31 December 2018

My Top 5 Books of 2018

One of the problems with being a serial reader is that none of your friends and family understand when you lament that you 'only' read 111 books in a year. But compared to the 148 I read in 2017 and the 200 I read in 2016, it does sound like a lot less. I blame my incredibly busy year at work, and my hectic itinerary in Peru didn't give me much chance to catch up on my reading.

Before I get to this year's list, I also want to celebrate two books written by friends of mine, which were published this year. Ingrid Alexandra's The New Girl is a dark and satisfyingly twisty psychological thriller about a young woman whose new housemate's strange behaviour threatens to awaken dark secrets from the past. Meanwhile, in his concise but comprehensive work, The Philosophy of Coffee, Brian Williams of Brian's Coffee Spot charts the global ascendancy of coffee and the rise of coffee shops, and shares his personal journey down the coffee rabbit hole. I'm really proud of both Ingrid and Brian, and Ingrid's publication has even encouraged me to recommence work on my own novel, which is now up to 60,000 words. 

Without further ado, here are my favourite five books of 2018: 

1. The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin. In the sultry summer of '69, the four young Gold siblings visit a travelling psychic who claims she can tell each of them when they will die. The rest of Benjamin's soaring novel glides through the next half-century, following each sibling in turn and asking us to assess whether — and if so, to what extent — the predictions influence the Golds' fates. The Immortalists is broad in scope, skipping from the 1970s San Francisco gay scene to a longevity research lab in the present day. It's also moving, thought-provoking and beautifully written.

2. Anatomy of a Scandal by Sarah Vaughan. Vaughan's novel — part psychological thriller, part courtroom drama — feels very timely in 2018. At its core, a prominent politician, James, is accused of a terrible crime. The story hits the press, the case goes to trial, and James's wife Sophie stands by her man. And Kate, who is prosecuting the case, is convinced that James is guilty. It turns out that some of the answers both Kate and Sophie are seeking lie in the past, where James enjoyed a fabled existence at Oxford University as the popular, privileged golden boy. Anatomy of a Scandal is smart, sharp and a real page-turner.

3. The Monk of Mokha by Dave Eggers. A must-read for coffee lovers — and anyone else who enjoys an inspiring and fascinating true story. Dave Eggers' book tells the story of Mokhtar Alkhanshali, the titular Monk of Mokha who goes on to found the speciality coffee company Port of Mokha. Eggers' beautifully written and hugely compelling book tells Alkhanshali's story with colour, wit and compassion.

4. Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman. There's a lot of heart in Honeyman's tale of isolation and loneliness. The unusual eponymous character leads an orderly but solitary life, steering clear of interactions with colleagues and others, and drinking her way through weekends. This makes for uncomfortable and sometimes devastating reading. But everything changes after Eleanor's chance encounter with a colleague outside work, as Eleanor — and Honeyman — highlight that there's no one 'right' way to live, but that it's never too late to find companionship and respect.

5. Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz. A witty and impeccably plotted Agatha Christie-style murder mystery, Magpie Murders is really a whodunnit inside a whodunnit. Detective Atticus Pünd clamours to solve the mysterious murder of an unpopular housekeeper at a 1950s country house. But it's Susan Ryeland — the editor of the writer of the Atticus Pünd mysteries — who is left searching for clues both inside the manuscript and out. I read a lot of crime novels but this was one of the cleverest I've read all year and it's very well written.

And here are five more books that I loved and which didn't quite make my shortlist this year:
  • Last Seen Wearing by Hillary Waugh. As I read so much crime fiction, I often like to return to some of the seminal works of the genre. In Waugh's 1952 police procedural, detectives are investigating the disappearance of a college freshman at a liberal arts college in Massachusetts. The novel is meticulous, understated and satisfying.
  • The Witch Elm by Tana French. The novels in French's Dublin Murder Squad series are no stranger to my top fives, and her latest standalone novel is almost as good. Rather than focusing on a detective, French introduces us to Toby, the easygoing narrator, whose life of privilege and good fortune is about to come to an end when he becomes the victim of a crime. Dark, gripping and suspenseful, French's novel succeeds despite our uncertainty about how much we like — and trust — any of the characters.
  • This Could Hurt by Jill Medoff. Set in a struggling research company, Medoff's novel offers up the stage to five members of the HR department, who jostle for position, schmooze, support and backstab. They share the hopes, fears, heartaches and back stories that underlie their ambitions and motives. Touching, warm and sometimes sad, This Could Hurt does what it says on the tin. You may never look at your HR team the same way again.
  • Pachinko by Min Jin Lee. Epic in scope, Lee's multi-generational saga tells the extraordinary story of a family of Korean immigrants in 20th century Japan. Lee's novel is beautifully written, with rich, elegant prose that brings the complex story to life.
  • Educated by Tara Westover. In Westover's memorable memoir, she describes her childhood in rural Idaho as the daughter of survivalist parents, isolated from mainstream society. She discovers a deep passion for learning and, after seeking solace in books, gets into college and eventually goes on to do a PhD. It was appropriate, perhaps, that I read this memoir while on the Inca Trail — about as remote a location as I've ever been — and Westover's quietly powerful prose and riveting narrative kept me gripped throughout.

