It’s become a habit that every year I sit down and review the best books I read in the previous year. And with 2019 now in full swing, I thought I’d share my year of good reading with you all.
It was a great year for reading – some years I slog through loads of mediocre books. Not 2018. I read so many good books that it was hard to whittle it down to the ones on this list. I’m also happy to say that most of the best books I read were by women.
I read 50 books last year, just under my Goodreads goal of 52, however I did start War and Peace after watching the delightful BBC adaptation. I expect the book will turn up in my 2019 best of list.
Best fiction books I read in 2018
Give Me Your Hand by Megan Abbott
Kit and Diane were childhood best friends, until Diane’s shocking secret tore their relationship apart. Yet they find themselves working together as scientists investigating Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder (PMDD), competing for spots in a prestigious research unit. While the book seems to start slowly, what follows is a series of mic-drops I found absolutely compelling.
I’ve read most of Megan Abbott’s novels, from Die a Little to Give Me Your Hand. For me, this is the most powerful in terms of articulating what Abbott is saying about women’s bodies and their relationship to violence. If you’re a woman, how many times have you heard something brushed away because of PMS? Because of your emotional state? Because women are too emotional to be cold and calculated. Because women don’t commit violence for no reason. There’s got to be an explanation, right?
But that’s the crux of Give Me Your Hand – the expectations of women and their role in society, and their relationship to violence.
The Piano Teacher by Elfriede Jelinek
Like Blood Meridian the previous year, The Piano Teacher is not a nice book. It’s not one I’ll be recommending to my mother. But six months later I can’t forget it, and it will be influential on the next book I’m writing.
I’m not sure how to explain the brutality of this book, nor the appeal. Needless to say, The Piano Teacher is exactly the sort of book women aren’t expected to write – a violent and unflinching examination of the female gaze and power structures in relationships. It’s brutal and unrelenting, and certainly not for the faint of heart.
The story revolves around a piano teacher, her overbearing mother and a student. Gradually the teacher begins to play power games with the student, and of course, it doesn’t end well.
The Piano Teacher is reminiscent of some of the same themes as Megan Abbott’s work, but maintains this incredibly difficult voice, dipping in and out of characters without ever feeling like head hopping. The author, Elfriede Jelinek, won the Nobel Prize for literature in 2004.
Notable mentions: In a Lonely Place by Dorothy B. Hughes, Generation Loss by Elizabeth Hand
Most entertaining fiction book of 2018
City of Lies by Sam Hawke
City of Lies is a really fantastic debut fantasy novel, sitting somewhere between Seth Dickinson’s The Traitor and Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor. The story centres around a brother and sister, Jovan and Kalina, whose family are the secret protectors of the Chancellor. Jovan is a proofer, testing the Chancellor’s meals for poison.
The novel begins with a death and doesn’t stop there, being part murder mystery, part political thriller, the stakes heightened by the touching relationship between Jovan and Kalina. You really care for these characters as they try to solve the crime. There’s also a well plotted narrated arc for Kalina, and I must admit I got a bit dusty at the end of the book.
City of Lies is a beautifully complex novel without being hard to read, and it’s a rare treat for a reader to see every element of the story come together. As a writer I’m floored by the skill in this debut.
Notable Mention: Kings of the Wyld by Nicholas Eames
Best Short Fiction
I read a lot of good short fiction in 2018. Like a lot, including:
- A Small Charred Face by Kazuki Sakuraba – Absolutely heartbreaking novella about the “bamboo” a type of Chinese vampire in Japan. Bring tissues.
- The Adventure of the Cantankerous Old Lady in The Penguin Book of Victorian Women in Crime – as you might gather from the title it’s a complete hoot, with a female amateur investigator who gets up to no good with curling irons and bicycles…
- Finally, I read the collection Blow-Up and Other Stories by Julio Cortazar, but my absolute favourite story in the collection was The End of the Game.
Best non-fiction book
I didn’t read a lot of non-fiction in 2018, partly because I was only half-researching a new book. However I found Inspector Minahan Makes a Stand by Bridget O’Donnell to be very good. It’s about sex trafficking in Victorian London and the moral crusade against it. It’s an interesting overview of the origins of new journalism and the controversy about the Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon.
Notable mention: Piano Notes by Charles Rosen
You can read my previous best of lists here:
What’s the best book you read in 2018? I’d love to hear your recommendations in the comments below.
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