Top 10 Books Of The Year – 2019- Part One (10-6)

Even though we’re not quite at the end of the year I now know that I am unlikely to finish the book I am currently reading so it’s time to look back again to the 10 books which made the most impression on me during the year.  These are not necessarily published this year (just 3 out of the 10 were) if I read it this year then it was up for inclusion.  The total number of books I finished in 2019 is 56, which is down on previous years where I usually hit the mid to late 60’s mark, apart from the golden year of 2016 when I read 80.  I’m not sure why this figure is down so this year probably due to a change of commitments.  Out of those 56 nine of them I classed as five star reads which nicely fills up most of my Top 10 places, the spread of the other star ratings is 28 at 4*,15 3* and 4 at 2* (didn’t have any two star reads last year where the spread was (12/32/22)- I must have been feeling a bit stingier this year.

It does seem like quite a bit of my reading has been books which I missed out in 2018, obviously a bit of a vintage year as 50% of the titles were published then.  Gender wise the men have pushed ahead with a 60-40 split putting an end to last year’s perfect balance.  Nobody makes the list more than once this year and there are two authors who are no strangers to my end of year Top 10.  It does seem, however, and perhaps it is no surprise given the state of the world currently, that for much of 2018 I have been rooted in the past as all of the fiction choices are set in earlier times with a significant chunk (4) being set in the Victorian era or earlier.  Right, let’s get on with the list.  The full reviews for each title can be found be clicking on the link.

10. The Library Book -Susan Orlean (Atlantic 2019)  (Read and reviewed in August)

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My non-fiction pick of the year is this extremely memorable book which works both as a love letter towards libraries and their continued importance and as a true crime work where the author explores the fire which destroyed the Los Angeles Central Library in 1986.  It wasn’t just because I work in libraries that I found this work so inspirational although it was one of the reasons behind me applying for (and getting) a promotion.  Susan Orlean reinforces everything I believe about libraries although the systems in place in the UK seem decidedly impoverished compared to the USA.  I said “The book itself was inspired by Orlean’s memories of going to a public library with her mother when she was a child and them bonding over their piles of chosen books. This seems to me a valuable inspiration for a fascinating work.”

9.Things In Jars – Jess Kidd (Canongate 2019) (Read and reviewed in March)

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I’m up to date with Jess Kidd having read all three of her novels and this marks her first time in my end of year Top 10 with her best book yet.  This built on the supernatural elements which have been present in all her works yet with its nineteenth century setting it seemed to work better here than it has in the past.  I said of this “Here we have the Victorian love of the unusual and freakish and the developments in medicine which attracted the honourable and the disreputable sitting beautifully in with what becomes a gripping mystery peopled with characters about whom I wanted to know so much more.”

8. Bridge Of Clay – Markus Zusak (Doubleday 2018) (Read and reviewed in July)

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We had to wait years for it to arrive but Australian author Zusak manages to get his follow up publication to my 2008 Book of The Year, “The Book Thief” into my Top 10.  I would have thought that a publication from an author of a modern classic after a lengthy wait would have been a major literary event but it seemed to creep under the radar somewhat when it arrived in hardback last year and this year in paperback.  That made me initially a little anxious but I needn’t have been.  I said “Its chatty, scattered narrative actually masks the emotional depth of the content.  It was only looking back as I neared the end that I realised how much I knew about the characters’ lives and how involved I had become, a testament to a great novel.” I read a library copy and then had to go out and buy it to have it readily on hand for a re-read.

7.The House Of Impossible Beauties – Joseph Cassara (Oneworld 2018) (Read in July, reviewed in August)

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2018 was the year when the New York Drag Balls of the late 70’s and 80’s went mainstream in the UK thanks to TV series such as “Pose” and “Rupaul’s Drag Race” and at least a couple of novels of which this was the best.  In my review I compared it to what else was out there (as well as the documentary “Paris Is Burning”, available on Netflix, from where Cassara’s characterisations are developed) and concluded “Perhaps more than “Pose” it shows the struggles in terms of coping with discrimination, poverty, prostitution and mortality but like the television series it is all done with great humanity and compassion and more than a fair share of glitter.”

