American Dirt – novel set mainly in Mexico
TripFiction’s selected top reads 2019
4th December 2019
TripFiction’s selected top reads 2019.
We get through a lot of books each year, so we thought we would look back on 2019 and bring together the books that have resonated most loudly with us throughout the year so far. It is a small selection of the hundreds of books that are published every week and there are many others which deserve a year-end accolade too, so all we can offer is a vey personal selection of the books that have stood out for us.
Andrew’s top three:
The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead (Florida)
Elwood Curtis has taken the words of Dr Martin Luther King to heart: he is as good as anyone. Abandoned by his parents, brought up by his loving, strict and clearsighted grandmother, Elwood is about to enroll in the local black college. But given the time and the place, one innocent mistake is enough to destroy his future, and so Elwood arrives at The Nickel Academy, which claims to provide ‘physical, intellectual and moral training’ which will equip its inmates to become ‘honorable and honest men’.
In reality, the Nickel Academy is a chamber of horrors, where physical, emotional and sexual abuse is rife, where corrupt officials and tradesmen do a brisk trade in supplies intended for the school, and where any boy who resists is likely to disappear ‘out back’. Stunned to find himself in this vicious environment, Elwood tries to hold on to Dr King’s ringing assertion, ‘Throw us in jail, and we will still love you.’ But Elwood’s fellow inmate and new friend Turner thinks Elwood is naive and worse; the world is crooked, and the only way to survive is to emulate the cruelty and cynicism of their oppressors.
The tension between Elwood’s idealism and Turner’s skepticism leads to a decision which will have decades-long repercussions.
Based on the history of a real reform school in Florida that operated for one hundred and eleven years and warped and destroyed the lives of thousands of children, The Nickel Boys is a devastating, driven narrative by a great American novelist whose work is essential to understanding the current reality of the United States.
Golden Child by Claire Adam (Trinidad)
Rural Trinidad: a brick house on stilts surrounded by bush; a family, quietly surviving, just trying to live a decent life.
Clyde, the father, works long, exhausting shifts at the petroleum plant in southern Trinidad; Joy, his wife, looks after the home. Their two sons, thirteen years old, wake early every morning to travel to the capital, Port of Spain, for school. They are twins but nothing alike: Paul has always been considered odd, while Peter is widely believed to be a genius, destined for greatness.
When Paul goes walking in the bush one afternoon and doesn’t come home, Clyde is forced to go looking for him, this child who has caused him endless trouble already, and whom he has never really understood. And as the hours turn to days, and Clyde begins to understand Paul’s fate, his world shatters – leaving him faced with a decision no parent should ever have to make.
The Wall by John Lanchester (UK)
*LONGLISTED FOR THE BOOKER PRIZE 2019*
Kavanagh begins his life patrolling the Wall. If he’s lucky, if nothing goes wrong, he only has two years of this, 729 more nights.
The best thing that can happen is that he survives and gets off the Wall and never has to spend another day of his life anywhere near it. He longs for this to be over; longs to be somewhere else.
He will soon find out what Defenders do and who the Others are. Along with the rest of his squad, he will endure cold and fear day after day, night after night. But somewhere, in the dark cave of his mind, he thinks: wouldn’t it be interesting if something did happen, if they came, if you had to fight for your life?
John Lanchester’s thrilling, hypnotic new novel is about why the young are right to hate the old. It’s about a broken world you will recognise as your own-and about what might be found when all is lost.
Tony’s top three:
Love in No Man’s Land by Duo Ji Zhuo Ga (Tibet)
The land is vast, its people few. Ringed by snow-bright peaks, the Changtang Plateau sits at the heart of Tibet. Its inhabitants, like seven-year-old Gongzha and his family, live as centuries of their ancestors have done – hunting and herding, sheltered only by their black yak-hair tents.
But it is 1967 and the Cultural Revolution is devouring China. The new order has no time for the old ways – not even the roof of the world will be spared.
