Every year, I set myself a Goodreads reading challenge, more to keep track of what I’m reading that year than to race to the finish line. At the end of the year, Goodreads puts it together in a nice list so you have an idea of what your year in reading was like. Plus my goal – 158 books – was a nice, easy achievement for me, I read vast quantities and constantly, and I had hoped that if none of my other goals were met in 2018, at least I would have read those 158 books, at least a book logging website would congratulate me. You have to take your victories where you can. (I got to 168 and then stopped counting.)
As a result, here we are again, and here I am talking about the best books I read in 2018. Again: not all published this year, but books I loved.
My favourite crime novels of 2018
I read a lot of crime this year. I justify some of it by calling it research for the new book I’m writing, but mostly, it’s because crime hits that sweet spot between a really well told story (if you’re lucky) and that dopamine hit when it all falls together in the end like a good row of Tetris tiles. More than a good kiss, I like to read about a good murder, the murkier the better.
Social Creature by Tara Isabella Burton was a vertigo-inducing plot, you’re not quite sure what’s happening, but you might be rooting for the bad guy to win. A rich girl becomes enamoured of a poorer one, and before the poorer one can help it, she’s firmly in the rich girl’s world, one that comes with several strings. It’s a story of dependence and how dangerous that can be.
Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch, the first in a series, is best described as one of the blurbs puts it: what if Harry Potter grew up and became a policeman? Close enough, but also, it’s the story of two murder mysteries and a policeman who realises there are such things as magic, the rivers in London are actual gods and goddesses and oh, by the way, he’s a magician too. The rest of the series unfolds in the same way – a murder, some magic, and delightful modern-day allusions by Peter Grant, the mixed race constable who is in way over his head.
The Woman in the Window by AJ Finn gave me a jump-scare, this about halfway through the year when I had read enough crime to be able to accurately predict many plot twists. I was so enthralled, I immediately recommended it to everyone I knew. Basic plot without spoilers: an agoraphobic woman lives alone but can see her neighbours from her window with the help of her camera zoom lens. Shady stuff starts happening when a new family moves in next door. Very Hitchcock.
Brat Farrar by Josephine Tey is another imposter story, someone pretending to be what they’re not, but we already know the eponymous Brat is a fraud, since the book is set up with someone hiring him to impersonate a dead family member and hook a family out of their inheritance. What’s delightful is how quickly the reader is aligned with Brat and how the delicate upper middle class English family life of the family he’s cheating falls out of line.
Tey is a very underrated writer (another book of hers I adored this year was The Daughter of Time, which is set entirely in a hospital bed, with two researchers, one a policeman and one not investigating Richard III, and winds up being a thrilling who-dun-it after all) and after reading a few of her books, I feel she should be way up there along with Agatha.
A Share in Death and other Kinkaid/James books by Deborah Crombie which I got drawn into not so much because of the mysteries (which are excellent, and so well researched you wind up learning something each time you finish a book from rowing to the history of Camden Town) but because of the evolving relationship between the two detectives. As the books – seventeen of them so far, and which took me a good part of the first three months of the year – go on, the detectives fall in love, move in together, get married, adopt a little girl as well as parent their two boys (from separate marriages), get some dogs and cats, all this very ideal domestic bliss against the background of murder outside. It’s the sort of cozy mystery that’s the best kind, the idea that you can bar your door against all the bad things, a job’s a job, but meanwhile you have a pizza night tradition and walk your dog in the snow.
My favourite true crime of 2018
Now, normally, true crime is a bit ghoulish, certainly for a rubbernecking kind of reader – how much blood? Whose face was smashed up? But with People Who Eat Darkness by Richard Lloyd Parry I found myself rooting for Lucie Blackman to escape, even though I knew she was dead, I knew from the blurb she was dead, but Parry is so loving about Lucie, talking to her friends, her family, that she emerges very much alive at the end of the book.
Lucie went to Japan to have an adventure and work as a “bar girl,” where Caucasian women work at bars so that clients can practise their English by talking and flirting with them. Lucie wound up dead, buried in a cave. It’s odd for a book about crime – true or otherwise – to focus so much on the victim, for usually it’s the killer or the detective who gets all the screen time, so to speak. But People Who Eat Darkness is mostly the story of Lucie, how she was a little girl, as a sister, as a daughter, and what it’s like for young women who want to have adventures. Spooky, but enthralling.
