When you’ve read more than eighty books in a year, narrowing down the best reads is quite a job, but I’ll give it a go.
This year’s reading has brought home to me how writers are really pushing at genre boundaries. Now if you pick up a crime book, it is not necessarily going to be either “cosy crime” in the tradition of Agatha Christie, a jigsaw puzzle of clues to fit together with the culprit coming quietly at the end (no court room necessary) nor does it have to be modern noir, usually with a few nasty, arguably gratuitously violent scenes, all neatly wound up at the end by an often socially dysfunctional detective. Christopher Brookmyre’s Places in the Darkness could be classified, not only as detective fiction, but also as science fiction and philosophy. A long way from Hercule Poirot. And a bloody good read. I’d thoroughly recommend it. Faultlines by Doug Johnstone is another crime/thriller set in alternative realities – in this case a volcanically active Edinburgh.
While we’re on the topic… I wouldn’t usually mention books that didn’t live up to expectations, but I will mention the latest Cormoran Strike book.(Lethal White by Robert Galbraith aka JK Rowling) I bought this massive tome the day of publication. Yeah, the story was ok, the plot was reasonable, but boy was it just too long. I just don’t think the story justified all those pages, and I was get quite bored with the ‘will they, won’t they’ sub-plot of Robin and Cormoran. JFDI I say.
Himself by Jess Kidd is also a ‘whodunnit’ but it is so much more – a portrayal of small town life in Ireland, a ghost story, magical realism, and a fine piece of literary fiction. Beautiful. And then there was The Dry by Jane Harper. As I said at the time on Goodreads, it’s the best crime novel I’ve read for ages and in fact it doesn’t feel like a crime novel for much of the time because there is so much else going on. Set in a tiny Australian Outback town, it is haunting, atmospheric and totally gripping. I went straight out and got hold of the next book in the series Force of Nature which was equally brilliant in a totally different way. Think of Blair Witch Project meets A Town Like Alice. She is definitely a writer to look out for, and although it’s a hard call, I’d say Best Crime Book of 2018 – The Dry.
Again, quite a bit of genre bending going on here too. The cross over between literary fiction and thriller is big now, which is good for both genres I think. In the midst of this it was nice to read Acts of Revision by Martyn Bedford which reminded me of Ruth Rendell writing as Barbara Vine. Her death left a big hole in the world of good suspense writing, so it’s good to see some new people filling the gap. Has anyone not noticed the publication of Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman? The reason you see it everywhere is that it’s bloody brilliant. Here is a book which has you wondering ‘what is going on here’? in a good way. A fantastic thriller.
Anything by Sarah Waters is not to be missed, yet I’ve only just got around to reading the Paying Guests, perhaps because I was slightly disappointed by The Little Stranger. But for me, The Paying Guests was back on form. Creepy, rising tension, and I had no idea how she would resolve it, but she did. Master Story Teller. The scariest book I’ve read this year was Revival by Stephen King. He’s so much back on form with this book – tightly written, pacey, dead scary. But the best thriller of 2018 was Before the Fall by Noah Hawley. I loved his previous book The Good Father but this one surpasses all. Brilliant pace, plot, characterisation, and commentary on the world at large.
Oh dear. Still lots to go! Here is a quick romp through some other categories.
Funniest book of the year The Lubetkin Legacy by Marina Lewycka (Though The Break by Marian Keyes was a close runner up)
Best autobiography of the year How Not to be a Boy – Robert Webb
Best non-fiction of the year Bookworm – Lucy Mangan
Best middle grade novel of the year Silver Skin – Joan Lennon Such a clever writer with so much heart. A boy from the future arrives in Skara Brae in pre-historic times. What a great start. And it gets better.
Best YA novel of the year Another Day – David Levithan I’ve raved about EveryDay before, one of my favourite YA books EVER. This is the same story as seen through the eyes of the other main character. Can you even do that? Yes you can, and it works so well. You’d have to read Every Day first, but that’s really no hardship.
Best fantasy of the year A Darker Shade of Magic VE Schwab A fabulous romp through four parallel, magical Londons.
Best Sci Fi of the year. Oh dear. What to nominate. Leaving aside Christopher Brookmyre’s Places in the Darkness, which is a truly great read, there were some other crackers. I read The Power by Naomi Alderman for the first time this year. Wow, what an amazing book. And don’t assume it’s feminist – it will challenge all your ideas about gender. Of course I had to re-read The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood having been so enthralled by the TV adaptation. I haven’t read any Margaret Atwood since the 1990s, including this one, and she really does stand the test of time. Her writing is brilliant. But in the end the best sci fi of the year is one I picked up at the library middle of December. America City by Chris Beckett. I fell in love with Dark Eden by the same author, several years ago, which is totally out there nerdy sci fi – other planets, space ships etc. America City is meant to be in the future, but honestly it could be now. That is what makes it so scary. What happens to America when the weather gets worse and people have to evacuate whole states for good? this. Read it and quake.
I’m going to allow myself five in this category. (well, it’s my list, I can do what I like). Mrs Kimble by Jennifer Haigh. If you’re watching and enjoying Mrs Wilson on BBC at the moment, you’ll like this book. It reminds me of Barbara Kingsolver’s Poisonwood bible, in that it is multi point of view about a man who never has a voice, but who controls everything. The Panoptican – Jenni Fagan. I don’t know if this is officially classified as YA. The protagonist is a young adult, but the book is a deeply disturbing portrayal of life in care. If I’d known how dark it was, I might have delayed reading it, but I didn’t and I read it, and it’s haunting. I did put off reading The Professor of Truth – James Robertson until this year, thinking I would not enjoy a book about the Lockerbie bomber and miscarriages of justice, but it is so full of heart, so emotional, and is really about grief. Yet it was so uplifting. Half a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is about the Biafran war, and again it could have been a harrowing read, and it was, but it was also beautifully written and character driven. Finally … yes here it is… One of my favourite films, and I’d never read the book, but a visit to a bookshop in Bath at the end of last year persuaded me to buy this and read it. So glad I did. What’s Eating Gilbert Grape by Peter Hedges. The film was true to the book, and yet there is so much more to discover in here about this wonderful story.
I’m not sure I could single out one book and say it was my favourite. Even narrowing this list down has been hard. But I am so heartened by all the fabulous writing out there. Here’s to 2019.