I can’t believe that the end of 2018 has raced up so speedily, and with it my largest ever number of fiction and autobiographies – I read 86 books this year. It was an odd year: I’d just moved back to London from Tokyo and Hong Kong and my feelings of dislocation discouraged me from reading in the first few months. Then I sorted out job, hobbies, and other responsibilities and just as I got rid of all my spare time, I started reading again with a vengeance.
Book of the year
Winner: It’s a tie. Killing Commendatore by Haruki Murakami and Sourdough by Robin Sloan.
It’s a tough one. There was no one clear stand-out book of 2018. But the slight front runner is Killing Commendatore by Haruki Murakami. I love Murakami but at times I’ve been frustrated by his recurring magic realism cat metaphors. This book feels like a new phase in his writing: it’s sharp, smart, thoughtful, universal, and really interesting. Especially if you like art, or relationships. It was a real page-turner and I cared about it so much. The premise is that an artist’s wife decides to leave him for another man. Our protagonist finds himself lost, living in a famous Japanese artist’s house on a secluded mountain trying to figure out the rest of his life. He becomes involved with an eccentric old man and a young girl, and a strange hole in the garden. He seeks answers and in saving them, finds himself. I know, a very Murakami-sounding plot. But it was great. I only resent it because it came out in Japanese while I lived in Tokyo but wasn’t translated for ages and my Japanese wasn’t good enough to feel part of the zeitgeist.
Another book that has really lingered with me is Sourdough by Robin Sloan. This is a quirky and unusual tale of a Silicon Valley woman who comes into possession of a culture to make sourdough bread of a special kind that transforms her life. It’s a tiny bit magic realism-ish too. It’s quite wonderful. (I was then compelled to read Mr Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore and its sequel Ajax Penumbra, also by Robin Sloan, and I adored them all. But Sourdough does have something special.)
There are at least eight other books jostling for this accolade. But I’ll discuss them in subsequent categories.
Best in contemporary literature
Winner: Normal People by Sally Rooney
I read a lot of much-anticipated books by big names this year. Normal People by Sally Rooney is a special book – a subtle, understated triumph which leaves me struggling to explain why it’s so good. It’s about two teenagers whose different life experiences impact their emotions, social experiences relationships and lives as they grow up, circling each other. I can’t explain it. But it is luminous and I felt somehow changed after reading it. Jennifer Egan’s Manhattan Beach is probably her best yet, and randomly, my first time reading about early women divers in New York which I loved. It’s a sweeping tale of drama and intrigue and relationships. And it’s excellent.
There was lots of buzz around The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin. It’s about a family of siblings who learn their death date, and about how that affects the way in which they each choose to live. It’s a book that is equally full of ideas and beautiful prose and compelling characters. The Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer was an epic treat about growing up and being a woman and the meaning of friendship – if you have an interest in either publishing or international development you’ll especially enjoy parts of this. And gosh, I absolutely relished Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver, which brings her back to form with two stories, set in the same American town in 1871 and 2016, where both protagonists resist the prevailing beliefs. I especially loved the female scientist in the 19th century who features strongly in this book, and the Darwinism debates. Irresistable. Moon Palace by Paul Auster had a similarly compelling span of time but this is more of a family saga, if an unusual one. The main character is brilliant.
On the other hand, Take Nothing With You by Patrick Gale was glorious – about growing up gay, about the cello, about becoming. I can’t quite tell whether I loved this more, or Love is Blind by William Boyd which oddly sit in the same category in my head. Love is Blind is about a Scottish bachelor who becomes a piano tuner and lives in various places around the world. This might have been the book that wins the prize for making me cry the most at the end. Both of these books were major contenders for my book of the year.
