Over the past couple of years, I have documented every film that I have watched and reviewed them all using Letterboxd. As a way to motivate myself to read more, I thought I would do the same for what books I have been reading, using Goodreads as a way to set myself a reading challenge every year.
After doubling my goal of 10 books last year (since I went on honeymoon and managed to read a book a day!), I thought I would keep my goal to 20 books this year. However, just missed out on this target, but I was ever so close to making it.
Here’s how my 2019 challenge went, with a short review and rating for each of the books that I read:
1. Mythos by Stephen Fry
If like me, your favourite lessons in primary school were learning about Ancient Greece and Egypt and about all of the fantastical stories about Gods and Kings who helped to shape the world we live in today, then this is a book that you need read.
There’s a lot of information to take in and so much to be learnt, but Fry’s narration makes these many characters and their stories easy to follow. The stories on their own are concise, but they are also linked together so well that they effortlessly take you from the beginning of time to the Age of Gods and Mortals (our creation), ending before the Heroic age (which allows his second book, Heroes, to neatly follow on from this one).
2. Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them (Original Screenplay) by J. K. Rowling
I had seen the film before reading this screenplay, so I knew exactly what to expect in terms of story, but it is still a beautiful hardcover edition to own, nonetheless. It was a sad time when the Harry Potter films came to an end, but this prequel spin-off is a satisfying substitute, as Rowling expands the world of Harry and Hogwarts into the bigger world, taking us back to a time when it all began for some of the older characters we know from her books.
Not only does Rowling take the time to craft a simple and charming tale of Newt searching the streets for his lost beasts, but she also combines this with a deep, magical context of a franchise we fell in love with many years ago, one that we had to sadly come to terms with ending, as she welcomes the British wizarding world into America to begin a whole new adventure.
3. Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald (Original Screenplay) by J. K. Rowling
With more references to the original Harry Potter stories, including a scene in Hogwarts with Dumbledore and Professor McGonagall, this second instalment is just as magical as the first and finally starts getting into what we’re all really here for – to see the conflict and history between Grindelwald and Dumbledore.
With new fantastical beasts, a darker plot, new characters we’ve been looking forward to meeting, and a look at the magical wizarding world in Paris to further expanding our experience of the franchise, The Crimes of Grindelwald is very different from the first prequel but it also has so much more to be excited about.
4. The Wife Between Us by Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen
Normally, you would read a story like this and take it as it is, but you are told to treat The Wife Between Us differently. And that’s because the main twist is so early on. But whilst you have been prepared for it, it still comes as a total surprise.
It’s a surprise that seems so obvious, looking back at it. I was starting to get a little confused at the beginning between the two characters who appear so different feel so similar at the same time. A little annoying at first, it quickly becomes apparent what’s actually going on as the real story begins.
5. Peter Green And The Unliving Academy by Angelina Allsop
Peter Green And The Unliving Academy is a young adult adventure/fantasy set in the world of the undead. The fantastical elements are imaginative and exciting and the concept is set up well with great descriptions of the school and its teachers and pupils.
From the start, it has you thinking about how the story will play out. Peter has just died – is this going to be a story about overcoming grief and loss? Or is it a story about what adventures await in the afterlife?
6. The Innocent Man by John Grisham
The Innocent Man tells a story that we now know too well because of the popular aforementioned series and documentaries which are all based on true stories, and is one of the earliest, more popular cases, aside from Steven Avery’s, which was brought into the public eye. Grisham examines the flaws in the justice system, how the police can convince innocent people to admit to crimes that they know nothing about just because they need to somebody to prosecute, and how projects like The Innocence Project are working to free those wrongly imprisoned.
7. The Good Daughter by Karin Slaughter
Opening with a brutal and graphic description of a very violent and bloody crime involving sisters Samantha and Charlotte Quinn, author Karin Slaughter doesn’t shy away from details. So be prepared. If you haven’t read one of her books before, this one gets you right into the grittiness of it all straight away.
With a fast-paced narrative and tense atmosphere, the story then skips 28 years forward as Charlie witnesses another crime. There are certainly many uncomfortable and shocking moments with so much crime going on around these characters, but despite all of the gruesome details of murders, The Good Daughter is still a very character-driven story. This is one of my favourite things about Slaughter’s books, as she focusses on the human perspective of an investigation, making her stories feel more personal and genuine.
8. The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness
It’s a basic premise we’ve seen explored in various different contexts many times before: something altering the world as we know it as a young adult protagonist finds the courage to become a hero and change the world for the better. Okay, so The Knife of Never Letting Go is similar on many of those levels, but it’s also much more than that.
If you’ve read anything by Ness before, you will know that his stories are always much richer and deeper, almost always with a nightmarish quality to them. With underlying themes of dehumanization, colonization, slavery, racism and sexism, this isn’t just about coming-of-age heroism, a first-time romance, and someone’s efforts to defeat the bad and make the world a better place. Todd has a talking dog for one thing, and if that isn’t enough to intrigue you then I don’t know what is.
9. The Other Side of The Wall by Andrea Mara
As Mara’s debut novel, there are some obvious flaws in The Other Side of the Wall. First of all, there are so many characters and timelines that it gets really confusing at times. As the narrative switches from past to present and from one character’s story to another, it easy to get lost in the plot and there are a few plotholes that the author falls into.
Mara obviously takes on too much and needs to have stripped things back a little, but the layered story comes together well in the end. Nothing is too obvious, there are some original twists, and the tension builds quite nicely, so it’s certainly worth sticking with.
10. Broken by Karin Slaughter
As a thriller on its own, Broken is the most engaging and well-paced that I have read in a long time. It may not be as gruesome or disturbing as previous instalments, but the mystery will undeniably have you hooked and keep you guessing all the way through. It is also heavier on the forensic side of the investigation so it’s also very interesting to follow the police proceedings more thoroughly.
