Monday, 30 December 2019

My top 10 reads of 2019

It could have easily been 11 or 12, but 10 is a good round number. I have read well over 75 books this year, with a few -  which I started and never finished - not added to the final total.
Many of the books on my Reading challenge 2019 at Good Reads (if you're curious, click on the link to see what is on my list) are stories for children and YA fiction. This is mainly because I read to my younger son every evening, but there were a couple of YA books which I've read on my own, for pure pleasure.

Hence my top 10 are a mix of adult and YA fiction. Some of them are reviewed on my blog, some are still waiting to be reviewed, but each and every one of them is splendid in its own way, and each one made me marvel at the intricacies and idiosyncrasies of the human nature.

For keeping me sane in the hours when I feel despondent or stressed, I thank all the authors. I know that an escapism is a "bad" word, when related to books, but for me it's a positive experience. Escaping the mundane (how about reading The Wonky Donkey or Georgina the Giraffe aloud every single evening for half a year, or the drudgery of daily washing & ironing?!), the anxiety and stress of parenting, family disagreements, health issues etc - by moving into the parallel world of books - should be prescribed as a medical solution to many a problem.

I salute you, readers and authors!

And here are my favourite reads of 2019 in no particular order...

best books of 2019, Chez Maximka

The Secret by Katharine Johnson (Crooked Cat) was my first book of the year (<--- you can read a full review which was part of the blog tour). It is an absorbing novel which has managed to capture the particular time and place with a great authority and genuineness.
This is a story of two friends, whose lives were damaged by secrets and lies. This is also a story of the country, complicated and intense.
Martina and Elena grow up in Mussolini's Italy.
Martina is a beautiful spirited girl, who marries into a wealthy family. Her in-laws look at their only surviving son's union as a mesalliance.
Irena is plain but smart, she values books and education, and wants to become a teacher.
Their friendship is tested by the political events and personal circumstances.

This novel made me think of my parents-in-law's wartime childhood in Italy, and also of my own family. My great grandma and grandma lived under the Nazi occupation in the South of Russia. Those were the scary times, when loyalties were tested, families divided, and the survival depended on many factors. Just like in Katharine Johnson's book.

A Pinch of Magic by Michelle Harrison (Simon & Schuster) is a bewitching magic story with not one but three spirited heroines.
The Widdershin sisters - Betty, Fliss and Charlie - grow up on the isle of Crowstone. The village inn, The Poacher's Pocket is the only home they knew.
On her birthday, Betty learns about the family curse. And about the gifts bestowed on each Widdershin girl. There are three items, three gifts, each of them an everyday object, and each of them holds a different kind of power. A pinch of magic, as described by their grandma.
The sisters must work as a team, if they ever hope to break the family curse which has been killing off the womenfolk in their family for many generations. Their magic adventures border on suicide, and they must be brave, bold and trusting each other while going on their journey of discovery and self-discovery.

Book 2 in the series (A Sprinkle of Sorcery) will be out in 2020, and I'm super impatient to learn of the latest Widdershins' adventure.

best book of 2019, Chez Maximka, Russian dolls

The Girl Who Speaks Bear by Sophie Anderson (Usborne) is a magical tale of self-discovery, self-identity, our uniqueness and differentness, of what family and friendship, and true love mean to us. It's a beautiful story, and a future classic.

Yanka the Bear is big and strong, she is so different from the other children in the village.
She lives with Mamochka, a lady who found her in the deep forest outside the bear cave. Yanka keeps wondering about her parents, and the bear who looked after her when she was a baby.
One day after an accident in the snow fortress, Yanka wakes up to find that her feet have turned into the bear legs. She flees her home, looking for the answers in the forest.

It is a delightful story, with lots of elements of reinvented and retold Russian folk tales.
Wonderful cover design by Kathrin Honesta deserves a special mention too.

I wish this book was written when I was a child. I know that I would have loved it.
(And I also wish I wrote this book, as I love it so much).

Chez Maximka, best books for children, best books of 2019

Malamander by Thomas Taylor (Walker Books) is another book for children, which has won my son's and my hearts. It is a fabulous seaside mystery for anyone who enjoys a mix of folklore, Gothic horror and magic.
Herbie Lemon is the Lost-and-Founder at the Grand Nautilus Hotel in Eerie-on-Sea. He looks after the lost property, and lives in the hotel cubbyhole. He was found on the beach in a crate of lemons, with his memory wiped out.
One day a girl scrambles into his room through the window, she is trying to escape a scary Boathook Man. Violet is an orphan who tries to find the truth about her parents. Since Herbie is a Lost-and-Founder, Violet reckons he could help her in her search.
Thus a detective duo is born, and their adventures begin, amidst the stormy wintery atmosphere.