6. Take Nothing With You – Patrick Gale  (Tinder 2018) (Read in February, reviewed in March)

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This marks British author Patrick Gale’s fourth appearance in my end of year Top 10’s out of the nine books of his I have read which must mean that he has settled into being one of my most favourite authors.  Previous end of year positions have been 4th for “Facts Of Life” (1995) in 1996, 9th for “Rough Music” (2000) in 2001 and 6th for “A Perfectly Good Man” (2012) in 2013.  His latest matches this position and I can’t help but note that the books of his I really like I miss out on at the time and catch up with in the following year.  This has the most modern setting of any of the books on this year’s list with one narrative strand actually being set in the present (gulp!) with the main character contemplating his past whilst receiving treatment for cancer, but it was the past that Gale really drew me into with his story of Eustace, the young gifted cellist.  I said “I fell in love with the boy growing up in his parents’ old people’s home in Weston-Super-Mare in the 1970s with ambitions to be a musical great if only his mother and father and society will let him realise his dreams. It is haunting, nostalgic and sensitive and has all the qualities to make it an essential read.”

Find out the Top 5 in my next post.

The House Of Impossible Beauties – Joseph Cassara (2018) – A Rainbow Read

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I feel like I’m on familiar ground here. Since publication I’ve been aware of this title and was delighted to see it chosen as an end of year pick by Cathy @ 746 Books as featured in my “Looking Around…” post in January. Familiar because this is the third work I have experienced this year that has taken as its source the 1990 documentary “Paris Is Burning”, which I have also re-watched this year and which once again blew me away (it’s on Netflix). Actually, it may very well be the 4th because the whole set-up of “Rupaul’s Drag Race” is indebted to the 1980’s New York Drag Balls scene which is the subject of this documentary but more explicitly this year we’ve had the Ryan Murphy TV series “Pose” which aired on BBC2 to much acclaim. British author Niven Govinden’s take on this with his 2019 novel “This Brutal House” and now American author Cassara’s debut which was published last year.

Comparisons are inevitable especially as the source material and all of the off-shoots have so far all impressed. Govinden’s novel had as its centre a silent protest against official incompetence in a narrative stream of great energy and rhythm in what was very much a literary take where the plot was less essential than the language and its cast of characters seeking their own family groupings for support and safety. This is also very much the case in “Pose”, character led with great performances and an unprecedented visibility of trans actors but had the Drag Balls themselves more as its focus.

Cassara has focused even closer on the characters, here, the real-life House Of Xtravaganza family, mothered by Angel and comprising of runaways; her lover Hector, transsexual Venus, “banjee boys” Daniel and Juanito and the older observer Dorian, characterisation which will feel familiar to those who have watched “Paris Is Burning” from where their stories are developed.

“The House Of Impossible Beauties” has a wider chronological spread from 1976-1993 which for gay New Yorkers means it has an essentially epic sweep featuring a remarkable period of their history. This encompasses the defining of identity in the hedonistic days of disco, to the forging of their own groupings through the “families” and Drag Balls in the early 80’s leading to a move towards their own self and society’s acceptance and having that shattered through the years of the AIDS epidemic and its aftermath.

I think the subjects Cassara deals with are always going to draw me in. This novel is sparky, touching, funny, fiery and yet becomes increasingly tinged with the inevitability of tragedy. Cassara has both followed the plotlines of the Xtravaganzas as featured in “Paris Is Burning” and broadened their existence with his fictional twists. Perhaps more than “Pose” it shows the struggles in terms of coping with discrimination, poverty, prostitution and mortality but like the television series it is all done with great humanity and compassion and more than a fair share of glitter. That is why, like “Pose” this is an important piece of work, which in terms of the journey the author puts the reader through does outshine the slightly later-to-be published “This Brutal House”. For this reason I am awarding it five stars but take note, this is enough now. No more Drag Balls or “Paris Is Burning” inspirations for a while. I am very happy having this novel, “Pose” and “This Brutal House” all representing this era because they are all high quality works, let’s not oversaturate this particular market.

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The House Of Impossible Beauties was published by Oneworld in 2018.