My favourite speculative fiction of 2018
Now, normally you can sell me on anything by saying, “It’s like Jane Austen with [insert non-Austen thing here: guns, sex, moon landings.]” But as soon as I heard about Jo Walton’s Tooth and Claw: “it’s like Jane Austen with dragons!” I wanted to devour it, much like a dragon, immediately.
It is like Jane Austen with dragons: the patriarch dies, and leaves his children with instructions to care for the two younger girls, who have to drum up a dowry for themselves so they can get suitable matches. In all this is dragonese, you have to eat the eyes of the dead dragon, as a pastor, dragons sleep on beds of gold (so that dowry is important), maiden dragons turn a delicate pink when aroused and can’t turn back to their normal colour, so it’s very against form to be pink before you are betrothed. All of it is so charming, this comedy of manners and examination of social class, and then every now and then you think, “Wait a minute, I’m reading about dragons!” and it’s even more delightful.
My favourite literary fiction of 2018
As someone passionately interested in mythological retellings herself, I have admired and envied Madeline Miller since I read her remarkable Song of Achilles back in the day. This year brought Circe, the story of the Odyssey through the eyes of the much-maligned witch. Long and engrossing, as befits a saga about an immortal being, it’s being turned into a television show very soon, so I am totally congratulating myself on getting there first. Plus, it’s given me a great curiousity about the Odyssey, so I’m rummaging around trying to find other versions of it to read myself – always so much fun when one book sends you off into a spiral of wanting to know more, like the very best kind of whirlpool.
Also being made into a TV show – or is it a movie? – is Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto, about a group of hostages taken in an unnamed South American country, after a party featuring an opera star. Like Circe, it made me want to know more about the opera, and it’s lovely to read about music while also listening to the same music. Patchett has a gift for really getting into her character’s heads and voices, from a Japanese businessman to a young terrorist, you find yourself sympathetic and loving to all.
I don’t need to have children or a nanny to be completely horrified and bewitched by Leila Slimani’s Lullaby, about a nanny who murders her charges. You begin reading about the murders, the small bodies discovered, and you go back in time and find yourself wanting to call out to the young upper middle class couple who hires her, warn them or something, but even as things begin to unravel, it’s all so normal until it isn’t, that you wonder what you would warn them about in the first place. Subtle and psychological, it made me think a great deal about positions of power especially with the people you hire to make your life easier.
Mahesh Rao’s Polite Society has to be on this list because I can’t stop thinking about how easy the idea was – setting Austen’s Emma amongst Delhi’s ultra-rich, but also how well he did it. Here’s Ania-as-Emma, she is perpetually writing a masterpiece, in between attending really fancy parties and trying to matchmake for everyone she meets. Rao is gentle with Ania, but all of India’s upper classes are held up to the light and examined ruthlessly. I loved the familiar cadences of a beloved classic, but I also loved Polite Society for itself – a delicious, no-holds-barred book about the kind of India that you almost never read about in books.
I think perhaps I liked Less by Andrew Sean Greer so much is because the protagonist begins his journey by wanting to get out of going to a wedding (so me) and so accepts all the invitations he’s received to various literary events around the world (aspiring me) which starts him off on a sort of Odyssey of his own. In fact, Arthur Less is working on a book reimagining a gay man as Ulysses, so it’s all very meta. And very funny. I laughed out loud several times while I was reading it, and in the end, there’s a very sweet twist that makes you grin when you figure it out.
My favourite books by friends of 2018
(Sometimes your friends write incredible books, and just because they’re your friends doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be talked about in an end-of-year book list.)
Janice Pariat’s The Nine Chambered Heart is spare and heartbreaking. One woman, who we see through the eyes of people who love/d her. It’s like a mosaic of feelings, all these different impressions of the same person, like that old story about the blind men meeting an elephant for the first time. Oddly though, as you read more about the woman, you realise she is moving further and further away from you. It’s quite a literary feat.
And Snigdha Poonam’s The Dreamers is the one non-fiction book I’ve been recommending to people all year to get a sense of India. A collection of essays around young people from small town North India, it really digs deep into the minds of India’s aspirational youths. I found it completely fascinating, like macro portraits of a world I don’t know much about at all.