Malamander is the legendary sea monster, who roams the cold beach of Eerie-on-Sea in the dead of night. Meet him at your peril. It might destroy you or it might grant your wish, if you are lucky to get hold of its magical egg.

It's a wonderful story. A pure joy to read.

The 2nd book in the series should be out some time in 2020, and we cannot wait to read it.

best children's books of 2019, Chez Maximka

Sleep by C.L.Taylor (Avon) comes with the most enticing cover blurb:
Seven Guests. Seven Secrets. One Killer. Do you dare to... Sleep

Anna, an acting manager at Bay View Hotel on the remote Scottish island of Rum, is not able to sleep. Insomnia and night terrors, driven by a feeling of guilt, keep her awake.
Seven guests arrive to the small hotel, each hiding their own secrets, and all act suspiciously.
One of them is playing sadistic cruel mind games. When the first death in the hotel occurs, Anna is panic-stricken.
Cut off by the bad weather from the rest of the island, Anna and the guests have to endure each other's company, socialise and ultimately survive.
The cut-off hotel, with its remote location, and no way of getting in touch with anyone on the isle or beyond, works perfectly as a mystery vehicle to intensify the claustrophobic tension and drama.
The twist at the end will chill your bones.

best psyhoclogical thriller sof 2019, Chez Maximka

The Way of All Flesh by Ambrose Parry (Canongate) is a historical mystery with a medical twist. It is pretty gruesome (some of the scenes of childbirth are so harrowing, they stay with you for a long time), so if you're squeamish when it comes to gore in books, perhaps it is not a right book for you.
Will Raven, the main protagonist of the novel, is a medical student apprenticed to the renowned Dr Simpson.
Sarah Fisher is a housemaid in the same household. She is intelligent and shrewd, but being a female at those times, she is not expected to give her opinions on any things that truly matter.
The 19th C Edinburgh is brought to life and provides an atmospheric background to the series of spine-chilling murders. As the bodies' count grows, Will and Sarah begin to work together to find out the culprit.
Their relationship starts on a negative note, but slowly they begin to respect each other.
The medical scene of Edinburgh of 1847 is fascinating. The experiments with ether and chloroform (when women are used as guinea pigs by the medical men) are denounced by the church. Medical research takes a prime position in this historical crime.

It's a historical whodunnit at its finest.

The second book in the series, The Art of Dying, was published earlier in 2019.

historical crime fiction, best books of 2019, Chez Maximka

Storytellers by Bjørn Larssen (JosephTaylor) is set in Iceland, with its harsh unforgiving, yet breathtakingly beautiful and poetic landscape.
Gunnar is a reclusive blacksmith with a drinking problem. He lives with his dog and horse, and doesn't want to socialise. He's a loner, and likes it that way. Visitors make him panic. He wants peace of the nature around him and the company of his animals. And a steady supply of his "medication".

However, the fate brings a visitor on his doorstep.
Sigurd, a man with a broken ankle, has some mysterious plans of his own. He imposes himself on Gunnar, and pays for his silence. No-one should know about his whereabouts or even his existence.
To stop Gunnar from asking too many questions, Sigurd offers to tell him a story. A story which will include love and death, and plenty of everything.

The story unravels, as we travel back in time, and meet a young, fearless Icelander named Arnar who goes to America to seek fortune. There he meets the love of his life, a beautiful Juana. They elope and go back to Iceland.
Gunnar and Arnar's stories are interconnected. They are both stories of the human loneliness, depression and feeling entrapped.
This is a multi-layered tale, where the lives of farmers in the small closed community are elevated to the level of the sagas.

This is a beautiful narrative, with a vivid sense of place and time. A terrific read.

