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2019 in books -- a selection

I have decided to repeat last year's stocktaking/recommendations exercise. It seems like a good way to ensure I manage at least one blog post each year. Following last year's rather white, male year, I once again resolved to read more women of colour, and did. Paying attention to structural inequality helps you do something about it. Here are some of the ones that stuck with me the most this past year. I could happily have recommended all I read last year, so I have made some hard choices.

Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy -- Cathy O'Neill
There is a tendency among people in power (and middle managers the world over) to think that if a computer spits out a number it comes express from divine truth. There are few things that scares me more. This book gives a good account of how the abuse of algorithms by people who believe they are objective leads to spiralling inequality and injustice. It should be mandatory reading despite her tendency to reach for baseball to help her explain things. Some of it is particular to the American context (which seems to be ahead of the curve when it comes to spiralling into dystopian nightmares), but that does not make it less relevant. It is not a technophobe's book, though: there is a faint glimmering hope that if people could get their act together, the same algorithms could be a force for good.

Circe -- Madeline Miller
I really liked her Song of Achilles a few years ago, and got quite excited when it turned out she was writing this book. It feels safe to be in the hands of someone who knows their Greek myth. This book ties together the different the different myths in which she has a role or a relation, and infuses her more centrally into the narratives where she has been incidental. I like the feminist edge to it, and how it goes beyond the Odyssey to weave in the other myths connected to her line. Also, I am a sucker for stories about spinning and weaving.

The Raven Tower -- Ann Leckie
Reading Ann Leckie is never a mistake. She writes fascinating books with a considered use of pronouns that allows her to play around with gender. Here, she avoids gendering her non-binary central protagonist by addressing them in the second person throughout. The book is a fantasy story of power and the random things society assigns as "unnatural" (here, for example, twins), and has a Hamlet and Macbeth throughline, which I rather enjoyed.

Raffles -- E. W. Hornung
Easter means crime fiction, and I feel I have restrained myself admirably in not turning this into an Agatha Christie appreciation list (I am still planning to become Miss Marple when I grow up); but this stood out as being an inversion of the genre (a la Lupin). I am fairly sure this is really a story of being two gay men in love in Victorian Britain. The subtext made me question where subtext ends and innuendo begins, which is rare. Raffles seems the unapologetically (though secretly) gay man, while Bunny is more hesitant but violently in love. Throw in the cricket metaphors and allusions, and I will die on this hill. Am also left with a strange yearning to steal jewels.

A Daughter of Isis: The Early Life of Nawal El Saadawi, In Her Own Words -- Nawal El Saadawi
Walking Through Fire: The Later Years of Nawal El Saadawi, In Her Own Words -- Nawal El Saadawi

Nawal El Saadawi is one of the great feminist authors, and when I came across her autobiographies you could not have stopped me. She details some egregious discrimination, and I did want to punch people regularly while reading, but on the whole these are wonderful books. She writes so fluidly, yet matter-of-factly. I still marvel at what it is that makes someone stand up to discrimination and injustice when no one else does.

An Unnecessary Woman -- Rabih Alameddine
I bought this because there is something very appealing in being shut up alone and translate a single book each year, and loved it as soon as there was talk of lighting candles for Walter Benjamin. In the background, there is war and frustration, and the threat of disruption. And blue hair. But the whole tone of the book is perfect, and there is a love of literature and language at the heart of it which made it a delight to read. I can't believe no one told me about this book.

The Mummy! A Tale of the Twenty-Second Century. In 3 vols. -- Jane Webb/Loudon
This is a gothic science fiction three-decker from 1827 and is completely out of print. If you want to read it in its complete glory, you are going to have to buy it for £3000 or stop by the British Library reading rooms. Then again, it is in a way the only book you will ever have to read, as it covers all the genres and all the plots and all the intrigues. I loved it. In an "I can see every revelation coming a mile away, and the characters are not what you would call fleshy" kind of way. Contains robot lawyers and doctors, a mummy revived through galvanism, wars in Spain and travel by balloons (not to mention houses moved on rails! so that you could follow the shifting patterns of fashionable neighbourhoods). And regular satire.

