THE BEST BOOKS OF 2019, AS FAR AS I’M CONCERNED

This is the time of year when everybody’s putting together their “best of 2019” lists, so who am I to buck the trend?  Many of these lists run to 10 or even 20 books, but I’m only limiting my selections to (a) books I actually read during 2019, (b) books that were published during 2019, and (most important) ( c) books that stood out, that I really, really liked.  Most of the books I’ve written about this year are books I’ve enjoyed (I’m not one of those people who likes to write bad reviews of anything), but the ones I’m listing here went above and beyond and stick with me months later. Your mileage may vary, of course, but these are my top choices.

NONFICTION

Yes, I do read nonfiction, and even write about it sometimes. There were two nonfiction books this year that really stood out.  These are not listed in order of importance or quality; as far as I’m concerned, they’re equal.

The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper, by Hallie Rubenhold, is the kind of book that turns accepted history on its head.  How many books are there about Jack the Ripper, speculating about his identity, luxuriating in the details of exactly what he did to his victims and when?  This is the first I’ve seen that focuses instead on the victims, the women who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and the author does a terrific job of bringing them to life for us, challenging the standard story that he was killing prostitutes by showing us that most of them weren’t what we would call prostitutes.  What they had in common was poverty, and poverty in Victorian England was often a death sentence for women. One of the best things about this book, in my opinion, was the way the author brings you through the woman’s life up until the moment before she’s killed, skips the details of how she was killed, and then looks at the aftermath for her friends and family. If you were reluctant to read this book because you were afraid of violence and gore, don’t be. It’s not that kind of Jack the Ripper book; it’s much better.

Midnight in Chernobyl: the Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster, by Adam Higginbotham, is another of those books that tells the story of something you think you already know, and illuminates it in ways you couldn’t imagine.  This is probably the most terrifying book I read all year, made all the more chilling because every detail of it is verified and documented. Reading this is like watching the kind of horror movie where you’re screaming at the screen for the characters not to do what you know they’re going to do.  There are descriptive passages that H. P. Lovecraft would have given his eye teeth to have written; there is suspense the likes of which the best thriller writers would envy. It is appalling and vivid and terrifying and one terrific read.

FICTION

Every year there’s at least one book I recommend to everybody I encounter at the library.  This year, that book was Hollow Kingdom, a debut novel (amazingly) by Kira Jane Buxton.  When I describe the book to people with one sentence, I tell them it’s the zombie apocalypse as seen through the eyes of a domesticated crow named S.T. (the initials stand for an obscene description of the crow by his human), and I can see people turning off at the thought. Trust me, though, it is not your typical zombie apocalypse.  For one thing, nobody uses the Z word. For another thing, our main narrator (there are multiple narrators for brief parts of the book, almost all of them animals, giving us different insights into what’s going on worldwide) is such a vivid character, funny and touching at the same time. For another thing, what’s going on with humans (called mofo’s in the book; this is what S.T.’s human, Big Jim, used to call people) is only a small part of the book. Human beings are being destroyed and destroying things, but the focus of the book is how the animals who survive are creating their own world without us.  I have to confess, there were times during my reading of this book that I had to stop because I was so moved, not just by the fate of the humans, but by S.T.’s sorrow and longing for human beings. The book has everything: humor, tears, adventure, thought-provoking reflections, characters you care about deeply, and even a satisfying ending (it’s not necessarily the ending I would have chosen, but it works and it’s satisfying). Keep an eye out for Kira Jane Buxton: judging by this book, she’s quite talented and packs quite a punch.

And yes, in any year in which Jo Nesbo publishes a Harry Hole novel (not frequent enough for my taste), you know I’m going to pick his book as one of the best of the year.  This year his book was Knife, and as one of my co-workers remarked, nobody has ever seen me get so excited about a knife before.  Jo Nesbo is a fiendish writer, and, despite his undue cruelty to his main character, his plotting is better than ever.  If you’re a fan of these dark and enthralling books, I don’t need to tell you anything other than that there’s a new Harry Hole book; if you’re not a fan but you’re interested in dark thrillers that take you by the throat and keep you frantically turning pages till you reach the end, you should start at the beginning of the series and check Nesbo out.

And here’s to all the good books we haven’t yet encountered in 2020!  Happy reading to us all!

WHEN TO GIVE UP ON A BOOK

I know we were all taught to finish what we started, and that many of us still have that deep-rooted feeling that if we start a book, we MUST finish it.  But I’m going to advance a radical idea: sometimes a book just isn’t worth finishing at this time. It took me years to come to this conclusion (and to fight down a lifetime of education to the contrary), but I can safely say I am a better reader and a happier person for it.

The question, of course, is when you should give up on a book, and the answer depends on a number of factors.

The first factor is whether you HAVE to read the book.  If it’s a book for a course you’re taking (especially if the course is all about this particular book), then yes, you absolutely have to read it, no matter how difficult it may be.  If it’s a book you’re reading for book group, then yes, of course you have to read it, especially if it’s a book your whole group chose and ESPECIALLY if you were the person who proposed this book in the first place. As a book group leader, I try to be tolerant and accepting in general, but really, if you’re not going to read the book (the whole book), why are you coming to this meeting to discuss the book you didn’t read (or didn’t finish)?

