A Year In Books

In the year of our Lord 2019, I’ve somehow managed to read forty four books cover to cover (although I should imagine with uni reading lists I’ve dipped into closer to eighty!) This blog post is an opportunity to reflect on them all. There’s everything from murder mysteries to high fantasy to anthropological textbooks, so feel free to have a read through and maybe you can take something from my 2019 reading list for your 2020 list!

The first of two book pages in my bullet journal

NB: Due to the volume of books, where possible, I’ve kept to a strict quota of 50 words per book.

1. Record of A Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers

Becky Chambers is my favourite sci-fi writer, and this book perfectly encapsulates why. Its exploration of a future society brilliant combines speculative science with wonderfully written characters. Most importantly, the heart of this book is a core of optimism for humanity’s future that started my year with great positivity.

2. Animal Farm by George Orwell

This is an all time classic, and I completely see why. Orwell, in his ‘Fairy Story,’ evokes a deeply affecting allegory for the rise of a revolution, and its inevitable corruption. I’m sad it took me so long to get to it.

3. Saga Volume 4 by Fiona Staples and Brian K Vaughn

Generally speaking, Saga is fantastic. Staples’ art is evocative and compelling, Vaughn’s writing performs that rare paradox of feeling both traditionally embedded and startlingly original. Volume 4 acts primarily as a set up for the arc of volume 5, but don’t let this distract- it’s a lot of fun.

Saga Vol 4, Art by Fiona Staples
4. Crooked House by Agatha Christie

The murder of a patriarch, a family of suspects, a solution that feels at once inevitable and unpredictable? This is some brilliant Christie, in that deliciously dark way. I really enjoyed reading it (although I didn’t come close to working out whodunnit.)

5. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Fitzgerald doesn’t need me to compliment him, so I won’t wax lyrical for too long. A book that simultaneously propagates and condemns the American dream, written in the most beautiful prose, with some of the most iconic characters… I adore it, and I can’t wait to read more Fitzgerald soon.

6. Saga Volume 5 by Fiona Staples and Brian K. Vaughn

Remember how Volume 4 was setting up Volume 5? Here we see it explored in depth. It’s shocking, it’s exciting, it’s blisteringly romantic and deeply moving. The character combinations are delightful, and an ending that leaves you wanting more. I’d highly recommend this fun mix of space opera and fantasy.

7. Going Postal by Terry Pratchett

I love Pratchett, but his books can be hit and miss. This one, I’m glad to say, is a resounding hit. Moist Von Limpwig is a clever, loveable protagonist (a con artist running a post office), the subplots build towards a thrilling conclusion, and the love letter to letter writing is heartfelt.

Every undelivered message is a piece of space-time that lacks another end, a little bundle of effort and emotion floating freely. Pack millions of them together and they do what letters are meant to do. They communicate and change the nature of events. When there’s enough of them, they distort the universe around them.

– Terry Pratchett
8. Road To The 13th Doctor by Jody Houser, James Peaty, Rachel Stott, Pascqualano and Brian Williamson

A new adventure for the Tenth, Eleventh and Twelfth Doctors, as well as one glimpse at the 13th Doctor. I remember the art being rather fantastic, but besides that it fell into the usual weak spot of Doctor Who comics in my opinion of never quite blowing me away.

9. Agrippina by Dr Emma Southon

Often defined in relation to the men in her life (mother of Nero, wife of Claudius), Dr Southon here argues Agrippina is quite the force in her own right. An engrossing biography, but also a fascinating perspective on the Julio-Claudians and the way history remembers them. I highly recommend.

10. Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck

Interestingly, at the time I remember finding this really moving, but now ten months on, I feel quite indifferent. Lenny and George’s relationship still stands out, and the melancholy hope that pervades the novel remains tangible. I think I’ll benefit from a future reread.

11. The Time Machine by H.G. Wells

This wasn’t at all what I expected but I enjoyed it nonetheless! The time machine itself is more a route to the main speculation: evolution and future societies. Living in an age where time travel exists everywhere (from Doctor Who to the Avengers), it’s interesting to see where it started.

12. Wake The Devil by Mike Mignola

I haven’t always gelled with Hellboy, but revisiting it this year we finally seemed to click. Now the minimalist art style contains depths previously unseen, the haunting gothic absurdity seems to sing perfect sense, and Mignola’s simplistic, evocative writing really entertains. Fantastic!

Wake the Devil, Art by Mike Mingola
13. Lies Sleeping by Ben Aaronovitch

I read the first Rivers of London when I was 12 and fell in love. This sixth instalment, though, is perhaps the first since to engross me as deeply. A pulse-racing procedural thriller, it also digs deep into the lore whilst pushing the continuing story in an exciting new direction.

14. Kings of the Wyld by Nicholas Eames

So… imagine DnD-style adventuring parties are treated like rock bands. It only gets wilder from there. This is a very fun romp which although being incredibly long (it could have been a series) never wastes a scene. Miraculously, though, deep beneath the zaniness is genuine heart. A fun read.

15. Northern Lights by Philip Pullman

This is the perfect children’s adventure story, and I’m not just biased as an Oxford student. From the very first scene, there’s a palpable tension which is only enriched by the lyricism of the prose and the depth (every phrase is packed) and breadth (every invention inspired) of the imagination.

16. 1984 by George Orwell

With the exception of the digressions to economic theory, this book is perfect. From a first sentence which evokes an unsettling climate in just fourteen words, to a conclusion which sends shivers through me even now, Orwell here creates a terrifying glimpse of a plausible destination for human nature.

17. Fantastic Four Volume 1 by Mark Waid and Mike Wieringo

I need something to cheer me up after 1984. This book did it- a lot of fun, flashing colours and of course a fun interpretation of Marvel’s First Family. It’s not particularly deep (it’s a superhero comic that Zack Snyder hasn’t misunderstood) but it is plenty entertaining.

18. B.P.R.D.: Hollow Earth and Other Stories by Mike Mignola (et al)

The eponymous story is fantastic- a proper pulp adventure which evokes the buried menace of an ancient horror in Mignola’s classic minimalist style. The other stories are fun explorations of the life of the BPRD without Hellboy to keep them company. I liked it a lot.

19. The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Buklagkov

A satire of Stalin’s Moscow that imagines the arrival of the Devil and his crew, and the sheer lunacy that results. This is a luridly imaginative work that’s as beautifully written as it is ethereally provocative. It’s an experience I’d recommend to anyone.

20. Hellboy: The Complete Short Stories Volume 1 by Mike Mignola (et al)

This collection, which contains fantastic stories like the Midnight Circus and the Corpse, is a really rather brilliant ensemble of adventures for Hellboy. I love how each of the writer/artist pairs contained explore Hellboy in a different way, finding new angles on a familiar source. An entertaining addition to the canon.

The Midnight Circus, Art by Duncan Fegredo
21. The Republic of Thieves by Scott Lynch

Two stories entangled into one; both a genius game of electoral corruption and the kindling of romance as a bunch of plucky thieves keep multiple plates spinning. This is a celebration of deep, imaginative world building, an exploration of brilliant characterisation and an elaborate puzzlebox of plotting and pace.

22. Unseen Academicals by Terry Pratchett

I normally can’t stand football, so the fact that Pratchett made me care is quite a feat. The trick? The book isn’t about football at all, but rather the community it creates, and the meaning of individual identity within. It’s genius, and it’s fun, and it’s so totally Terry Pratchett.

23. Eyewitnessing by Peter Burke

This was the first book I read specifically for Oxford, and what a start. A fascinating exploration of using images as historical evidence, as well as their impact as historical agents of their own. You’ll never look at paintings the same.

24. Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

This book is beautiful and sad, violent and tragic. It’s one of my favourites I’ve read this year and opened my eyes to a whole new way of writing. The characterisation, the rich description of the prose and that beautiful, haunting final sentence… Achebe is a true master.

The night was very quiet. It was always quiet except on moonlight nights. Darkness held a vague terror for these people, even the bravest among them Children were warned not to whistle at night for fear of evil spirits. Dangerous animals became even more sinister and uncanny in the dark. A snake was never called by its name at night because it would hear. It was called a string. And so on this particular night as the crier’s voice was gradually swallowed up in the distance, silence returned to the world, a vibrant silence made more intense by the universal trail of a million million forest insects

– Chinua Achebe
25. Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman

This is a very simplistic book. The prose is sparse, the characters mythic icons, the chapters not particularly long. And yet Gaiman manages to breathe a new life into these ancient stories, deriving from the shallows an enchanting depth that lives on- not in the reading- but in the memory.

26. The Hellenistic World by F.W. Walbank

A crash course in Greek history from the Wars of Succession to the Coming of Rome, Walbank wrestles with a vast period of history in a (mostly) accessible manner. I’m not going to lie, it’s not much of a page turner, but for Summer Reading, it was useful.

27. The Dark Tower by Stephen King (it’s more than 50 words, but what do you expect for a 1000 page novel?)

How do you end an ambitious metatextual fantasy epic twenty years in the making? Ask Stephen King, it’s in a heartbreaking, mind-blowing race towards the end of the universes with a twist in the tale that’ll divide fans (I love it!). I’ve read one a year of this series since 2013, so like Roland’s, it’s been a long journey to the Dark Tower. I can’t wait to one day begin it again.

28. The Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman

Where book 1 was an Enid Blyton adventure, this feels much more Tolkien. The world building is epic in the truest sense of the word, and the descriptions of angels, or Lord Asriel’s fortress are images I’ll carry with me forever. Simply exquisite.

29. Saga Volume 6 by Fiona Staples and Brian K Vaughn

The particularly exciting part of this instalment is its time jump. After the huge cliffhangers of Vol 5, to see such a completely different world spill out in front of you is equal parts hilarious AND exciting. It’s really testimony to the limitless imagination of the creative team.

30. Islands of History by Marshall Sahlins

This book is phenomenal. Although at times a little dense- I spent a lot of time googling what certain terms meant- the ideas explored are utterly phenomenal and have really changed my understanding of not just history, but of society as a whole. A great primer for anthropology.

31. Local Knowledge by Clifford Geertz

A collection of essays by the famous symbolic anthropologist, whilst I didn’t quite find it as revelatory as Sahlins above, it certainly provided some fascinating perspectives on everything from common sense to the charisma of monarchs. For anyone interesting at looking at the symbolic nature of society, I’d highly recommend.

32. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

On one hand, its wit is brilliant and its characters well observed- as a satirical insight, I enjoyed it a lot. On the other, its length really worked against it and some of the subplots failed to grab my attention. Not for me personally, but certainly not a bad read.

33. The Double Clue and Other Mysteries by Agatha Christie

Four short stories about Hercules Poirot. That Christie can so effectively evoke crimes and their solutions in 16 pages is really impressive; I’ll admit some of were impossible to work out but even in those cases, joy could be found in listening to Poirot explain. A lot of fun.

34. A Briefer History of Time by Leonard Mlodinow and Stephen Hawkin

I’m a Historian. I spend my time reading about treaties and togas and poetry. And yet, through this book, I developed a basic understanding of quantum theory, light speed and black holes. Hawking and Mlodinow have conjured an incredibly accessible piece of scientific writing here, and I loved every minute.

35. Tristes Tropiques by Claude Lévi-Strauss

What a book! One third fascinating anthropological study, another third poetically written travelogue, and a final third an intense time capsule of its time of writing. This was meant to be a bit of introductory reading for university, but I ended up just reading it for pleasure. Highly recommended.

Time, in an unexpected way, has extended its isthmus between life and myself; twenty years of forgetfulness were required before I could establish communion with my earlier experience, which I had sought the world over without understand its significance of appreciating its essence

– Claude Lévi-Strauss
36. How To Stop Time by Matt Haig

I really wanted to like this book but it just didn’t work for me. The protagonist/narrator was unbearably miserable, its dialogue stunted, its structure irritating at best, its conclusion anti-climatic, its fantastic premise (a guy who met Shakespeare, Fitzgerald, Captain Cook!) disappointing. So much potential, but ultimately underwhelming.

37. The Crack-Up by F. Scott Fitzgerald

This is a collection of essays by the brilliant writer. The content was interesting and deeply considered, yes, but the real attraction is Fitzgerald’s writing. I feel it’s a cliche to compare it to poetry, to describe it as lyrical, and yet there is no alternative. Every line is utterly enchanting.

New York had all the iridescence of the beginning of the new world

– F. Scott Fitzgerald
38. The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman

Aside from Pullman’s style and world-building, I was struck by the book’s realism. Whilst the war’s fought between armoured bears, angels, witches, even finger length spies who ride dragonflies, it feels vivid. Honest. Although I recognise I’m biased (see picture), the stakes are tangible, and the heartbreak earnest. A powerful, brilliant conclusion.

Finishing the Amber Spyglass on Will and Lyra’s bench, just across the road from Merton
39. Four Quartets by T.S. Eliot

I first came across this during my Oxford interview; I was quite delighted to revisit it as a student. The joy comes in the dreamlike obscurity of the text; occasional glimmers of sense appear, but for me (a casual reader) the confusion is the best part. Beautiful. Labyrinthine. Enchanting.

Desire itself is movement not in itself desirable; love is itself unmoving, only the cause and end of movement

T.S. Eliot
40. The Fall of Rome and the Death of a Civilisation by Bryan Ward-Perkins

Some prepatory reading for next term! With a much heavier focus on material culture than some of the other books I dipped into, I found this perspective on the fall of the Roman Empire really fascinating; it’s definitely got my excited to go back in January.

41: Rome and the Mediterranean 290-146: The Imperial Republic by Nathan Rosenstein

I read this to consolidate my learning from last term and found it really useful. Simply but insightfully written, it provided a useful summary of prevalent arguments in the scholarship and expertly tied a scope of issues to the single theme of imperium. Very useful!

42: Return of the King by J.R.R. Tolkien (again, it’s more than 50 words but this is the final Lord of the Rings book! Who can blame me?)

Perhaps appropriately for a book about hobbits and men, what struck me here was the dichotomy between big and small. In the battles and the heroic moments, Tolkien’s writing is mythic and engrossing- you feel the terror as Sauron’s forces march on Gondor, you feel the adrenaline coursing through Eowyn’s veins as she faces the Witchking. This big writing truly engrosses! But so does the smaller scenes- the tender, caring moments where Sam and Frodo remember the Shire, or await their deaths genuinely moved me. Tolkien’s balance of bombast and elegance is miraculous, and special. I’m so glad I read it.

When at last they came to the bottom of the gorge they found that evening had fallen in the deep places. The sun was gone. Twilight lay upon the waterfalls

J.R.R. Tolkien (one of those quiet bits of beauty I think is usually overlooked in his works)
43. Lyra’s Oxford by Philip Pullman

Lyra and Pan’s story was fun, but not the source of joy. For me, that came in the artefacts, particularly the Oxford map. Its references to other places- Mesopotamia and Babylonia! New Denmark! The Empire of Peru!- were tantalising glimpse that, as ever with Pullman, provided nectar for the imagination.

44. The Mysterious Affair At Styles by Agatha Christie

POTENTIAL SPOILERS: Despite being her first novel, Christie overlaps the individual agency of each character with aplomb. Rather than one culprit and a bunch of red herrings, every character contributes to the obfuscation of the crime for their own personal (conflicting) reasons- Poirot’s unravelling of this makes for a joyous catharsis.

And there we go! A whole year’s worth of reading in one blog post. As I publish this, I brace myself to grab a copy of Becky Chamber’s newest book and begin my reading for 2020.

Happy Reading!

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