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15 best books of 2019 you need to read

By Catharina Cheung 31 December 2019

It’s the very last day of the decade, and we’re sure a lot of you are setting your goals and intentions for the coming year. Be truthful now: how many times have you scribbled down “read more books” as a new year’s resolution? We’ve rounded up the best books to have come out in 2019, so hit up your nearest bookstore, grab a few noteworthy tomes, and strut into 2020 a (soon-to-be) well-read individual with more interesting things to say!

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Fiction

‘Mostly Dead Things’ by Kristen Arnett

Arnett’s debut novel is a treasure trove (or should we say a hidden Pandora’s Box) of uninhibited imaginations and perversions. Set in sunny Florida, the plot is conversely dark, featuring a family of taxidermists. Title character Jessa-Lynn takes on the business after her father kills himself in his workshop, but does so as she descends into a depressive spiral of alcoholism. Expect unforced depictions of first love, outlandish expressions of grief, and roadkill preserved in some curiously sexual poses.

‘The Diver’s Game’ by Jesse Ball

Ball, named by Granta as one of the best young American novelists in 2017, has written a new novel about a dystopian society where citizens are either “pats”—the ruling class—or “quads”—the underclass. Social order is maintained through institutionalised violence, where pats are free to lethally gas quads, no questions asked. The sparse language, choppy narrative, and focus on youthful characters belie the innocence lost in a society built on inequality.

‘Trust Exercise’ by Susan Choi

Choi fleshes out the issues brought out by the #MeToo movement, setting the dramatised events of the novel in 1980s suburban America. Teenagers Sarah and David are manipulated into turning against each other by their drama teacher Mr Kingsley, and Sarah’s best friend Karen is seduced by visiting teacher Martin.

The narrative is Sarah’s book on the events that she writes as an adult, but halfway through, Karen vehemently inserts her own side of the story, claiming that Sarah has misrepresented her. The ultimate trust exercise here is the one between Choi and her reader.

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By Amanda Sheppard 28 November 2019
By Contributed content 5 August 2019

‘Ducks, Newburyport’ by Lucy Ellmann

The fact that this modernist work really pushes the stream-of-consciousness narrative to its very limits should be reason enough for you to read it. Over 90 percent of this 1,020-page novel consists of just eight immense run-on sentences with no paragraph breaks, separated only by commas.

Readers will really have to sift through the narrator’s seemingly random jumble of thoughts, but the narrative is hidden there, and it’s well worth the work. Ducks, Newburyport may give you some serious “hockey puck, rattlesnake, monkey, monkey, underpants” vibes, but with a darker overarching subject matter on the nameless protagonist’s musings on mortality.

‘The Testaments’ by Margaret Atwood

After three decades, Atwood finally gifted us with the much-awaited sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale. Readers are sucked back into Gilead, from which Offred has successfully escaped. The narrative is told from three points of view, the most compelling of which is Aunt Lydia’s—we finally get a look into her inner musings, her motivations, and her past.

There is a much more conspiratorial tone as compared to the previous book, and while some might take offence at how everything seems too neatly wrapped up by the end, we think it’s a great way to say goodbye to this stunning dystopian universe.

‘On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous’ by Ocean Vuong

Vuong’s first novel about the coming of age of Vietnamese protagonist Little Dog growing up in Connecticut is inspired by the poet’s own family story. Through his journey into the American education system as an immigrant, and onto his career as a writer, Vuong presents an unflinching view of foreignness, the immigrant experience, and diasporas. At the core of the novel is also Little Dog’s doomed relationship with Trevor, the epitome of white working-class masculinity. Addressed to his abusive mother Rose, Little Dog’s tale is ultimately one where loneliness and intimacy intertwine.

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By Jenny Leung 15 April 2019

‘Girl, Woman, Other’ by Bernadine Evaristo

Sharing this year’s Booker Prize with Margaret Atwood is Evaristo’s eighth novel, a celebration of black womanhood. Each chapter focuses on a different black British woman and her story, which are later revealed to be interlinked. Amusing, striking, and full of heart, it’s all too easy to see why Evaristo is the first black female winner of the Booker Prize.

‘The Heavens’ by Sandra Newman

Newman’s fourth novel about dreams, reality, and delusions, truly cannot be tied down by genre. Protagonist Kate has insisted since a young age that she visits other worlds while she sleeps, and, in dreams, lives the life of Emilia Bassano in late 1500s London. She becomes increasingly steeped in her alternative Elizabethan reality and is convinced that America’s modern decline is due to the mistakes she makes back in 1593.

