From fantasy and sci-fi to historical fiction and biographies, here are our picks of the best books of the year.
Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield
Diane Setterfield, author of the bestselling The Thirteenth Tale, returned in 2019 with another atmospheric mystery that made for perfect reading for the dark nights of autumn and winter. The story begins on a midwinter’s night in an ancient inn on the Thames, where the regulars are entertaining themselves by telling stories. Suddenly, the door bursts open and in steps a stranger. In his arms is the drowned corpse of a child. Hours later, the dead girl stirs, takes a breath and returns to life. A multi-layered book that is both an ode to storytelling and an intriguing mystery, this is the kind of story that draws you in and refuses to let go.
The Winter of the Witch by Katherine Arden
Katherine Arden brought her historical fantasy Winternight trilogy to an end in 2019 with The Winter of the Witch. The trilogy has been a fascinating trip through Russian history and myth, combing the two with a magical atmosphere, a fascinating protagonist and thrilling life-or-death moments. Watching Vasya grow from the uncertain child of the first book to the strong and determined young woman of The Winter of the Witch has been a joy, and I will certainly miss her company.
Deeplight by Frances Hardinge
While Francis Hardinge’s previous books focused on mixing historical fiction with fantasy, Deeplight is set entirely in an imagined world with a rich history and a fascinating culture. Hark and his best friend Jelt scavenge their way through life on the island of Lady’s Crave, part of an archipelago once ruled by terrible gods. When a trip to retrieve treasure beneath the waves goes badly wrong, Hark finds himself in terrible danger from those closest to him. Hardinge’s trademark rich and evocative writing style reigns supreme in this fierce and fun fantasy adventure.
Recursion by Blake Crouch
Crouch has written another impossibly clever, endless fascinating sci-fi novel. When people all across the country wake up to lives different from the ones they fell asleep to, a new disease called False Memory Syndrome is blamed. But police officer Barry Sutton and neuroscientist Helena Smith realise that something far more sinister is going on. Recursion’s questions about memory and identity will set your mind racing; it’s the kind of book you won’t be able to stop thinking about and will want to discuss with everyone. A breathless race against time and a fascinating concept will keep you gripped until the final page.
The Five by Hallie Rubenhold
Hallie Rubenhold’s biography of the five women killed by Jack the Ripper recently won the Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction, and deservedly so. Rubenhold uses the details of these women’s lives as a springboard to paint a complex portrait of life in Victorian England, from the horror of the workhouses to the impossibility of divorce for women, from homelessness to contraception, from sensational newspapers to the cycle of poverty. The level of detail in the research is remarkable and the book itself is incredibly well-written. This is not a book about how Polly, Annie, Elizabeth, Catherine and Mary Kane died, but about how they lived.
The Binding by Bridget Collins
Bridget Collins’ debut adult novel takes readers on a fascinating fantasy journey with lashings of atmosphere and a love story to break your heart. When Emmett Farmer is summoned to begin an apprenticeship with a Bookbinder, he is frightened. If there’s something you want to forget, a Bookbinder can assist. Your memory will be stored safely in a book and you will never remember your secret, however terrible. Then one day Emmett makes a discovery: one of the books in his mentor’s workshop has his name on it. The thought-provoking concept and dashes of humour are what make this book really stand out.
The Wych Elm by Tana French
This standalone psychological thriller helped to restore my faith in thrillers. An examination of the way privilege, wealth and gender can blind someone to reality, as well as a fascinating murder mystery, the tension and unpredictable plot kept me reading way past my bedtime. Toby has always led a charmed life, until a brutal attack leaves him traumatised and suffering from PTSD. He seeks refuge at his family’s ancestral home, the Ivy House, but the discovery of a skull tucked into the old wych elm in the garden will force Toby to examine everything he thought he knew about his family, his past and himself. Written with piercing psychological insight, this is a thriller to remember.
The Radium Girls by Kate Moore
Kate Moore’s fascinating and devastating account of the women who fought for justice against the radium-dial factories of the early 20th century was one of my favourite and most unexpected reads of 2019. Hundreds of girls worked in radium-dial factories during the First World War, using the Curies’ newly discovered element of radium to paint watches, alarm clocks and airplane equipment. The factory jobs were highly coveted, until the girls began to fall mysteriously ill. Moore juggles her large cast of characters with incredible skill, making the reader feel such a strong sense of empathy that I would be surprised if most didn’t shed a tear. Written with the pace and drama of a thriller, it’s a horrifying story, but an inspirational one all the same.
The Doll Factory by Elizabeth Macneal
Elizabeth Macneal’s captivating historical fiction novel examines themes of art, love and obsession in Victorian London. Among the crowd at the Great Exhibition in Hyde Park, two strangers meet. For Iris, an aspiring artist, it is the encounter of a moment. But for Silas, a collector entranced by the strange and beautiful, their meeting marks a new beginning. When Iris is asked to model for pre-Raphaelite artist Louis Frost, she agrees on the condition that he will also teach her how to paint. While her world begins to expand, Silas’s obsession continues to grow. With pertinent points to make on the tightrope women are forced to walk in their everyday lives, this rich and beautifully written novel is both a heart-stopping thriller and a thought-provoking story.
Wakenhyrst by Michelle Paver
Michelle Paver’s previous books for adults, Dark Matter and Thin Air, were fantastically creepy ghost stories, but with Wakenhyrst she has veered into full-on gothic melodrama. Maud lives with her father in an isolated manor house in the Suffolk Fens. When her father finds a painted medieval devil in a graveyard, unhallowed forces are awakened, and Maud’s battle has begun. Paver has created a thrillingly dark, incredibly atmospheric world in which sinister significance can be read into every strange occurrence. Here we have unseen creatures tapping at windows, inexplicable noises in the dead of night, and a deadly obsession that quickly spirals out of control. It’s a gothic feast for the senses. The gradual piecing together of the plot is masterfully done, until you stand back at the end and sigh in relief at the beautifully dark tapestry Paver has woven.