As the Red Guard systematically loot and destroy Tibet’s monasteries, Gongzha helps hide two treasures belonging to his local temple: an ebony-black medicine Buddha and a gold-inscribed scroll of The Epic of King Gesar. The repercussions of his act will echo across the decades.
With his way of life under siege, Gongzha will be taken far from home, to mountain crests and subterranean labyrinths. He will lose love, he will find it. He will confront man, beast and his own nature as he struggles to find his way in a changing world.
Bangkok Wakes to Rain by Pitchaya Sudbanthad (Bangkok)
In the restless city of Bangkok, there is a house.
Over the last two centuries, it has played host to longings and losses past, present, and future, and has witnessed lives shaped by upheaval, memory and the lure of home.
A nineteenth-century missionary pines for the comforts of New England, even as he finds the vibrant foreign chaos of Siam increasingly difficult to resist. A jazz pianist is summoned in the 1970s to conjure music that will pacify resident spirits, even as he’s haunted by ghosts of his former life. A young woman in a time much like our own gives swimming lessons in the luxury condos that have eclipsed the old house, trying to outpace the long shadow of her political past. And in the submerged Bangkok of the future, a band of savvy teenagers guides tourists and former residents past waterlogged landmarks, selling them tissues to wipe their tears for places they themselves do not remember.
Time collapses as their stories collide and converge, linked by blood, memory, yearning, chance, and the forces voraciously making and remaking the amphibian, ever-morphing city itself.
The Carrier by Mattias Berg (Belgium, Sicily, Sweden, USA)
Erasmus Levine has a job like no other.
He travels with the President of the United States at all times, and holds in his hands the power to obliterate life as we know it. He is the man with the nuclear briefcase, part of a crack team of top-secret operatives established after 9/11, led by a man codenamed Edelweiss. But not even Edelweiss is party to the identity of their ultimate authority, known only as Alpha.
Erasmus Levine has a secret
For years he has been receiving cryptic messages from Alpha, an elaborate communication that began with the words we two against the world. Levine begins thinking of escape: his chance comes during an official visit to Sweden, when the alarm sounds in Stockholm’s Grand Hotel.
But Alpha has other plans
From their first meeting in a network of tunnels and bunkers beneath the city, Levine is drawn into a plan to eliminate the world’s nuclear arsenals. But is controlled demolition really the endgame? Could he be working towards a controlled apocalypse, a doomsday plot to wipe humanity from the face of the earth?
Tina’s Top three:
Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens (North Carolina)
For years, rumours of the “Marsh Girl” have haunted Barkley Cove, a quiet town on the North Carolina coast. So in late 1969, when handsome Chase Andrews is found dead, the locals immediately suspect Kya Clark, the so-called Marsh Girl. But Kya is not what they say. Sensitive and intelligent, she has survived for years alone in the marsh that she calls home, finding friends in the gulls and lessons in the sand. Then the time comes when she yearns to be touched and loved. When two young men from town become intrigued by her wild beauty, Kya opens herself to a new life–until the unthinkable happens.
Perfect for fans of Barbara Kingsolver and Karen Russell, Where the Crawdads Sing is at once an exquisite ode to the natural world, a heartbreaking coming-of-age story, and a surprising tale of possible murder. Owens reminds us that we are forever shaped by the children we once were, and that we are all subject to the beautiful and violent secrets that nature keeps
The Office of Gardens and Ponds by Didier Decoin (Honshu / Kyoto)
The village of Shimae is thrown into turmoil when master carp-catcher Katsuro suddenly drowns in the murky waters of the Kusagawa river. Who now will carry the precious cargo of carp to the Imperial Palace and preserve the crucial patronage that everyone in the village depends upon?
Step forward Miyuki, Katsuro’s grief-struck widow and the only remaining person in the village who knows anything about carp. She alone can undertake the long, perilous journey to the Imperial Palace, balancing the heavy baskets of fish on a pole across her shoulders, and ensure her village’s future.
So Miyuki sets off. Along her way she will encounter a host of remarkable characters, from prostitutes and innkeepers, to warlords and priests with evil in mind. She will endure ambushes and disaster, for the villagers are not the only people fixated on the fate of the eight magnificent carp.