Then there were the quirky reads. The Hunters by Kat Gordon is really good – it’s a coming of age book that’s been dubbed ‘The Great Gatsby, in Africa’. Which is an intriguing premise, and it delivers. If you read this, pay attention to the first couple of pages, which come back at the end but I’d forgotten about them to my detriment. A great read. Last year I was really into the series of fiction by famous authors based on Shakespeare’s plays. This year I read one of these, Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler. It’s based on The Taming of the Shrew, which I never liked due to its anti-feminist themes. This contemporary version is very clever, interesting, a bit of a page-turner. Finally, a shout out to the funny, sardonic novella My Purple-Scented Novel by Ian McEwan which is a must-read. Especially if you like books about writers.
Best uplifting books about reading
Winner: The Librarian by Sally Vickers
For some reason, this has been a specific category in 2018. I already mentioned the delight of both read Mr Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore and its sequel Ajax Penumbra by Robin Sloan, but there was also Lost for Words by Stephanie Butland and The Librarian by Sally Vickers. Which was the best? Probably The Librarian. But if you like one of them, you’ll likely like all of them. I also rather enjoyed Ex Libris by Anne Fadiman which is a collection of her essays about different aspects of being a devoted lifelong reader.
And more general feel-good reads
Winner: Less by Andrew Sean Greer
I hear ‘up-lit’ is ‘in’ this year. Certainly I’ve always appreciated a feel-good book and this year has held some treats. I think the best was Less by Andrew Sean Greer. A man, a mediocre writer, hears his ex-boyfriend is getting married and decides that rather than accept or reject the invitation he will simply be unavailable due to accepting all manner of author random invitations. Smart, funny, and altogether delightful. I’d probably also put the aforementioned Sourdough by Robin Sloan here. Also the immensely charming Dear Mrs Bird which is set in wartime London and couldn’t be lovelier, about a woman with a career and the decisions she makes, and the impact of the war on normal life in London. It’s also very funny. I ate up a book set in my own neighbourhood called The Lido by Libby Page. It’s about love and loneliness and what makes a good life, all through the perspective of the lido swimming pool near my flat. I love a book where the neighbourhood feels like a character. It’s quite special. You should probably read it. Also Happiness for Humans by PZ Reizin which is about romance and artificial intelligence, and is lovely. Other really enjoyable ‘up-lit’ includes Three Things About Elsie by Joanna Cannon, a charming read about being older and about life and love and friendship. Slightly lower in quality but still enjoyable was The Growing Pains of Jennifer Ebert, Aged 19 Going on 91 by David M Barnett – it’s about a young student who feels lost and finds herself through living in a nursing home. Don’t like the name though…
Disappointing contemporary fiction reads
I read The Idiot by Elif Batuman and found it interesting but ultimately irritating and self-indulgent and droning, which was annoying because I usually like university-set books and books about language. Also, The Hour I First Believed was the first book I’ve ever actively disliked by Wally Lamb – and the only book this year that I started but just couldn’t finish. It’s about the Columbine massacre. I keep wanting to like Ali Smith’s ‘seasons’ series, but I just couldn’t really get into Winter.
Older fiction I enjoyed
I really really liked The Painted Veil by Somerset Maugham which feels like it could have been written a lot more recently. It’s about an unfaithful wife and her punishment, and it’s set in China, and it’s just full of interesting plot turns. I also got very into a charming trilogy, Mrs Harris Goes To Paris, Mrs Harris Goes to New York and Mrs Harris, MP by Paul Gallico. If you’re a Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day kind of reader, you will enjoy these too. In the first one, a poor charlady in London decides she wants to go and buy a posh dress in Paris – and so she does. An absolute delight. I also personally enjoyed An Old Captivity by Nevil Shute though it is mostly about logistics of flying to Greenland, and a little too much about magic at the end. I read Daphne of Fitzroy Street by E Nesbit which I noticed got poor reviews but if you’re the sort of person who appreciates a transition-from-boarding-school-to-adulthood coming of age tale set in Bohemian London, this could be for you too! Finally, I read Dracula by Bram Stoker and was unimpressed (but did manage a comedy set on the topic, so it wasn’t wasted reading effort).