The full list of books I read in 2018 is as follows (as usual, repeat reads are marked in italics):
  • Dead Letters — Caite Dolan-Leach
  • The Break Down — B.A. Paris
  • Pachinko — Min Jin Lee
  • What Happened — Hillary Rodham Clinton
  • Lullaby — Leïla Slimani
  • The Girl in the Snow — Danya Kukafka
  • Anatomy of a Scandal — Sarah Vaughan
  • Fire and Fury — Michael Wolff
  • The Thirst — Jo Nesbø
  • The Wife Between Us — Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen
  • The Woman in the Window — A.J. Finn
  • The Philosophy of Coffee — Brian Williams
  • The Rooster Bar — John Grisham
  • Death at La Fenice — Donna Leon
  • The Monk of Mokha — Dave Eggers
  • A Column of Fire — Ken Follett
  • The Guilty Wife — Elle Croft
  • The Perfect Stranger — Megan Miranda
  • Now You See Her — Heidi Perks
  • Macbeth — Jo Nesbø
  • Ready Player One — Ernest Cline
  • An American Marriage — Tayari Jones
  • Friend Request — Laura Marshall
  • The Late Show — Michael Connelly
  • Call Me By Your Name — André Aciman
  • The Travelling Cat Chronicles — Hiro Arikawa
  • The Anonymous Venetian — Donna Leon
  • Twins — Dirk Kurbjuweit
  • A Little Life — Hanya Yanagihara
  • Anything You Do Say — Gillian McAllister
  • Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine — Gail Honeyman
  •  Bring You Back — B.A. Paris 
  • Death and the Virgin — Chris Skidmore
  • Every Note Played — Lisa Genova
  • Let Me Lie — Clare Mackintosh 
  • Then She Was Gone — Lisa Jewell
  • The Female Persuasion — Meg Wolitzer
  • Crimson Lake — Candice Fox 
  • Magpie Murders — Anthony Horowitz
  • All the Beautiful Lies — Peter Swanson
  • The Party — Elizabeth Day
  • Everything I Know About Love — Dolly Alderton
  • Clean — Juno Dawson
  • Our Kind of Cruelty — Araminta Hall
  • The Elizas — Sara Shepard
  • The Good Liar — Catherine McKenzie
  • The Perfect Mother — Aimee Molloy
  • Sisters in Law — Linda Hirshman
  • That Kind of Mother — Rumaan Alam
  • Darling — Rachel Edwards 
  • Paper Ghosts — Julia Heaberlin
  • The Italian Teacher — Tom Rachman
  • My Absolute Darling — Gabriel Tallent
  • Fear — Dirk Kurbjuweit
  • Social Creature — Tara Isabella Burton
  • Last Seen Wearing — Hillary Waugh
  • Pretty Girls — Karin Slaughter
  • Providence — Caroline Kepnes
  • The Favourite Sister — Jessica Knoll
  • This Could Hurt — Jillian Medoff
  • MEM — Bethany C. Morrow
  • 1974 — David Peace
  • Everyone Is Beautiful — Katherine Center
  • The New Girl — Ingrid Alexandra
  • Laura & Emma — Kate Greathead
  • The Last Time I Lied — Riley Sager
  • All We Ever Wanted — Emily Giffin
  • Day of the Dead — Nicci French
  • Last Breath — Karin Slaughter
  • The Ensemble — Aja Gabel
  • Girls Burn Brighter — Shobha Rao
  • 1977 — David Peace
  • The Last Enchantments — Charles Finch
  • Warlight — Michael Ondaatje 
  • 1980 — David Peace
  • 1983 — David Peace
  • Pieces of Her — Karin Slaughter
  • Mean Streak — Sandra Brown
  • All the Hidden Truths — Claire Askew
  • The Surgeon — Tess Gerritsen
  • If I Was Your Girl — Meredith Russo
  • Fruit of the Drunken Tree — Ingrid Rojas Contreras
  • The Mars Room — Rachel Kushner
  • Friction — Sandra Brown
  • Our House — Louise Candlish
  • Educated — Tara Westover
  • The Incendiaries — R. O. Kwon
  • If You Leave Me — Crystal Hana Kim
  • The Kiss Quotient — Helen Hoang
  • A Spark of Life — Jodi Picoult
  • China Rich Girlfriend — Kevin Kwan
  • The Witch Elm — Tana French
  • Rich People Problems — Kevin Kwan
  • Number One Chinese Restaurant — Lillian Li
  • The Immortalists — Chloe Benjamin
  • Love Is Blind — William Boyd
  • The Gunners — Rebecca Kauffman
  • Sting — Sandra Brown
  • The Death of Mrs Westaway — Ruth Ware
  • Miss Ex-Yugoslavia — Sofija Stefanović
  • The Anatomy of Dreams — Chloe Benjamin 
  • Transcription — Kate Atkinson
  • A Dark Time — Sophie Hannah 
  • Home Fire — Kamila Shamsie
  • Death and Judgement — Donna Leon
  • Little Fires Everywhere — Celeste Ng
  • The French Girl — Lexie Elliott
  • The Flight Attendant — Chris Bohjalian
  • Force of Nature — Jane Harper
  • Give Me Your Hand — Megan Abbott
  • Grist Mill Road — Christopher J. Yates
The bookshop featured in the photograph at the top is the wonderful Topping & Company in Bath.

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