But when she reaches the Office of Gardens and Ponds, Miyuki discovers that the trials of her journey are far from over. For in the Imperial City, nothing is quite as it seems, and beneath a veneer of refinement and ritual, there is an impenetrable barrier of politics and snobbery that Miyuki must overcome if she is to return to Shimae.
The Dutch House by Ann Patchett (Pennsylvania)
Danny Conroy grows up in the Dutch House, a lavish mansion. Though his father is distant and his mother is absent, Danny has his beloved sister Maeve: Maeve, with her wall of black hair, her wit, her brilliance. Life is coherent, played out under the watchful eyes of the house’s former owners in the frames of their oil paintings.
Then one day their father brings Andrea home. Though they cannot know it, her arrival to the Dutch House sows the seed of the defining loss of Danny and Maeve’s lives. The siblings are drawn back time and again to the place they can never enter, knocking in vain on the locked door of the past. For behind the mystery of their own exile is that of their mother’s: an absence more powerful than any presence they have known.
Told with Ann Patchett’s inimitable blend of humour, rage and heartbreak, The Dutch House is a dark fairy tale and story of a paradise lost; of the powerful bonds of place and time that magnetize and repel us for our whole lives.
Charlotte’s top three:
The Beekeeper of Aleppo by Christi Lefteri (Syria/Turkey/England)
Nuri is a beekeeper; his wife, Afra, an artist. They live a simple life, rich in family and friends, in the beautiful Syrian city of Aleppo – until the unthinkable happens. When all they care for is destroyed by war, they are forced to escape. But what Afra has seen is so terrible she has gone blind, and so they must embark on a perilous journey through Turkey and Greece towards an uncertain future in Britain. On the way, Nuri is sustained by the knowledge that waiting for them is Mustafa, his cousin and business partner, who has started an apiary and is teaching fellow refugees in Yorkshire to keep bees.
As Nuri and Afra travel through a broken world, they must confront not only the pain of their own unspeakable loss, but dangers that would overwhelm the bravest of souls. Above all – and perhaps this is the hardest thing they face – they must journey to find each other again.
Moving, powerful, compassionate and beautifully written, The Beekeeper of Aleppo is a testament to the triumph of the human spirit. Told with deceptive simplicity, it is the kind of book that reminds us of the power of storytelling.
Tiger by Polly Clark (Siberia)
Set across two continents, Tiger is a sweeping story of survival and redeeming love that plunges the reader into one of the world’s last wildernesses with blistering authenticity.
Frieda is a primatologist, sensitive and solitary, until a violent attack shatters her ordered world. In her new role as a zookeeper, she confronts a very different ward: an injured wild tiger.
Deep in the Siberian taiga, Tomas, a Russian conservationist, fears that the natural order has toppled. The king tiger has been killed by poachers and a spectacular tigress now patrols his vast territory as her own.
In a winter of treacherous competition, the path of the tigress and her cub crosses with an Udeghe huntress and her daughter. Vengeance must follow, and the fates of both tigers and people are transformed.
Learning of her tiger’s past offers Frieda the chance of freedom. Faced with the savage forces of nature, she must trust to her instinct and, like the tiger, find a way to live in the world.
Red Snow by Will Dean (Sweden)
One suicide. One cold-blooded murder. Are they connected? And who’s really pulling the strings in the small Swedish town of Gavrik?
Black Grimberg liquorice coins cover the murdered man’s eyes. The hashtag #Ferryman starts to trend as local people stock up on ammunition.
Tuva Moodyson, deaf reporter at the local paper, has a fortnight to investigate the deaths before she starts her new job in the south. A blizzard moves in. Residents, already terrified, feel increasingly cut-off. Tuva must go deep inside the Grimberg factory to stop the killer before she leaves town for good. But who’s to say the Ferryman will let her go?
Which title caught your eye in 2019 and where was it set? Let us know in the comments below…
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