Best in space books
Winner: Dawn, Adult Rites, and Imago (a trilogy) by Octavia Butler
I am a big fan of this category and this year brought me a glorious treat in a really brilliant trilogy that I can’t think how I missed: Dawn, Adult Rites, and Imago by Octavia Butler. These books are so fresh, so interesting, and so imbued with ideas that for anyone with a passing interest in books about space, aliens, but more importantly in other ways to live, the nature of relationships, and what it means to be human (or not human) they are essential. Reading this amazing trilogy may have been my happiest week this year. They are that good. Speaking of books set in space, I’d been waiting for more than a year for The Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers. The third in her trilogy is not her best, but it’s still pretty good. She is bursting with ideas and this book has plenty of them. Read the other two first. Then you’ll have to read this one whether you want to or not. I also read The Humanarium by CW Tickner which is a bit silly but I like the premise of humans being tended in glass tanks (also that the author note said the author is a gardener who was inspired to write it based on his work). And I read Artemis by Andy Weir which isn’t a patch on his The Martian but it was still fun.
Best in dystopias and speculative futures
Winner: I Still Dream by James Smythe
There are a few types of dystopias. In the version where civilisation is ending and survivors must survive and reconstruct, a front runner is In the Country of Last Things by Paul Auster. It actually took me a while to get into this book, but once I did it was amazing. It’s funny when you’ve read a million books on this sort of theme and then encounter a really literary one. Top quality, chilling, funny, interesting, sad, politically-relevant, and generally makes you glad not to be trapped in a failing city. I read a few other books in this category and they were okay but not as great: Survival: After it Happened by Devon C Ford, The Death of Grass by John Christopher, and The Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler.
Dystopias where society is constructed according to a specific premise
Most of my dystopia reading this year was more about different ways in which society may be constructed, with a particular premise that changes how people interact. The blockbuster in this category is of course The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood, which was a re-read for book club. It was good, but it felt like a book of two halves. I loved the first half – failing city, so a new premise is created where citizens of a gated community spend half the month in prison and half the month in a nice town. It all becomes a bit surreal and silly in the second half, like Margaret Atwood is just having a laugh. Another book that was a bit blockbuster-y was of course Ready Player One by Ernest Cline. Despite having zero interest in video games, I loved this book. It was exciting, it was interesting, the world was very well built, and the characters were great. It was also very much better than the film, but the film was also good. What was fun was watching the film, understanding the back story from the book, and appreciating why certain directorial decisions had been made. Or maybe that was just me. I felt embarrassed at loving The Sky quartet by JW Lynne because as I read I could tell that these were perhaps not the most literary of books. But what an interesting premise. And how luxurious to become immersed in an interesting world and have it extend over four books. A nice strong female lead. Maybe a bit formulaic but no less enjoyable for that.
The #metoo movement spawned some relevant dystopias this year. The most anticipated of which was probably Vox by Christina Dalcher – it’s about restricting women’s voice by literally counting the words they’re allowed to use per day. It wasn’t quite as great as I hoped it would be but it’s a solid read in the Handmaid’s Tale camp. Also of that ilk, Red Clocks by Leni Zumas is about outlawing abortion and it’s fairly good. But in this category the book I most enjoyed was Only Ever Yours by Louise O’Neill. It’s about women designed and bred to please men, taking this to new limits that are chilling, and say interesting things about today’s world. It’s also set in a boarding school, which I know is extra-tempting to myself and many of my fellow readers. It’s young adult-ish dystopia in tone but its literary merit is slightly elevated beyond that formulaic genre in my view. Not quite as enjoyable but also interesting is The Future for Curious People by Gregory Sherl which considers what to do if you have the opportunity to see how your romantic relationship (and life) will turn out in years to come if you stay with that person. It’s a bit silly, but still thought provoking.
