Because of the nature of my writing work, this website ends up being a whole lot about music. In fact, I’m every bit as obsessive about reading, too. It’s become an annual tradition to post my favourite books of the year, in part for others, in part because I have a bad memory, and dropping back into the old posts to remember what I really loved it quite a pleasant experience (here’s what I wrote in 2018, 2017, and 2016).
This year was a little bit special, of course, because back in April I also launched my debut book, about a relatively obscure international football tournament for unrecognised nations. It’s called ‘CONIFA: Football For The Forgotten‘. Its launch was definitely my favourite booky moment of the year, obviously, but I’m not the kind of egomaniac to include it below (please do check it out – you’ll have to scroll down on the linked post for order details).
I think in part because I was so book focused through the year, my read count is a little up on most years (I’ll have read 55, my own not included, by the end of the year), so this year’s post is a true ‘elite’. As usual, it’s quite an eclectic selection. Here’s what I really loved…
Beijing Coma by Ma Jian (view)
This is a novel based on the Tiananmen Square student uprising, written (originally) in Chinese by a Chinese emigrant. It’s given a real sense of being close to reality by being written by someone who was actually there. It’s based around two parallel stories about a core character: one set at the time of the uprising, and a second over the following years, as he exists in his mother’s house, poorly cared for, in a coma, but able to hear everything going on around him.
It’s a fairly full-on, heady read, absolutely packed with fascinating cultural references, and I found the ‘locked-in’ aspect of it to be quite affecting. A history lesson in novel form, essentially, with lots of alien (to us) politics and colourful relationships. Fascinating.
I Am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes (view)
I’m going to be a little strange in my recommendation here: this book is at least 100 pages too long, and you’ll probably see a decent approximation of the ending coming at somewhere around the halfway mark. Despite that, it’s a really, really enjoyable read, one that really pulls you through its hundreds of pages at something of a manic pace.
Based around a hunt for a brilliantly educated and well-hidden terrorist, it’s something of a ‘worst-case scenario’ for anti-terror intelligence: a man who’s able to hide and counteract everything they need to know about him. We learn the story of the terrorist and his life’s journey in parallel to that of those who are chasing him, and the whole tale meanders seamlessly across vast swathes of the planet, interlocking into a really clever, surprisingly coherent (given its disparate parts) story. It’s flawed, but it’s very, very good.
Unfollow by Megan Phelps-Roper (view)
Megan Phelps-Roper was born into the notorious Westboro Baptist Church, an extremist Christian organisation based in Kansas that essentially views anyone with a different take on the world – including other Christians – as being fundamentally wrong, and worthy of damning to hell. She lived within her family and church until her mid-20s.
Megan came to see the world differently, though, and eventually fled together with her sister Grace to live a more conventional life, after a difficult period facing up to the realities of the church’s position and her family’s views. This book is seriously profound, in part because it examines the idea of being born into something that you’ll naturally, almost inherently come to believe, and how difficult the process of readjustment can be. It also glances into problems with polarisation, and the art of perspective. A really moving book from someone who’s been through an extraordinary amount in her relatively young life.
The Rise of the Ultra Runners by Adharanand Finn (view)
I’m totally absorbed with the concept of ultra-running, which essentially means covering distances larger than a marathon, and at times multi-day stage races over hundreds of kilometres. I ran my own first one this year, a ‘short’ ultra consisting of a very hilly 45kms that took me a touch over seven hours.
Adharanand Finn is one of those writers who explores something in quite brilliant depth, and then writes about it. You get the impression he’s only writing about the absolute peak of what he learnt, and in this book, he delves into mostly the most ridiculous ultra runs that the UK has to offer, such as a circuit of Ynys Mon over three days, or a race right through the heart of Wales. It’s memorable because it mixes the relatively ordinary (putting one foot in front of the other) with feats of extreme training and emotional racing. Not for everyone, perhaps, but I was so taken I read two of his other books almost immediately after this one, and both of them could have made this list, too. Mr Finn can both run and write exceptionally well.
My Sister, The Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite (view)
This book probably falls into the category of ‘easy reading’, in that you could get through the whole thing in a couple of hours, but what an entertaining couple of hours. The plot revolves around a pair of sisters, one of whom works in the local hospital in Lagos, Nigeria, and the other of whom is a social butterfly, and, well, a serial killer.
Specifically, the younger sister goes on dates or has extended relationships with men, who she then claims have abused her (it quickly becomes unlikely that she is so consistently being abused), and kills off. She then calls her sister to come and help ‘subtly’ dispose of the body, as an increasing suspicious local police force try to pin down what’s going on. Plenty of dark humour and downright daft conversations form the heart of what’s a very light but very, very readable novel.