Superwomen: Gender, Power, and Representation -- Carolyn Cocca
This book should be mandatory reading for all pop culture fans. It looks at representation of women, queer and disabled superheroes, and traces their development over time. This in itself makes for very interesting reading, but in addition it looks at how production and reception contexts have influenced their presence or lack thereof (the birth and death of the comics shop, for example), but also individuals (Chris Clearmont seems to crop up everywhere, bringing with him a ray of sunshine).

The Fifth Season -- N. K. Jemisin
The Obelisk Gate -- N. K. Jemisin
The Stone Sky -- N. K. Jemisin

Jemisin was the major discovery of the year for me. I am very much behind times in that respect, and I may have started in the wrong end, with her latest. This trilogy, named Broken Earth is the richest textured world I have found in a fantasy novel in a long time, and I was struck by the interconnections between plot and characters. I am also a sucker for allusions to long-dead civilisations, and here it was worked to good effect. I also loved how it ties together discussions of slavery, gender, sexuality, and who gets to be human with a climate fiction touch and a critique of consumerist over-consumption. Any series of books that manages to interweave equality with a consideration of how to balance despair and activism seems essential reading these days.

The Killing Moon -- N. K Jemisin
The Shadowed Sun -- N. K. Jemisin

Jemisin's Dreamblood duology turns necromancy into narcomancy and is set with an Egyptian flavour without overdoing it. She has a talent of spinning worlds, power, and magic systems in such a way that you do not notice the exposition -- you just sit there suddenly realising you know the details of this non-existent society. And find it skilfully commends on our own. I love how she weaves theme, politics, characters and worldbuilding in such a way that they reflect each other.

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms -- N. K. Jemisin
Broken Kingdoms -- N. K. Jemisin
Kingdom of Gods -- N. K. Jemisin

As I said I have been reading Jemisin backwords, and so ended with her first, The Inheritance Trilogy. In the very first book it is perhaps a little noticeable that this is a less experienced writer than the author of Broken Earth, but it reads like a dream, and the complexity increases in the second and third books.

Some Trick -- Helen DeWitt
The Last Samurai -- Helen DeWitt
I have been reading Helen DeWitts first book regularly since it came out (and it is probably the main reason I am currently trying to learn Japanese). When she published a short story collection this year, I put everything else aside and read it immediately. It is interesting how a new work by an author can change what you have already read. I had never thought of DeWitt as a short story writer, but having read her short stories, I can see how that is there in the structure of The Last Samurai as well. She is the finest author I know when it comes to characters who can navigate life, those who just can't, and the horrible parasites in between. She does thought experiments, and it is fascinating how she manages to go deep into what should perhaps be boring but which only ends up conveying and transferring the enthusiasm for language, statistics, or whathaveyou.

Middlemarch -- George Eliot
In celebration of the bicentennial of Eliot's birth, I read this book in parts from April to November. I do not believe I have ever read a better book where I wanted to kick every single character repeatedly. Precisely in its aggravation, though, it is a stellar illustration of running head-on into locked-in convention. Read advisedly. Eliot is the most open-eyed narrator I know of, and her style is brilliant (and funny). But you will want to slap them all.

Queen's Gambit -- Walter Tevis
I bought this solely for the title, and while the beginning is deeply dispiriting, it got much better. I love the idea of a Bobby Fischeresque female chess champion, but the main appeal of the book was actually the chess and the touches of chess history. I had to put the book down while reading what I think was a four-page chess game because my pulse was too high.

Girl, Woman, Other -- Bernardine Evaristo
Probably the finest book of the year. It weaves together the stories of the eponymous girls, women and others, showing how gender, race and sexuality influence lives that are also about art, love, teaching, and status. I loved the types of stories told, the style of interlacing stories, and the rhythm of the language made it feel like the best kind of poetry. It was immediately engaging and hard to put down (I tried). Much as I love Atwood (and with the caveat that I have not read her book yet), I cannot help but think this deserved to be sole winner of the Booker this past year.


The list is less white and male than it was last year. Out of 60 books, 24 were women of colour, and I would not have done without reading any of them.
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Last edited by
Camilla, 29.01.20 09:05