I read several other dystopias in which one thing in society is changed and that thing affects the organisation of that society – and usually involves a protagonist standing up to that society. They were all ok but none were brilliant. In the case of Breathe and its sequel Resist by Sarah Crossan, oxygen is rationed, with the rich able to buy more, with interesting societal consequences. In The Generation by Holly Cave people are genetically profiled to tell them exactly what their medical history, and other genetic features such as sexuality, will be, affecting their relationships and life choices. In Birthmarked by Caragh O’Brien the poor people outside the gates of a city have to give some of their children to the richer city until a midwife rebels. In 84K by Claire North all crimes are given a monetary value that must be paid – and if that’s not possible, people essentially become indentured slaves. And in This Time of Darkness by HM Hoover society lives underground – the poorer you are, the deeper and less nice your abode. All are interesting, but none really excited me. Except perhaps The Big Lie by Julie Mayhew which is set in modern-day England with the premise that Germany won WWII which was really quite interesting, told from a young adult perspective
Social media speculation
The insidious world of social media is taken on in different ways in different books I read this year. H(A)PPY by Nicola Barker and Fluence by Stephen Oram are both about worlds that measure your social media engagement, judge and punish/reward/categorise you based on it. H(A)PPY is a bizarre one, playing with format and prose style in a way I’m not convinced works but might have been better if on paper format rather than on Kindle. Fluence was more standard, but not of the highest literary merit. I didn’t really enjoy either of them. On the other hand, An Absolutely Remarkable Thing by Hank Green was absolutely remarkable. It’s about a young woman who encounters a potential alien sculpture, vlogs about it, and becomes social media-famous. The book is about that fame and its impact. It’s also about the potential alien sculpture. And the main character is interesting. This is a fast, easy read of the type you’ll skip a meal to finish. Intriguingly it’s by the brother of famous young adult writer John Green. Whose book Turtles All the Way Down I read this year, and it was excellent and interesting.
Lovely Artificial Intelligence books
I love books about artificial intelligence and this year brought me two lovely ones: I Still Dream by James Smythe, which is also a coming of age story, and Happiness for Humans by PZ Reizin, which is a romance book in a way. Both are brimming with ideas and they’re a lot of fun. I Still Dream is probably the better book, but Happiness for Humans is lovely.
Time Travel books
I find books about time travel interesting, and read three this year. I only really loved Kindred by Octavia Butler, which takes our African American protagonist from the 1970s back to the days of slavery in a ways that’s fresh, thoughtful and compelling (and distressing). I quite enjoyed Hazards of Time Travel by Joyce Carol Oates where the premise is that in the future if you displease the society of the time, you’re sent back to 1950s Wisconsin for rehabilitation. So it’s a coming of age/college book in a way. I didn’t really enjoy Paris Adrift by EJ Swift but if you really love time travel, you probably will like it.
Young Adult books I enjoyed and did not
Winner: Pulp by Robin Talley
I never quite know whether to just put Young Adult into the general contemporary fiction category but some felt particularly young-adult-ish so here we are. I really liked Pulp by Robin Talley which is about lesbian pulp fiction, or really about the changing social experience of being a lesbian in the 1950s versus present day America. It’s rather good and recommended. As I said, Turtles All the Way Down by John Green is another interesting book in this category. One by Sarah Crossan was good if you want to read a short book about conjoined twins and cry a lot at the end. Carry On by Rainbow Rowell is Harry Potter fan fiction and I found it hard to find much to enthuse about here… I re-read Five Children and It, The Phoenix and the Carpet, and The Story of the Amulet (trilogy) by E Nesbit when I felt the need for something comforting and they were as nice as I remembered them in childhood. And there was a new release of Noel Streatfeild’s Christmas Stories which were exactly as lovely as a Noel Streatfeild fan might expect.
