Books of the Year 2018

It’s been an unusual reading year for me; new work has meant I’ve read lots of things I wouldn’t have otherwise and it’s no coincidence that, for the first time, there’s a poetry collection included here. It’s also the first time there’s been a graphic novel in my list, although I’ve confused myself here as The One Hundred Nights of Hero is one of my favourite books and I’ve no idea why it didn’t make the list last year. Anyway, here’s my favourite fifteen books published in 2018, if there’s a theme to the list it’s this: feminist as fuck.

Milkman – Anna Burns

Until last week, I’d known what my book of the year was since May. And then I read Milkman. An eighteen-year-old woman walks the streets of what appears to be Belfast, although the setting is never named, reading classic literature. An encounter with a paramilitary man called Milkman sets off rumours about her and him, leading to an increasingly claustrophobic atmosphere in which the community, and her own family, draw conclusions from hearsay. Since Milkman won this year’s Booker Prize, much has been made of its apparently challenging nature. To me, it read like someone telling an anecdote in the pub, the story both moving forwards and circling back, characters known by nicknames and monikers. It’s a superb read: often funny, resolutely feminist, and possibly the best book about the Troubles I’ve read.

Ghost Wall – Sarah Moss

This is the book that was knocked off the number one spot at the last minute. Ghost Wall is the story of teenager, Silvie, as she takes part in an Iron Age reconstruction with her family. Her father is particularly keen that things should be as authentic as possible and it soon becomes clear that his views on women are severely outdated. The tension builds until a horrific act is committed. Moss’ writing is taut, sharp and will keep you on edge. My mini-review is here.

Everything Under – Daisy Johnson

When I read Everything Under earlier in the year, I described it on Twitter as spellbinding, the first time I’ve ever described a novel as such; the prose is mesmerising though. Gretal works as a lexicographer and is attempting to get Sarah, her estranged mother, to tell her story, allowing Gretal to fill in the gaps in her adolescence. Johnson reworks the Oedipus myth as an exploration of gender and mother/daughter relationships. Absolutely worthy of its place on the Booker Prize shortlist.

America Is Not the Heart – Elaine Castillo

Hero is an illegal immigrant, a member of the New People’s Army, a former prisoner of war. She leaves the Philippines to live with her uncle’s family, who she hasn’t seen in years. In San Fransisco, she begins to rebuild her life and makes friends who’ll become her new family. Castillo explores ideas of home through language, food, family, friendship and love. Big, bold and absorbing. My full review and interview with Elaine is here.

Three Poems – Hannah Sullivan

I wouldn’t have read Three Poems if Hannah Sullivan hadn’t been booked for Manchester Literature Festival and I’m so glad she was. Poem one tells of the narrator’s time in New York, living and dating; two of moving to California and repetition, and three of the birth of her son and the death of her father. As a whole, it’s an impressive piece of work, while individual lines have stayed with me for months.

Whiskey & Ribbons – Leesa Cross-Smith

Eamon is killed when his wife, Evi, is nine-months pregnant. In the grief that follows, Dalton, Eamon’s adopted brother moves in to support Evi in raising Noah. As Evi and Dalton try to come to terms with their loss, they begin to grow closer. A beautifully written story of love, loss and longing. The story’s expanded from some pieces in Cross-Smith’s debut short story collection Every Kiss a War which I reviewed here.

The Best We Could Do – Thi Bui

Triggered by the birth of her first child, Thi Bui tells the story of her parents emigrating to the USA, intertwined with the history of Vietnam. Through it she begins to understand the experiences which shaped her parents and herself. Compelling and beautifully illustrated.

The Book of Joan – Lidia Yuknavitch

Christine Pizan is in her final year on CIEL and she’s planning to go out in spectacular style. She’s creating a skin graft telling the true story of Joan of Dirt, a story which has been outlawed by CEIL’s ruler, Jean de Men. Fierce, feminist and concerned with climate change, I’m still reeling from The Book of Joan ten months later. My full review is here.