I believe Bjørn Larssen is working on a new book, and I'm looking forward to reading it (the hints on Twitter feed are very exciting).

best books of 2019, Chez Maximka

Tilly and the Bookwanderers (Pages & Co, book 1) by Anna James is a magical adventure for true bookworms.
Tilly lives with her grandparents above their bookshop ever since her mother has disappeared without a trace. All her family are bookish. They live and breathe books, escaping into the pages of their favourite novels.
One day Tilly meets children who turn up to be just like her favourite book characters - Anne of Green Gables and Alice in Wonderland. Only they're not LIKE the characters, they ARE the characters. How is that even possible?!
Tilly discovers that she has a gift of bookwandering, i.e. crossing the borders between the real world and the world of books. She can step into books and watch the events as they would unravel in stories.
With the help of her friend Oscar, Tilly wants to explore her newly-found gift, trying to find out what has happened to her mother. Will she be able to solve the mystery?

This is a great story for anyone who believes in the power of books. The concept of bookwandering is close to my heart. I'd love to go on an adventure with Tilly.

Tilly and the lost fairytales (Pages & Co book 2) was published earlier this year. We're half way through reading it.

best children's books of 2019, Chez Maximka

The Iron Chariot by Stein Riverton (Lightning Books; translation by Lucy Moffatt) was published in 1909. It has been voted the best Norwegian crime novel of all time in 2017.
On a hot summer day, a nameless narrator and his companions from a boarding house on an island are shocked to discover that one of their fellow guests has been found murdered.
The narrator was the last person to see the victim alive. On his walk on the eve before the gruesome discovery he meets a fisherman, and while talking, they both hear the sound of the rattling chains.
This is the sound of the iron chariot, a harbinger of an imminent death, according to the locals.

Detective Asbjorn Krag arrives from the capital to investigate.
Another death occurs in the neighbourhood, and again, the iron chariot is heard but not seen. The mystery intensifies, when it is revealed that the second victim was supposed to be dead for several years.
The narrator is drawn into the investigation by Detective Krag, who appears to be jolly, insensitive and rather devious.
The setting of the novel is reminiscent of the other famous sinister location in The Hound of the Baskervilles. Riverton's Gothic descriptions of nature provide an eerie background to the unravelling mystery.

Lucy Moffatt did a fantastic job, translating this novel for the English-speaking readers. My special thanks to her.

The Iron Chariot is a superb psychological mystery, which will appeal to the Scandi Noir fans.

best books published in 2019, Chez Maximka

Wakenhyrst by Michelle Paver (Head of Zeus) is a striking Gothic thriller. I only just finished reading it a few days ago, but after finishing it, I knew I had to rethink my original top 10 reads.
It has all the elements which appeal to me in a mystery - a secluded setting, a mix of suspense and supernatural, a strong female protagonist, a beautiful style of writing.
The novel is set in a remote manor house of Wake's End, surrounded by the fens of Suffolk at the beginning of the 20th C. The master of the house, a local landowner and historian Edmund Stearne is a scholar of the Middle Ages.
The story is mainly told by his daughter Maud, who we meet as a 69-year-old woman, and then travel with her back in time, when her father commits an atrocious murder and is confined to an asylum.
We also see the insights into the mind of a maniac from his diary entries.
Life in the fens is cruel and unforgiving. No wonder, the superstitions and local lore are abundant. Young Maud is caught between the pull of the fens and glimpses of freedom, and the expectations of what a young lady of her class and status should do. And oh my, how stifling that life is.
It seems a woman's lot is dreadful, wherever you look, from young Ivy who trades sex for the scraps of "better life" to Maud's mother whose married life is a drudgery of the "debt of matrimony", endless pregnancies and still births.
Wakenhyrst is dark, menacing and chilling.

Gothic thriller, best reads of 2019, Chez Maximka

And that's my top 10 reads of 2019. I wonder what new treasures 2020 will bring.

What were you favourite books of the year?


  1. I just finished writing my post about my favourite books of this year (it will be published in a few days), so I was very curious to read about your favourite books. I'm intrigued by the first one, so I'm going to read the full review now.

    1. I'd love to read your post, Anca. I suspect our top 10 reads are quite different, as you read a lot of non-fiction, and I only managed to read 2 non-fiction books this year. I loved all the books on my list, but I think now maybe I should have extended it to 12.

    2. That's true. For my list I only picked non-fiction as I feel those are the ones I want to talk more.
      For example, I loved some romantic novels, but I don't want to "promote" those, as it's not everybody's cup of tea. Also, I feel the non-fiction ones give much more value overall.

      I forgot to say yesterday, but I agree with you, books should be described as medical solutions. xx

  2. These all sound great - I'd be tempted to go and buy some of them, in particular the mysteries, but I already have way too many waiting to be read !