Top 10 Books of 2018

Leave a comment

Every year, you think the world can’t get any weirder, and then it does. 2018 was disastrous in many ways, but thankfully there is always fiction to provide you with a safe space. My 2018 was one of mixed emotions, but was redeemed by reaching the crowdfunding target on my second novel, The Third Wheel, getting to hold it in my hands, attending the wedding of one of my best friends and being asked to be a “bridesmate” for my oldest friend this coming year, and, of course, books. I also finally got Netflix this year, which took up an inordinate amount of reading time, but I still managed to hit ninety-one books.

Truth be told, I reached the end of the year struggling with how to write this post. As it got down to it, I remembered reading a good number of books I enjoyed, but very few that stood out as great books. As I went back through the list, though, I found several that really did outshine the rest, and I present them to you now. These are the ten books I read in 2018 that I would most recommend to anyone looking for a new book.

(As a side note, if you purchase any of the books here via the links I provide, I get a little bit of money, so thanks in advance!)

1. The Restaurant At The End Of The Universe by Douglas Adams

Arthur Dent is one of only two humans left in the universe. Along with a collection of assorted aliens and a depressed robot, he is now hurtling through space with no home planet to return to, and being pursued by a Vogon spaceship that has orders to kill Zaphod Beeblebrox, the President of the Galaxy. As the plot pinballs through the universe, but one question remains pivotal for every character involved: “Where are we going for lunch?” There’s only one answer, though. Milliway’s – the restaurant at the end of the universe.

Really, I’d pick the whole series – or at least the first four books – but Restaurant, for whatever reason, has the most emotional pull for me. Daft, witty and somehow still emotional, Adams changed the rules when he wrote these books, proving that with an entire universe of improbability to play with, writers didn’t have to stick to rigid rules regarding how aliens and planets behave. Inventions such as the Babel Fish and the answer to life, the universe and everything being 42 are now iconic in pop culture, and quite rightly so. I can only dream of being this creative.

You can read my full review here, or buy a copy of the book here.

2. Not Working by Lisa Owens

Claire Flannery has quit the job she hated, but hasn’t yet figured out exactly what it is she wants to do instead. Her mental health deteriorates as she struggles through job applications and the judgement of friends and family, not helped by the fact she made an inappropriate joke at her grandfather’s funeral and now her mother isn’t talking to her. Claire needs to find some answers to the questions everyone is asking her about her future, but sometimes they come along just as you stop looking.

Having spent an enormous amount of time over the last two years out of work, this book hit home in various ways. While funny, it’s also terribly poignant, dealing with love, loss, a feeling of worthlessness and how no one seems to really understand the emotional and mental impact of unemployment in a capitalist society unless they’re undergoing it themselves. I don’t wish it on anyone, but this book was a brilliant analysis of the topic, with an enormous number of quotable lines and a true sense of reality. I adored it because it made me feel less alone.

You can read my full review here, or buy a copy of the book here.

3. All Our Wrong Todays by Elan Mastai

Tom Barren lives in the 2016 that we’ve all dreamed out. With flying cars, food pills, teleportation, total equality, and limitless energy, Earth is a utopian paradise where everybody has enough and comfort and happiness comes as standard. Tom’s father, Victor, is a scientist who is on the brink of inventing time travel, with plans to send someone back through time to the most important moment in history, when Lionel Goettreider turned on his perpetual motion machine which sent humanity into its perfect future. But when Tom goes back by mistake, he accidentally changes history and returns to a broken, backwards world he doesn’t recognise: ours.

This was one of the first books I read in 2018, and I knew from then it would appear here, regardless of what else I read. Mastai has created a fascinating twist on the alternate universe and dystopia theme by having our world be the bad timeline, rather than create something new. It’s funny, engaging and packed with outlandish science that somehow all still seems real and just out of our grasp. To be honest with you, it’s a strong contender for book of the decade, and is one of the best science fiction stories I’ve ever read.

You can read my full review here, or buy a copy of the book here.

4. A Short History Of Drunkenness by Mark Forsyth

From the moment our ancestors came out of the trees, and perhaps even before, humans have loved a drink. It defines us as a species as much as our reliance on technology, desire for exploration, and need for telling stories. From the first farmers to the speakeasies of Prohibition, Mark Forsyth explores the entire of human history through our drinking habits, exploring not just what we were drinking, but why we drank, who with, and what for. How well did the plan for Australia to be an entirely dry culture go? And why was ale once drunk through a straw? All this and more will be covered.

One of two non-fiction books entering the top ten this year, this might seem a surprise candidate, but I haven’t had this much fun reading a non-fiction book in a long time. Hugely entertaining, Forsyth balances the fascinating history of alcohol with whimsy and great laughs. I’ve been repeating several of the facts ever since, including the facts that civilisation almost certainly began because of beer, and that in London for a short time, gin was served out of stuffed cats. You’ll have to read it yourself to find out more.

You can read my full review here, or buy a copy of the book here.

5. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

In the near future, fertile women are lesser citizens, sent to live with married couples for the express purpose of having children, with no say over whether or not they want to. Trapped in her life of servitude, Offred remembers the time before the government instigated this way of living, and she isn’t yet ready to give up her dreams. As it stands, the only way of getting anything resembling a better life is to get pregnant, and her whole life rests in the hands of two men who could make or break her future with one word.

Of course this makes it on to the list. I’m still appalled it took me so long to read it, but I think 2018 was actually the year it needed to be read most. There is so much to learn from this novel that shows how the world can change in unfathomable and unthinkable ways if certain ideas and figures aren’t opposed. The characters are fascinating, the world interesting, and the writing, as always with Atwood, beautifully charged with emotion. I’m intrigued by the promise of a sequel, too, and wonder where the story will lead next.

You can read my full review here, or buy a copy of the book here.

6. Penpal by Dathan Auerbach

The nameless narrator recalls a project from elementary school where he and his classmates released some balloons into the world with their names on them, in hopes that they get responses from people elsewhere in the city, or perhaps further afield. At first, nothing returns for him, but eventually he begins receiving blurry photographs. First one, then another, and then so many arrive that he stops opening them. It’s only sometime later when he takes a look again that he notices something the photos have in common … he’s in all of them.

Horror isn’t something I read a huge amount of, but there was something so compelling about this novel. I had doubts at first, but it turned into one that my mind has kept returning to since, which I take as a good sign. Just eerie enough to catch you off guard, the book is worth a read for anyone who likes being creeped out. I suppose it’s more of a thriller really, and it definitely makes good on that promise. A truly haunting, terrifying, uncomfortable read.

You can read my full review here, or buy a copy of the book here.

7. Early Riser by Jasper Fforde

On an alternate Earth, the planet is still in the grip of an Ice Age, and humanity has had to evolve to hibernate, with the vast majority of the population spending the coldest months in a state of induced sleep. Charlie Worthing is a new recruit among the Winter Consuls, the select group of protectors who remain awake all Winter to ensure that nothing bad happens to the sleepers. Rumours are abound of a viral dream, and Charlie finds himself up to his neck in trouble after he accidentally falls asleep for four weeks and is now trapped in an area of Wales that he won’t be able to leave until the thaw. It’s time to learn what it really takes to survive the Winter…

Straight up confession – this isn’t my favourite Fforde book by any means, but it’s still a Fforde book and that immediately puts it on a higher level than almost everything else published in 2018. After a long absence, it’s refreshing to have him back and still on good form, creating his fifth fictional world that is entirely realised with an enormous scope. Although a standalone novel, I would happily return to this world, just to spend more time with Fforde’s talents for wordplay, comedy and pathos. Truly the greatest writer working today.

You can read my full review here, or buy a copy of the book here.

8. Scythe by Neal Shusterman

A few centuries down the line, humanity has cured death. To keep populations in check, there is now a group of people called scythes whose job it is to kill (“glean”) people, in whatever manner they see fit. Citra and Rowan have just been taken from their families to begin training as the next generation of scythes, but both are appalled by the concept of killing, despite knowing that it must happen. Never before has a scythe taken on two apprentices, however, and at the first conclave of the year, a decision is reached – whichever of the two does best in their final exams when the year is out will win the scythe’s robe and ring – and have to glean the other…

It’s not often a YA novel makes it way onto a list of my favourite books of the year, as I tire with a lot of them quickly, but there was something remarkable about Scythe. I haven’t really stopped thinking of it since and have already bought the sequel. Shusterman builds a rich world here and it’s one that I’m happy to spend time in. There are some particularly shocking moments in it, but they somehow work and the whole thing feels effortless in its appeal in a way I’ve not encountered since the Chaos Walking series. This should really be better known than it is.

You can read my full review here, or buy a copy of the book here.

9. The Third Wheel by Michael J. Ritchie

Dexter is a twenty-something teacher struggling with growing up. All of his friends have now coupled off while Dexter remains alone, with the world pestering him constantly with its obsession with finding “the one”, as well as an onslaught of double dates and wedding invitations. After a drunken encounter with an ex-girlfriend, his and everyone else’s world is turned upside down when aliens invade and decimate the population. Suddenly the problems of romance don’t seem to matter so much…

Don’t begrudge me putting my own novel on the list. I’m never going to claim it’s one of the best books I’ve ever read, but I’m proud of it and the feedback I’ve had – from both friends and strangers – so far has been brilliant, so I think it’s a good call. As with my first book, I’ve tried to lace both very silly comedy with very dark tragedy, and I think it works well, producing a novel that is something different. I’ve tired of media reproducing the same thing over and over again, so I was determined here to break the rules and give the world something a little unique, with a focus on friendships rather than romantic relationships. Time will tell if I’ve been successful.

You can read my full review here, or buy a copy of the book here.