To Throw Away Unopened – Viv Albertine

Viv Albertine’s second memoir is more personal than her first and all the better for it. Alongside the end of her marriage and her foray into dating again, she reconsiders her upbringing after the death of her father and the discovery of a bag of documents previously unseen. This is also considered alongside the death of her mother, which is detailed gradually as the book progresses and also her relationship with her sister which culminates in an unforgettable scene at their mother’s hospital bed. A powerful look at family stories and relationships and the impact they have on women.

The Silence of the Girls – Pat Barker

Another discovery thanks to Manchester Literature Festival. Pat Barker’s retelling of The Iliad focuses on Briseis, largely telling the tale from her perspective. It’s brutal and brash, showing the men for spoilt, squabbling brats while giving women a voice in one of the oldest stories in literature. My full review is here.

Melmoth – Sarah Perry

Melmoth is condemned to wander the world, watching and collecting those of us who’ve been complicit in acts of harm. While Helen Franklin discovers the various accounts of Melmoth, Perry uses them as a vehicle to bear witness to atrocities from the Holocaust to the violent deportation of immigrants, forcing the reader to question their complicity. Compelling and uncomfortable reading. My mini-review is here.

Sight – Jessie Greengrass

There was a spate of books considering motherhood this year, Sight was one of the best. The narrator documents her thinking about whether or not she should become a parent alongside her memories of her grandmother, a psychoanalyst; the death of her mother, and medical developments including the creation of the X-ray. Clever and exquisitely written.

The Incendiaries – R.O. Kwon

Phoebe Lin, a student at an elite NY university, is drawn into a cult intent on committing a terrorist act. Outsider, Will Kendall becomes close to Phoebe and, following her disappearance, tells the story of their relationship and what he knows about cult leader, John Leal. Compelling.

Places I Stopped on the Way Home – Meg Fee

Sometimes you read a book at the perfect time and Places I Stopped on the Way Home was one of them. Fee writes about her time in NYC, dating, living in shared houses, managing her recovery from an eating disorder, and what she learned about how to live. I underlined a lot. My review is here.

Snap – Belinda Bauer

In the first chapter of Snap, Jack and his sisters are left in the family car, on the hard shoulder of the motorway, as their mum goes to telephone for help. She never returns. It seems as though this is going to be a straight psychological thriller until chapter two jumps three years. Now Jack and his siblings live alone, the police are investigating a cat burglar they’ve called Goldilocks and pregnant Catherine has found a knife and a threatening note next to her bed. This is crime if it was written by Kate Atkinson and Lissa Evans; it’s about people not being who you think they are and what family will do to protect each other. It’s also very funny. I stayed up late to finish it in one sitting.

Reading Round-Up: Ghosts of the Past

Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss is told from the perspective of teenage girl Silvie during the days she spends living in a recreation of an Iron Age settlement in Northumberland with her parents and a group of students, led by Professor Slade. Silvie’s dad is determined that things should be done authentically although he’s relented as far as pyjamas, underwear, toothpaste and tampons are concerned thanks to some intervention from Silvie’s mum. Silvie attempts to keep her dad happy but is drawn to the students and eventually joins them in sneaking to the Spar in the nearest village. As the book progresses, Silvie’s dad’s obsession with how they should be living becomes more and more rigid and the tension builds until a horrific act is committed. Moss uses the juxtaposition of contemporary society with Iron Age life to highlight themes of toxic masculinity and gender roles, questioning whether those men who conform to outdated stereotypes have a place in modern society. Ghost Wall is a superb book made all the more powerful by its brevity.

Thanks to Granta for the review copy.

Melmoth, Sarah Perry’s third novel, contains many stories connected by Melmoth, the loneliest being in the world. Perry’s Melmoth (as opposed to Charles Maturin’s in Melmoth the Wanderer) is a woman condemned to wander the world haunting those who’ve been complicit in acts of harm. We meet her at the point when Helen Franklin, whose story threads through the novel, is also about to see her. Helen, forty-two, a translator living alone in Prague, is given part of a written confession by the recently deceased J.A. Hoffman. Once Helen has read the portion of the story, she returns to her friend Karel’s house where other stories in the form of letters, a journal and a testimony are given to her. But the story which really haunts Helen Franklin is her own. Through these tales, Perry explores our complicity in the sins and atrocities committed in the world. As Melmoth bears witness to these acts so do we, and while the characters are haunted by Melmoth she too appears at the edge of our vision, forcing us to examine our own behaviour. Melmoth is a compelling, terrifying, overtly political examination of humanity. Those of you who’ve been reading this blog for some time/follow me on Twitter will be aware that I’m a huge fan of Perry’s previous novels After Me Comes the Flood and The Essex Serpent. When I reviewed Perry’s debut I said that I wished I’d written it, I feel similarly about Melmoth.