My favourite historical novels of 2018
I’m ashamed to admit that I don’t know much about the Bronte sisters beyond reading and re-reading and then eventually studying Jane Eyre. I never even made it to Wuthering Heights, let alone Villette and all the rest of it. So I went into The Dark Quartet by Lynne Reid Banks completely a blank slate – I didn’t know much about the three girls and their beloved brother beyond just those bare facts. Banks was known to me because of a great series of kids books she did called The Indian In The Cupboard, but reading her on Charlotte and Anne and Emily and Branwell, and their narrow lives, which they burst wide open with their imaginations – it was thrilling. I couldn’t put it down.
Jane Smiley’s Last Hundred Years saga are three doorstoppers of books, which I read one after the other – and you should too if you attempt them because otherwise you will forget who is related to whom and so on. It begins in the early 1920s, with the birth of a couple’s first child and then moves, year by year, from the original couple to their children, their children’s children and so on. A remarkable portrait of an ordinary farming family in America and their changing fortunes. I was also watching Mad Men at the same time, so the whole thing came together like a sort of period piece.
My favourite non-fiction of 2018
This category is always a little thin – I don’t read as much non-fiction as I “should” if I was prescribing myself a reading programme. But both books I enjoyed the most this year were about the Mughals, it’s been a very Mughal-specific year.
Parvati Sharma’s Jahangir: An Intimate Portrait of a Great Mughal is a late entrant to my reading list – I only just got a copy two weeks ago – but I savoured it. It’s wry, Jahangir comes off as more human, like a real person, not just a dead king, than any other work I’ve read about him. There’s extensively researched gossip, and the whole thing is so free flowing and well written that you could be reading a novel – which is the highest form of praise, I, a fiction reader, can give something.
Ira Mukhoty’s Daughters of the Sun was great fun as well – the women of the Mughal empire, who stayed in the background but enjoyed prime roles as advisers and trusted friends to the kings who would go down in history. With lots of notes from Humayun’s sister, Gulbadan’s own history of her family, there’s much to delight in, not least Mukhoty’s own extravagent descriptions of the scene.
My favourite young adult novels of 2018
I dithered for a bit about putting The One Memory of Flora Banks by Emily Barr in this section – because it could also go in the Up Lit category I have coming up, but Flora is a teenager and this story is told from her perspective, so here it stays. Flora has short term memory loss, which makes her life very difficult as you can imagine. She can remember one thing – a kiss – and then she goes in search of the boy who gave it to her. Such a spunky heroine, I was thinking about her for days.
Speaking of spunky heroines, Dicey from Cynthia Voight’s Homecoming is a shining example. When their mother disappears, Dicey Tillerman has to keep her younger siblings together while travelling across the country to find their great-aunt, but adults can never know otherwise they’ll be separated and put into care. Readers who love this will be pleased to know, as I was, that there are several more books in the Tillerman cycle, but none as gripping as the first, I thought.
My favourite short story collection of 2018
Tanuj Solanki’s Diwali In Muzaffarnagar, loosely interlinked stories about characters in and from the small town of Muzaffarnagar, was just the sort of thing I was looking for. My own personal preferences in short stories is an unravelling rather than a dramatic reveal, and this collection had plenty of the former. Have you ever been in a train and rolled past a station that sounds vaguely familiar but you haven’t actually been and you think, “I wonder what it’s like to live there”? These stories answer that question.
My favourite up-lit of 2018
Up-lit for those of you not in the know (and my last category here): “uplifting literature.” Stuff like A Man Called Ove or Beartown. Novels where a bad thing happens but then good things start to happen to the main character – often twee, but they leave you warm and shiny, if that’s what you want, unless you’re a cynic like me, and you see through the blatant manipulation.
Except in the case of Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman, which I wanted to dislike, just because of the hero-overcoming-tragedy plotline that I have grown to suspect, but wound up devouring. Eleanor is a bit like Eleanor Rigby of the Beatles song (not a coincidence), she is a lonely person, her life is ordered, without social interaction, she speaks rigidly, but you find yourself rooting for her. It’s sweet without being cloying, a commercial success but without being manipulative, it’s really good.