Pick of the Autobiographies
Winner: Spaceman by Mike Massimino
I read a few great autobiographies this year. My first book of the year was Spaceman by Mike Massimino. He is a fantastic writer – funny, relatable, and fascinating. If you have any interest in space, or just in working very hard to achieve a goal, this will be a winner for you. And my last book of the year was Becoming by Michelle Obama which has been a huge blockbuster and pleasingly is also rather good. An inspiring tale of starting off in inauspicious circumstances, but rising up. I read The Clancys of Queens by Tara Clancy which was about being poor during the week and posh at the weekends – an intriguing premise. Another good education-themed blockbuster was of course Educated by Tara Westover about living with a fundamentalist family who didn’t send her to school, and then her finding her way in the world. Really interesting read. Reminded me of the fictional Our Endless Numbered Days by Claire Fuller which I also read this year and was quite good. On the autobiographies not themed around education quite so much, I loved Logical Family by Armistead Maupin, whom I got to see reading it. For any Maupin fan this is an obvious must-read. Likewise, I saw David Sedaris reading Calypso and then enjoyed his autobiographical essays as much as ever. I was less enthused by Far From the East End by Iris Jones Simantel which I read randomly as it was on my Kindle – possibly purchased by my mother?
Here are all the books I read this year, ranked with the simple criterion of how much I enjoyed reading them; within each rank category, they are ordered in the order in which I read them.
Spaceman by Mike Massimino
Logical Family by Armistead Maupin
Turtles All the Way Down by John Green
The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood
Sourdough by Robin Sloan
Mr Penumbra’s 24 hour Bookstore by Robin Sloam
Ajax Penumbra by Robin Sloan
Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan
Three Things About Elsie by Joanna Cannon
Less by Andrew Sean Greer
Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin
The Painted Veil by Somerset Maugham
Mrs Harris Goes To Paris, Mrs Harris Goes to New York and Mrs Harris MP by Paul Gallico
The Librarian by Sally Vickers
The Lido by Libby Page
Moon Palace by Paul Auster
Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler
In the Country of Last Things by Paul Auster
The Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer
Happiness for Humans by PZ Reizin
Kindred by Octavia Butler
Dawn, Adult Rites, and Imago (trilogy) by Octavia Butler
Take Nothing With You by Patrick Gale
Normal People by Sally Rooney
Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver
I Still Dream by James Smythe
Love is Blind by William Boyd
Killing Commendatore by Haruki Murakami
Noel Streatfeild’s Christmas Stories by Noel Streatfeild
An Absolutely Remarkable Thing by Hank Green
Becoming by Michelle Obama
The Clancys of Queens by Tara Clancy
Artemis by Andy Weir
Lullaby by Leila Slimani
Lost for Words by Stephanie Butland
Our Endless Numbered Days by Claire Fuller
This Time of Darkness by HM Hoover
Dear Mrs Bird by AJ Pearce
Only Ever Yours by Louise O’Neill
An Old Captivity by Nevil Shute
Calypso by David Sedaris
The Sky quartet by JW Lynne
The Hunters by Kat Gordon
The Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers
The Growing Pains of Jennifer Ebert, Aged 19 Going on 91 by David M Barnett
Red Clocks by Leni Zumas
The Death of Grass by John Christopher
One by Sarah Crossan
Vox by Christina Dalcher
Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler
Five Children and It, The Phoenix and the Carpet, and The Story of the Amulet (trilogy) by E Nesbit
Daphne of Fitzroy Street by E Nesbit
The Big Lie by Julie Mayhew
My Purple-Scented Novel by Ian McEwan
Pulp by Robin Talley
Hazards of Time Travel by Joyce Carol Oates
Educated by Tara Westover
Ex Libris: confessions of a common reader by Anne Fadiman
Carry On by Rainbow Rowell
The Idiot by Elif Batuman
H(A)PPY by Nicola Barker
Dracula by Bram Stoker
The Future for Curious People by Gregory Sherl
Far From the East End by Iris Jones Simantel
Birthmarked by Caragh O’Brien
Survival: After it Happened by Devon C Ford
Breathe by Sarah Crossan
Resist by Sarah Crossan
Paris Adrift by EJ Swift
Winter by Ali Smith
The Generation by Holly Cave
The Humanarium 1 and 2 by CW Tickner
84K by Claire North
The Hour I First Believed by Wally Lamb
Fluence by Stephen Oram
None. I worry I’m being either too nice, or too wedded to ensuring a book has good Amazon reviews before committing to reading it… I think my quality control methods have been pretty good this year.