Slaughter uses brilliant descriptions and I genuinely felt like I needed to change my socks whilst reading this because of the constant rain and mud. As with all of her books, she again delves into some dark themes, exploring issues of mental illness, alcoholism, dyslexia, grief, loss and shame. And this is why her stories are so engaging, because her characters all have relatable issues and it is through their social awkwardnesses that they are drawn together and we are drawn to them.
11. The Woman In The Window by A.J. Finn
What I love about a story like this is that it’s often the things that you believe to be facts that are turned on their head. With the use of an unreliable narrator with faulty memories and problems with alcohol, the author plays around with your perception of what is true and what is imagined.
But the big twist for me wasn’t to do with the crime itself, but something else that I wasn’t thinking too much into that took me by complete surprise. This ‘twist’ along with the more powerful themes of depression and grief are what had me gripped throughout the second half of the book. I cried my eyes out for at least three chapters straight.
12. A Simple Favor by Darcey Bell
The story is told in three parts through three narratives: Stephanie, Emily, and Emily’s husband, Sean. Because of this, the story goes back and forth, re-telling parts of the story to reveal the truth behind certain scenes and character’s actions, transforming a straightforward and simple plot into one more layered and twisted.
It is a story about lies and manipulation, led by two very different characters: Emily is powerful and confidence, whilst Stephanie is weak and pathetic. They both have secrets in their pasts, but they’ve obviously dealt with their situations in very different ways. But because their characters are such polar opposites, neither are really likeable. Emily is deceptive and uses Stephanie to her advantage, whilst Stephanie is a complete pushover. And neither of them redeem themselves in the end, so it’s difficult to be engaged by their actions.
13. Labor Day by Joyce Maynard
Labor Day is a brilliant coming of age story. Narrated by 13-year-old Henry, we see the story through his eyes as he learns about things that all teenage boys experience as he goes through puberty and learns about his own sexuality, lessons that a father-figure teaches such as throwing a baseball and how to make the perfect pie crust, but also about things that are much bigger than the world he knows, including the power of love, the impact of betrayal, the power of jealousy, and the conflict between selfishness and selflessness.
It’s a fast read but it certainly one that grabs your attention. There are darker tones with the premise around a man who has been imprisoned for murder kidnapping and keeping hostage an unstable mother and her son and some more unsettling scenes around Adele and Frank’s past, but there’s also a powerfully raw tale of how love has no bounds that’s woven around this.
You can read my full review here
14. The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
A huge fan of the Netflix series that was inspired by this book, I thought I’d take my first step into horror fiction and give Jackson’s genre-defining classic a go.
Often classed as one of the best horror books of all time, Jackson is a brilliant storyteller. Her characters are well-crafted and the descriptions of Hill House set up the eerie atmosphere brilliantly. Written in 1959, there is some old humour and the dialogue often feels out-dated, but the characters are still engaging for many different reasons.
But whilst the immaculate details of the house itself are unforgettable, the scares aren’t all that often. It’s more about the mood and the setting than any spine-trembling events, and because it’s not until the closing chapters that we begin to understand what’s going on, the story doesn’t grip you as I thought it would. We know that the house has affected Eleanor more than the others, but with so much of it going on in her head that we aren’t able to see or read in detail, I don’t feel like the tension is built up enough in the house.
15. Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon
I read this book in one sitting on my summer holiday. It’s a short and sweet romance with likeable characters, a quick-paced adventure, and an original twist on your generic boy-meets-girl.
The story is quite predictable but it’s still intriguing and enjoyable due to its short length. It’s definitely a young adult romance so I certainly felt my age with it, but Maddy and Olly are both engaging characters and their romance is bittersweet. For younger readers especially, the romance will also be one to swoon over and Olly a character to daydream about hoping to find for yourself one day. I’ve definitely outgrown that, but I do still think that Yoon captures the feelings of a first-time romance in a really lovely way.
16. The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
The Goldfinch is a difficult book to criticise because of its quality, but one that I also found difficult to commit to. I didn’t look forward to picking it up again and wanted to get through it as quickly as possible, but I had to put it down often and then force myself to keep on going. It became a chore, yet I also admired something about it on every page.
The story itself covers a lot of ground and, aside from a few jumps ahead in the timeframe, it doesn’t skip over anything to get you there more quickly. It’s a full and deep novel with immaculate descriptions, detailing every tiny thing in the most beautiful of ways. You certainly come away from this book feeling heavily educated as you learn about everything from the history of a painting to Theo’s experience of drug-taking. The bigger descriptions are certainly more captivating, but it’s the two-paged details of the type of veneer in the wood that Theo is handling that stunt the story in its progress.
17. Seven Sides of Self by Nancy Joie Wilkie
Using seven separate parables to explore the different sides of an individual’s personality, Seven Sides of Self not only delves deeply into the human psyche, but it does so in a science fiction setting. Most of the stories have a subtle link through the use of this other-worldly premise, and it is this that gives the stories a more unique twist. The futuristic settings and descriptions of another planet are very interesting. They are full of brilliant ideas that suit the shortness of the stories well and is what I found to be the best quality of the book as a whole.
18. Heroes by Stephen Fry
Just like Mythos, Fry retells the stories of these heroes in a quick-paced, entertaining, and easy-to-understand way. He gives the characters each a memorable personality, making their dialogue humourous and their actions unforgettable, adding a unique voice to these rich and timeless tales.
These are bygone tales, after all, and whilst we all have some vague knowledge of Hercules, at least, not many of us will know the true in-depth details, so some summarisation and modernisations were definitely needed. And that’s what Fry does so well, making these stories relevant and accessible to all in an immensely enjoyable manner.