The reader is dragged along on Kate’s hazy time-jumping journey to save the world, as she also juggles a relationship in modern Manhattan with a man who is increasingly disparaged by her delusions—or are they?

‘To Calais, in Ordinary Time’ by James Meek

Of Meek’s odd new novel, Jon Day mused that “you never know if you’re reading a comedy of manners, a bawdy romance, a dystopian novel, or a medieval porno,” and we’re inclined to agree. The story is set in fourteenth-century England, and the three central characters—Will, a serf, Bernadine, a nobleman’s daughter, and Pitkerro, a proctor—are on the road to Dorset to catch a ship bound for France.

This motley group of travellers calls to mind The Canterbury Tales, but unlike Chaucer, the work isn’t presented solely in Middle English; instead, anachronisms and archaisms are peppered in to differentiate between the experiences and backgrounds of the characters. From a linguistic and syntactic point of view, if nothing else, this period tale of strange encounters is a most interesting novel.

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By Catharina Cheung 24 December 2019

‘Spring’ by Ali Smith

Smith’s third volume of her Seasonal Quartet of books once again tackles current events and is bleaker than Autumn and Winter. The first novel dealt with the mood in a Britain divided by the Brexit vote, and now Spring captures Brexit’s impact and uncertainty, the looming disaster of climate breakdown, and political will in both Britain and the rest of the world.

As with her other works, there is the introduction of a stranger who awakens the characters’ hidden or repressed emotions, presented this time in the form of twelve-year-old Florence, a magical child who is also a retelling of Shakespeare’s Pericles. Read it before the Seasonal Quartet comes to its conclusion.

‘Sudden Traveller’ by Sarah Hall

We’ve thrown in some short fiction with Hall’s seven dark tales of death, sex, and danger. There is a distinct tone of female triumph in characters seeking revenge against men who have wronged them, a dash of the supernatural, an exploration into the ugliness of family, and musings on grief and mortality, all wrapped up in a powerful contemplation on journeying towards an inevitable unknown.

‘The Memory Police’ by Yoko Ogawa

The Memory Police is the outlier in this list, as it was actually first published in 1994 in Japan, but has only been translated into English this year. On an unnamed island, life is harshly governed by the Memory Police, who continually “disappear” objects and memories associated with these objects, for reasons that the suppressed inhabitants dare not even guess at.

One central character retains these memories, however, and others take great risk to hide him so they can salvage what little is left of their collective memories. This is a heart-wrenching look into how memories are associated with personal and shared knowledge, and how much of such memories make human beings human.

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Non-fiction

‘Axiomatic’ by Maria Tumarkin

In a move unusual for authors, Tumarkin doesn’t shy away from clichés, instead embracing a well-worn phrase in each section of Axiomatic and breaking it down, presenting the concept in a different light, or contradicting it outright.

She takes to critiquing Australian society and culture in this latest work, with the themes of suffering and endurance, and addresses the Big Questions, but leaves them open-ended. This collection of sorrowful and compassionate essays is well worth the read.

‘Invisible Women’ by Caroline Criado Perez

Writer and campaigner Criado Perez draws on an enormous amount of research and data to present an exposé on exactly how much of a man’s world we still live in. Feminism still has such a long way to go, and already we’re seeing discouraging signs of people getting sick of it. The heart of the #MeToo movement seems to be overshadowed by our obsession with celebrity, scandal, and sex, and other branches of prejudice, such as transphobia, are cropping up faster than we can nip the buds.

Criado Perez unflinchingly highlights the oft-unseen places where inequality still lurks, and the reader is very much reminded that our society was definitely not built taking gender differences into account. Invisible Women won the Royal Society science book prize, and rightly so.

‘Underland’ by Robert Macfarlane

Humans have always had a fascination with the underworld (think Greek mythology and the stories of Orpheus, Theseus, Hercules, and Eurydice), and Macfarlane tells of his own journeys into the depths of the earth.

He seems to enjoy stirring up the visceral feelings of both fear and fascination that unknown landscapes often bring out in people. The underlying discussion is also about the relationship between man and earth, the fragility of it all, and how nature will ultimately triumph over any of mankind’s petty cleverness.

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Catharina Cheung

Senior editor-at-large

Catharina has recently returned to her hometown of Hong Kong after spending her formative years in Singapore and the UK. She enjoys scouring the city for under-the-radar things to do, see, and eat, and is committed to finding the perfect foundation that will withstand Hong Kong’s heat. She is also an aspiring polyglot, a firm advocate for feminist and LGBTQIA+ issues, and a huge lover of animals. You can find her belting out show-tunes in karaoke, or in bookstores adding new tomes to her ever-growing collection.

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