew Delbanco’s The War Before the War is focused on the issues, people and events that led up to the American Civil War. The Pioneers by the American institution David McCullough studied the settling of the Ohio Territory. Justice on Trial by Mollie Hemingway and Carrie Severino is technically more “current affairs” and history; it addressed the confirmation hearings of Brett Kavanaugh for the Supreme Court.
My choice for best among all of these really good books is McCullough’s The Pioneers; he tells history like few other Americans writing today. (And this book will not make the “best” list of virtually any mainstream media, for the simple reason is that it’s a traditional popular history which doesn’t bow the knee to the cult of victimization.) (It was still a best-seller.)
Biography and Memoir
Jean Moorcraft Wilson published a fine biography of poet and author Robert Graves, one of the World War I poets best known for his novel I Claudius. I read Kevin Belmonte’s Defiant Joy: The Remarkable Life and Impact of G.K. Chesterton; it was published in 2011 but I read it this year (which serves to point out that any of the books noted in this post were ones I read this year and were not necessarily published this year). Michael Brendan Dougherty’s My Father Left Me Ireland is as much a memoir as it is an exploration of a family history that wasn’t what the author had been taught it was. James Como’s C.S. Lewis: A Very Short Introduction is a wonderfully concise summary of his subject’s life and works. Ian Sansom’s September 1, 1939 is as much about Sansom as it is the poem that is its ostensible subject, by W.H. Auden.
The Graves biography is excellent, but my choice for best biography I read this year is Belmonte’s Defiant Joy, which truly brings Chesterton to life.
Poetry presented a a really tough choice for “best.” There were simply too many collections that I read that could qualify, like Joe Spring’s Let There Be Light, Some Permanent Things by James Matthew Wilson, A Child’s Year by Chris Yokel, Deaf Republic by Ilya Kaminsky, Soft Launch by Aaron Belz, Bravery & Brevity by Edward Holmes, Justin Hamm’s The Inheritance, and Umbilical by Michael Spence. (I just noticed that all of these collections were written by men.)
I finally narrowed my list down to two, and both actually tell stories. Ali Nuri’s Rain and Embers is about the life of a family forced to flee Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, and Black Sunday by Benjamin Myers tells a highly creative tale of the Dust Bowl of the 1930s.
I read so much good fiction this year that it’s difficult to know where to start. Noah Hawley’s Before the Fall is a can’t-stop-reading novel about a man and a young boy who survive a plane crash. Paris in the Present Tense by Mark Helprin is a wonder, as is Akin by Emma Donoghue. Throw Me to the Wolves by Patrick McGuiness and Lanny by Max Porter are about our out-of-control media, shaming, and trolling culture. Where the Desert Meets the Sea by Werner Sonne is about the transition in Palestine to the new Israeli state. Mark Haddon’s The Porpoise is a blend of contemporary and Greek myth, an amazing feat of writing.
If I had to select one book that affected me the most and moved the most, it would have to be the story of an insurance adjuster named Will Phillips, it would be Adjustments by Will Willingham. It’s my favorite novel of the year.
I read more historical fiction this year, and the works fell generally into one of two categories – English history and Civil War history. I read two by Annie Whitehead that were excellent – To Be a Queen and Cometh the Hour, both set in Anglo-Saxon times. Gemma Lawrence’s The Bastard Princess was a riveting story of the young Elizabeth I. Soldier’s Heart by Michele McKnight Baker and A Stranger on My Land by Sandra Merville Hart were both well-told stories of the American Civil War.
For best historical novel, I’d say it was Annie Whitehead’s To Be a Queen.
I know it’s strange – a guy reading romance novels. They’re generally quick, easy reads, and you can learn a lot from them if the stories you write involve romantic scenes. The standouts this year were Tender Love by Juliette Duncan, Bending Toward the Sun by Mona Hidgson, The Man from Yesterday by Florence Witkop, A Rose Blooms Twice by Vivkie Kestell, Falling for You by Leanna Morgan, and Homecoming by Carolyn Aarsen.
Vickie Kestell’s A Rose Blooms Twice get my nod for best romance. It’s set in pioneering, sodbusting days, and it tells the story of both a woman who loses her entire family in an accident and two Norwegian brothers who bring their families to America to make a better life. And it’s the first in a trilogy, with the other two books just as good.
This is such a broad category that it could have several sub-categories. There were theology books like Church Reformed by Tim Bayly and Living the Dream? by Tristan Sherwin; practical living books like Living a Life of Yes by David Rupert; current affairs books like Who is an Evangelical? by Thomas Kidd and In Search of the Common Good by Jake Meador; and one that defies classification, The 21: A Journey into the Land of the Coptic Martyrs by Martin Mosbach.
The best book about faith that I read is also the best book I read about writing and creativity – Adorning the Dark by Andrew Peterson. It’s marvelous.
Photograph by Dakota Corbin via Unsplash. Used with permission.