Top 10 Books of 2018

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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!

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“The Trip To Echo Spring” by Olivia Laing (2013)

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“Here’s a thing.”

Earlier this year a friend let me borrow The Lonely City by Olivia Laing, which tells the stories of loneliness behind some of the greatest artists in history. A few weeks later, I stumbled upon an earlier book of hers – The Trip to Echo Spring – which focuses on authors and their reliance on alcohol. As a writer who enjoys a glass of wine or six, it’s a topic close to my heart. In this book, Laing travels with width of the United States to explore the places inhabited by six of America’s greatest writers and their struggles with alcohol – Raymond Carver, John Cheever, John Berryman, Tennessee Williams, and the poster boys for drunk authors, Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Combining biography, literary criticism, travel writing and a treatise on the effects alcohol has on the body, Laing builds up a picture of these six men and the struggles they went through. My immediate confession is that while I’m aware of the impact they had on the literary scene, I’ve only read two of them – Fitzgerald and Cheever. I know enough about them all to be able to appreciate who they were, however, and the book helps fill in a lot of their, often tragic, backstories.

Laing travels, usually by train, around the USA, taking in New York City, Miami, New Orleans, Chicago, St Paul, and Port Angeles, all places that meant something to our heroes. She explores their early lives, the relationships they formed, how they came to develop alcohol addiction, and which ones made it through the other side, and which ended their own lives over it. There are some poignant moments, including John Berryman struggling to come to terms with his father’s death, Cheever suffering from poverty in Manhattan, and Raymond Carver having marriage and fatherhood thrust upon him while still a teenager.

It is Fitzgerald, however, that shines for me. Perhaps because I know most about him and Zelda, but whatever misfortunes befall him, he can’t help but appear faintly ridiculous. Once, someone walks in on him in his room wearing several layers in an attempt to sweat out all the gin – while still drinking gin. Elsewhere, he drives around in a car with no roof in the rain until he decides he’s got pneumonia and has Hemingway take him to a hotel and promise to take care of his wife and daughter when he’s dead. Laing adds that a “few whisky sours put a stop to this nonsense”, and Scott and Ernest are out drinking again within hours.

Laing also uses personal experiences in the text, mentioning her mother’s lover Diana who was an alcoholic for many years, but has since become sober. Despite the humour of Fitzgerald, The Trip to Echo Spring is pretty sombre and a reminder that alcohol is indeed a poison and not to be messed about with. Like in The Lonely City, however, she shows how these people used their flaws and vices to create some of the greatest work in history, and she does a good job of exploring the relationships between alcohol and the written word. A thoughtful and interesting piece.

“The Lonely City” by Olivia Laing (2016)

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“Imagine standing by a window at night, on the sixth or seventeenth or forty-third floor of a building.”

Like many readers, I am in many ways an introvert, happy to spend a fair amount of time by myself indulging in particularly solitary activities – reading, writing, watching series on Netflix that no one else wants to. However, while hell may be other people, sometimes they’re necessary and there’s no denying I’m no stranger to loneliness. I often seem to find myself draw to books on the topic, which is often accidental. It also crops up as a central theme in my upcoming novel, The Third Wheel. A friend of mine recommended this book to me, though, suggesting it might help me understand things a little better and see that I’m not the only one suffering.

Olivia Laing moved to New York City in her mid-thirties and quickly found that loneliness had taken her over in a city that was too big and where she knew no one. Rather than wallowing, she decided to use the time to explore this emotion through art, taking a look at some of the artists who have struggled with loneliness in one way or another. Through Laing, we meet – among others – Edward Hopper, whose paintings such as Nighthawks show a raw form of loneliness; Andy Warhol, who seemed married to his tape recorder and struggled in social situations; David Wojnarowicz, who survived an intensely abusive childhood to create some remarkable pieces of work; and Henry Darger, who locked himself away and only after his death was it revealed what a prolific artist he had been.

Each story is laced with pathos and true emotion, and there are powerful lines on every page that finally describe ways you’ve been feeling without being able to put words to them. When talking about how impossible it is to explain how loneliness feels to someone who has never experienced it, Laing says:

Loneliness, in its quintessential form, is of a nature that is incommunicable by the one who suffers it. Nor, unlike other non-communicable emotional experiences, can it be shared via empathy. It may well be that the second person’s empathic abilities are obstructed by the anxiety-arousing quality of the mere emanations of the first person’s loneliness.

She’s also honest about people choosing to ignore rather than help, after speaking to a homeless man on the street:

What is it about the pain of others? Easier to pretend that it doesn’t exist. Easier to refuse to make the effort of empathy, to believe instead that the stranger’s body on the sidewalk is simply a render ghost, an accumulation of coloured pixels, which winks out of existence when we turn our head, changing the channel of our gaze.

There are discussions here not only on loneliness, but also loss, pain, acceptance, privacy, technology, the AIDS crisis and, of course, art. I’m not someone who is particularly interested in art or knows much about it, but it was interesting to learn a little more about some of these painters and their work. I knew some of Hopper and Warhol’s work, of course, but I don’t think I knew anything about them personally. Warhol to me was just a tin of Campbell’s soup and a bad wig – I didn’t know he’d been shot and spent most of his life wearing medical corsets to stop his organs, basically, falling out. The other artists mentioned I’d never heard of at all, but they’re all fascinating beings, their work often bizarre but somehow compelling.

It’s a brave book, and an important one. Loneliness is often seen as shameful, and it’s refreshing to see someone hold it up to the light and examine it for once, rather than skirt around the edges. A vital read for anyone who wants to know more about humanity.

I leave off here with another line from Laing herself:

We are in this together, this accumulation of scars, this world of objects, this physical and temporary heaven that so often takes on the countenance of hell. What matters is kindness; what matters is solidarity. What matters is staying alert, staying open, because if we know anything from what has gone before us, it is that the time for feeling will not last.