This year I’ve read a new personal best of 46 books – and apart from a few notable exceptions, I’ve loved pretty much all of them.
Here’s my countdown of the very best books I’ve read this year. As a warning, not all of them were published for the first time in 2018, but that’s when I read them! I have, however, excluded the Classics. It somehow didn’t seem right to put Charles Dickens in a best of 2018 reading list.
There are full reviews on most of these bad boys – just click the link in the title.
1.‘Incognito’ by David Eagleman
David Eagleman’s exceptional voyage into the human brain had me absolutely glued to it from the first page. It was incredibly thorough without being dry and my jaw dropped during certain parts. This book will have you performing weird experiments, wrapping yourself into odd postures and becoming essentially a slave to the author’s whim, but you will never look at the world the same way again.
2. ‘Burning Country’ by Leila Al-Shami and Robin Yassin-Kassab
If you are like me, you will be thoroughly confused by what is going on in Syria. Whose side are we on? Whose side is ISIS on? And are we definitely sure we’re not on the same side?! Although tragically the conflict in Syria has rather fallen out of the headlines recently, it’s without doubt one of the most influential and important historical events of our times, and everyone should find out more about it. This very sad, but very readable, account of the war explains its significance and tells the tale of the dream that was crushed.
3. ‘Another Day in the Death of America’ by Gary Younge
A recommendation from a pal of mine, ‘Another Day in the Death of America’ is also pretty bleak reading, but comes at the topic of gun crime in a totally unique way. Based on the statistic that ten children a day die from guns in America, the author chooses one particular day and investigates the lives and deaths of the kids who lost their lives. This book was sympathetic and deeply surprising. The stupidity of allowing free gun ownership has never been more apparent.
4. ‘East West Street’ by Philippe Sands
This non-fiction gem was much feted upon its release two years ago. It tells the story of the author’s family history and how it intertwines with the Nuremberg trials. The tale also interweaves the story of the two legal thinkers who came up with the concepts of ‘genocide’ and ‘crimes against humanity’; how their lives were also affected by the second world war and their eventual influence on the trials.
Gosh this makes me look like a bleak reader, doesn’t it!
1. ‘The Vorrh‘ by Brian Catling
‘The Vorrh’ was undoubtedly my surprise of the year. Not generally a huge fan of fantasy, this novel turned my ideas about the genre right around. A huge and complex cast of characters revolve around a mystical forest called ‘The Vorrh’ which appears to be sentient, drawing people in and spitting them out according to its will. Incorporating elements of fact, fiction, mythology and religion with a twist of dark wit, this is a novel like no other.
2. ‘Milkman’ by Anna Burns
Impossible not to include last year’s Man Booker Prizewinner. ‘Milkman’ is about an unnamed teenager (‘Middle sister’) who begins to experience some unwanted attention from a mysterious paramilitary during the Irish Troubles. Unusually, for a novel with this description, it is both charming and funny, with a lot of resonance with today’s current affairs and the #MeToo movement.
3. ‘Vernon Subutex‘ by Virginie Despentes
For pure cynical enjoyment, look no further than Vernon Subutex, a shortlister for last year’s Man Booker International prize. This seemed to me an unusual choice for a prize which usually favours quite serious, worthy books; Vernon Subutex is just a delightfully fun read, which at the same time manages to touch upon the most pressing points in modern French culture and politics.
4. ‘Flights‘ by Olga Tokarczuk
This year’s International Man Booker Prize winner is without doubt the weirdest book I’ve ever read. Part traveller’s notebook, part unexpected exposition on embalming, it is unique, beautifully written and oddly universal. I can’t promise you’ll enjoy it, but I can promise you’ll be glad you read it.
5. ‘The People in the Trees‘ by Hanya Yanagihara
Hanya Yanagihara, aka my favourite author, aka my nemesis, hit me again this year with ‘The People in the Trees’. Actually written before her big hit, ‘A Little Life’, this novel shows plenty of hints of the talent, drama and knack for gut-ripping tragedy that made her second novel such a success. It tells the story of a scientist who goes in search of a sheltered tribe, leaving general destruction in his wake. The craft that goes into creating the narrator’s distinctly shady character is just mind-boggling. Highly recommended, if you feel like being horrified and devastated at the same time.
6. ‘The Mars Room‘ by Rachel Kushner
Another Man Booker nominee (sorry!), ‘The Mars Room’ takes a long, hard look at the American penal system through the eyes of Romy, an ex-stripper who ends up with a life sentence for killing her stalker. The novel deals with how she comes to terms with her new reality, but much more provocative is Kushner’s depiction of the inevitable path driving Romy to her fate. This is a book with a lot to say.
7. ‘Purple Hibiscus’ by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Definitely not from 2018, but I couldn’t not include the second book by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie I’ve read. This book is about a girl, Kambili, who grows up with a strict and fanatical father, but discovers her freedom when she visits her liberal aunt Ifeoma. But more than the story, the writing is just superb. Evocative and emotional without ever being melodramatic, if I could steal anyone’s writing style it would be Ngozi Adichie’s.
1. ‘Tangerine‘ by Christine Mangan
Oh dear, ‘Tangerine’. You suffered from the curse of over-hyping. I had read so many excellent reviews of ‘Tangerine’ and the plot summary made it sound right up my street: ‘old friends reunite in sun-drenched Morocco only for the path to catch up with them and reveal that one of them has a twisted agenda…’ Alas, ‘Tangerine’ was one of my duds of the year. It was a great premise, but it had already been done before – and much better – by other people. I think for this kind of psychological thriller, you need to have really well developed characters; sadly, the two protagonists of ‘Tangerine’ were rather flat and I didn’t really care what happened to them. I think I even slightly preferred the evil one.
2. ‘Vox‘ by Christina Dalcher
‘Vox’ also suffered slightly from overhyping but also I felt that here was a book which could, and should, have been a lot better than it was. Starting from an interesting premise – women are allowed to say 100 words a day, or they’ll be electrocuted – it seemed almost the inverse of Naomi Alderman’s excellent ‘The Power’, and I was ready to love it. However, it was a novel that begged to be a film script and came off as rather one dimensional, some parts even plumbing the depths of cringeworthiness.
3. ‘The World Goes On‘ by László Krasznahorkai
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: there’s no doubting that ‘The World Goes On’ is an astounding opus by a giant of literature. However, I am evidently lacking some lobe of the brain which would allow me to find ‘The World Goes On’ anything but an endurance test, with its endless, rambling sentences and obscure philosophical significance. I could tell you what it’s about, but I can’t bear to discuss it again. If you are a literary masochist and are thinking of trying it out, please refer to my original blog for details.
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How was your year in reading? Which were your faves of 2018?