If it’s not in one of these categories, is there another reason you feel you HAVE to read the book?  And thinking you have to finish every book you start doesn’t count as a reason here. For instance, if someone you love gave you the book or recommended it to the sky and insisted that you read it, you might feel an obligation to that person to force your way through the book. Only you can decide how to balance your affection for that person for the amount of trouble you’re having with the book.  If you have a good relationship, you might be able to tell the person honestly that you couldn’t get through the book (with or without an all-purpose excuse like, “I was just too busy”) without harming the relationship too much.

Once you’ve decided that you can stop reading the book (and this is a personal decision, of course), how much time should you give yourself before you give up.  There are some books in which you can tell in the first few pages that this is not for you, and in that case, there’s no point in forcing yourself to slog through any more.  But if you’re not actively repelled, or put to sleep every time you pick the book up, and the problem is just that it’s not catching your attention the way you’re like, a good rule of thumb is to get through 50 pages.  If it’s still not working for you, for whatever reasons, then you can say you gave it a fair shake and you can give up on it with a clear conscience. Think of it this way: if the book’s 200 pages long, you’ve read a quarter of it, and if it’s 400 pages long, you’ve read an eighth, and if you haven’t found anything you like in an eighth to a quarter of the book, odds are good you’re not going to find anything you like in the rest of it either.  Sometimes it takes more than 50 pages. For instance, I always tell people to give The Time Traveler’s Wife 75 pages before giving up in confusion; it takes that long to get the rhythm of the book. 

Don’t feel bad because you’re giving up on a book.  There are tons of great books out there, and just because one of them, this particular one, wasn’t right for you at this time, that doesn’t say anything bad about you. Maybe it wasn’t the right time for you to read this book, and maybe you’ll be ready to read it another time.  That was the case with me and Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel.  The first time I tried to read it, I found it utterly impenetrable, but then (being stubborn) I picked it up again six months later, and whizzed through it.  The book hadn’t changed, but my circumstances had, so I could focus better on the book. Or sometimes you’re not at the right point in your life for a particular book: when everything seems to be going wrong, probably reading a great but seriously depressing book like A Little Life, by Hanya Yanagihara, would be too much for you, but when you’re feeling stronger you might be able to deal with all the pain and horror of that book (which is, I reiterate, a great book, even though it’s 700+ pages and made me cry several times).  

And even if you don’t come back and read that particular book at a later time, think of all the wonderful books you’ve made space in your life for by not forcing yourself to plow through some book that’s trying to destroy you.  

FINISH THE STORY!

Perhaps this has happened to you.  You’re reading a book, you’re interested in the characters, the plot is carrying you along, and you’re really looking forward to seeing how it’s all going to work out, especially as complications ensue and twists occur and you’re looking at the amount of the book left to read and it’s getting shorter and shorter.  You reach the end, and only then discover that no, the author isn’t going to resolve the plot in this book because there’s a sequel! There was nothing in the publicity or the reviews for the book, and nothing in the book itself that indicated this wasn’t a stand-alone book, so you feel doubly gypped.

That’s happened to me a few times, most recently with Once and Future, by Amy Rose Capetta and Cori McCarthy, and when it happens, whatever good feelings I had about the book drop dramatically when I discover that the author(s) pulled that kind of trick on me. My feeling is that readers and authors enter into a sort of implied agreement : the author is going to play fair, not pulling solutions to plots out of thin air, not violating the rules the author has set up for this particular universe, and finishing the story by the end of the book.  If the author is not going to finish the plot in one book, I feel it’s only fair to let the reader know in advance, by indicating somewhere that this is the first book in a series. Leaving the reader to find that out in the last pages of the book feels like a violation of that author-reader agreement.

It’s not that I don’t like books in series, or that I don’t understand that sometimes a story is too long and too complicated to be told in one book. I’m perfectly happy to read a book that’s part of a series, as long as I know it’s part of a series when I start, so I can decide if I want to read the first part now and wait years for the next part or not.

It’s possible, too, for a book to be part of a series and yet tell a complete story in itself. For instance, there is a several book arc in Jo Nesbo’s Harry Hole series in which a wrong done in the first book finally gets righted, but in each one of these books, the main plot line is resolved, even if those other issues are left for a later book to resolve.  In the same way, Felix Palma’s Map books (The Map of Time, The Map of the Sky,  The Map of Chaos) are obviously all connected, and it’s much more fun to read the later ones if you’ve read the earlier ones, but each book resolves (and in each case the resolution is both surprising and perfectly reasonable, given things that happened earlier in the book), and none of them leaves you hanging and waiting for a sequel to find out what happened to the characters. The more I think about series I have enjoyed in the past (including Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, The Magician King, The Magician’s Land,  and Hilary Mantel’s still unfinished series about Oliver Cromwell, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies), the clearer it is that I have no problem with a series as long as each book in the series is self-contained.

Nor do I have a problem with a series where the story is continued over a couple of volumes (I grew up on The Lord of the Rings, after all), when I know from the outset that book one is not going to answer all the questions it raises.  It’s about expectations, really. My expectations may be unreasonable (I don’t think they are, but then, who thinks they’re being unreasonable?), but if you want to make me happy as a reader, play fair and tell me at the outset whether you’re going to tell the whole story in one book or keep me on tenterhooks till you get the next book published.