10. The Lonely City by Olivia Laing

In this collection of essays, Olivia Laing explores the lives and works of several famous artists and how loneliness played a key role in their creativity. We get to meet Andy Warhol, who struggled with other people; Edward Hopper who immortalised loneliness in his painting Nighthawks, and Henry Darger who was only discovered to be an artistic genius after his death. Laing also introduces her own personal experiences of dealing with loneliness in a big city.

Emotionally charged and packed with wise words about loneliness, pain, privacy, acceptance and art, it is an important and beautiful book that explores many topics that society doesn’t like to talk about. I seem constantly attracted to books about loneliness, and this is the epitome of the theme, again very quotable and full of nuggets of wisdom to take with you. The stories, too, are fascinating and shine a light on people I didn’t know all that much about. Everyone should read this, particularly any creative types who think they’re alone in their struggles.

You can read my full review here, or buy a copy of the book here.

And there you have it. Now, on with 2019 reading! My second novel is out officially this year, I’m beginning my re-read of the Agatha Christie back catalogue (it’s sad to not see her on this list), and there are hundreds of more books yet to explore. I can’t wait to get stuck in!

Advertisements

“All Our Wrong Todays” by Elan Mastai (2016)

3 Comments

“So, the thing is, I come from the world we were supposed to have.”

I like the themes of alternate histories. Everything that has happened, had it happened another way, would probably have set the world off along a path unlike the one we currently have. Some of those would turn out better for us, some not. Interestingly though, we focus a lot on the what ifs of the past, not really considering that every single thing we do in the present is changing the future. This is all the past to someone, after all. But before we get too bogged down in the philosophical aspects of this, on with the review!

Tom Barren lives in 2016, but not the one we are familiar with. In his timeline, on July 11th 1965, the physicist Lionel Goettreider unveiled a machine that produced unlimited energy. Over the next fifty years, humanity had developed the future that our ancestors dreamt off, complete with moon bases, flying cars, food pills, teleportation, eternal peace and universal comfort. Tom’s father, the remote and rude Victor Barren, is now proposing the first experiment with time travel, sending a team back to the very moment that the Goettreider Engine was turned on, the most important moment of human history. But when Tom sleeps with the lead chrononaut, Penelope Weschler, the night before the mission and she is discovered to be pregnant, the plans are ruined and Penelope kills herself. Faced with heartbreak and access to a time machine, Tom does what anyone would do – something very stupid.

However, upon arriving in 1965, his visit does not go unnoticed by the universe, and he boomerangs back to 2016 to find that everything is changed. His father is much friendlier, he has a sister he never knew, and he’s now apparently a notable architect instead of a walking disappointment. Gone are the technological advancements – he’s landed in the universe we would recognise as our very own. He seeks out Penelope and finds her, although it’s not the same her, and now he has to make a difficult choice. Should Tom stay in this imperfect world where he can experience love and be a success, or go back to the perfect utopia where the world was at peace, but he was miserable?

Uniquely among time travel fiction, to my knowledge at least, Elan Mastai deals with the real issue of the science. Travelling in time also requires travelling in space, as not only is the world rotating on an axis and orbiting the sun, it’s also tearing through the vast expanses of the universe so if you travel back to the same spot, the planet will be miles away. Hell, misjudging your landing by a few inches can render you embedded in a sofa or solid ground. Mastai could easily handwave this, but he has a solid bash at explaining the science on how to solve these issues. How accurate they are or how likely it is that they’d work, however, I don’t know for sure – I’m an arts student – but the science feels solid enough that I’m happy to accept it. The whole thing becomes a lot more believable, even more so because explanations are given in too much detail to make you lose interest. As Tom says, he doesn’t understand the mechanics behind the time machine or the Goettreider Engine anymore than most of us would be able to build a microwave or television from scratch.

Like pretty much all of my favourite writers, Mastai’s real skill lies in his ability to build a world. The alternate utopian 2016 is explored in vivid detail, with Tom explaining how he takes for granted that absolutely everything is recycled, there’s no need for war or even, really, to break any laws, and he’s never eaten an unripe avocado. When he arrives in our timeline, there are a few scenes of him struggling with the mundane, such as actually having to open doors with a handle, or having to remember how to write by hand. Mastai could easily have spent far too long exploring the specifics of our world and explaining why they’re shit, but we already know about our world, so he skips playfully over it and lets us imagine Tom’s views over the rest. Towards the end of the novel, we also see a third timeline and while it only appears for a brief chapter, it too is incredibly evocative.

While it’s fun to read about time travel and alternate dimensions, it is nice to come up against something that asks, “No, seriously, how would this work?” Despite being on the hard end of the science fiction scale, it still retains a sense of whimsy and it’s good for a chuckle, despite some of the events being really rather harrowing. It’s nice to have my faith in the genre bolstered every once in a while, and this has certainly done that.

I’m currently crowdfunding to get my second novel, The Third Wheel, published. In it, we meet Dexter who is struggling with the fact that he’s the last single friend of his group. When aliens invade, however, it puts a lot of things into perspective. The project is over a third of the way funded, and if you’d like to know more or pledge your support to the project, please click here.