Thanks to Serpent’s Tail for the review copy.

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward is told from multiple perspectives: two members of the same family – Jojo, a 13-year-old boy and his mother, Leonie – and the ghost of another boy, Richie. Jojo, baby Kayla, and their mother, Leonie, live with Leonie’s parents. Michael, Leonie’s white partner and father of the children, has been in prison for three years. He’s about to be released and the majority of the book covers the journey to and from the jail. Leonie is a drug user, as much addicted to the presence of her dead brother, Given, who appears to her when she’s high, as she is the substances themselves. She struggles to take care of her kids so Jojo watches over Kayla while Pop, Leonie’s father, watches over Jojo. Pop tells Jojo stories about his time in Parchman prison and a boy named Richie, the ghost of whom joins them when they arrive to collect Michael. Everyone is haunted in some way, not only by the dead who linger nearby but by the history of the treatment of black people in America. Ward shows how the effects of slavery permeate life today, focusing particularly on the intersection of race and class. Although this is the story of one family, it echoes the realities for many. It’s a heart-breaking and very necessary read.

Barbara Kingsolver’s latest novel Unsheltered contains a dual narrative, set in Vineland, New Jersey. In the contemporary strand, Willa Knox and her family have moved into a house they’ve inherited following the closure of the college where her husband, Iano, taught and the loss of the house that came with the job. Iano’s dying father Nick is living with them and their seemingly wayward daughter, Tig, has recently returned from Cuba. In the first chapter of the novel, Willa discovers the house is structurally unsound and her son, Zeke, is left to raise a baby alone following his girlfriend’s death by suicide. Needing money for the repairs to the house in order to shelter her ailing family, Willa begins some research. In 1871, Thatcher Greenwood is attempting to introduce Charles Darwin’s latest ideas into his teaching, much to the chagrin of the school’s leader. His next-door neighbour, Mary Treat, is much more enthusiastic about his plans. A self-trained biologist, Treat conducts experiments in her living room and corresponds with Darwin himself. Delightfully, Treat is based on a real woman (and reminded me of Elizabeth Gilbert’s novel The Signature of All Things). Kingsolver draws parallels between the two eras through fear of change and people’s reactions to it. Willa repeatedly states that her and Iano have done everything right: they had good jobs, they worked hard, they raised a family. They expect to have property, money and stability in their 50s but those things are gone. Halfway through the novel I became frustrated at what I perceived to be white people problems – if things are terrible for the white middle class then we’re all fucked, woe is them – but then I realised that Kingsolver knows her audience. She’s writing for the white middle class pointing out how they’ve contributed to the destruction of the environment, the rise of the far right, the tyranny of capitalism. She doesn’t leave them – or us – without hope though but it comes from what might appear to be an unexpected source: Millennials. Alongside Mary Treat, the most compelling character in the novel is Tig. Unconventional, attuned to the needs of society and the planet, she – and her friends – might just have the answers we need.

Thanks to Faber for the review copy.

My Bailey’s Prize Wishlist 2015

You know that spring is almost here when the Bailey’s Prize for Women gets underway. Next Tuesday (10th March) the longlist of 20 novels (if it remains the same as recent years) will be announced. Eligible novels have to be written in English and published by a UK adult imprint between the 1st of April 2014 and the 31st of March 2015. Translations are not eligible.

Here’s what I’d like to see on the list. If you click on the cover, it’ll take you to my review, unless the book is yet to be published, in which case the review will be posted on the week of publication.

As ever, I’ll be shadowing the whole process. Check back on Friday for more details on this.

(Published 26th March)

(Published 26th March)

(Published 5th March)

And three I haven’t read yet but are strong possibilities: