What dictates the choice of book we choose to read each year? I regularly start out with a plan, even a detailed list, and in January 2018 it was to read as many works in translation as I could, mainly to enjoy authors I had never read before, as well as providing the chance to immerse myself in other cultures. But in the end it tended to be serendipity that shaped 2018 for me. Our small hotel in Quito with its series of architectural nooks and crannies where a comfy chair and a small book shelf had been fitted, led to The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor and Chronicleof a Death Foretoldboth by Colombian writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
A rogue click on the New York Times led me to an article about the shortlist for the National Book Awards and The Trick by Domenico Starnone (translated from the Italian by Jhumpa Lahiri) and that in turn shone the reading light on The Friend by Sigrid Nunez. A new book by Ian Rankin (In a House of Lies) is always a must. As is anything new by Donna Leon but rabbiting on about how I enjoyed The Temptation of Forgiveness (although I regret the fact that Leon is including less descriptions of fabulous Italian meals) that led to the discovery that my sister has the entire Leon collection to feast on starting with Death at La Fenice, the first in the series A chance opportunity to attend a discussion with Australian author Ceridwen Dovey resulted in reading both her latest In the Garden of Fugitivesas well as her earlier Blood Kin.was
President Obama kindly drew my attention to Lauren Groff (how the heck had I missed her?) which resulted in a flurry of late nights as I quickly consumed Florida, followed by earlier works Arcadia, The Monsters of Templetonand the beautiful collection of stories Delicate Edible Birds. This leaves only Fates and Furies; her much acclaimed 2015 book, still on the pile for 2019.The publication after a seven-year drought of Warlightby Michael Ondaatje led to the compulsion to go back and read some of his earlier body of work.
Not that chance has always been a success: Black Sheep by Susan Hill, plucked from the bookshelves at friend’s house, left me cold. The Obelisk by E.M. Forster even colder. James Comey’s A Higher Loyalty, timely and with plenty amusing (and alarming) anecdotes abut Trump, however, essentially self-serving.
But those are trifling grumbles. All in all, the books of 2018 resulted in endless hours of fascinating, absorbing and entertaining reading. I got through a total of 76, written by authors from 19 countries (more if you count some of the short stories included in the collection of short stories by South American writers, Bogotá 39). Thirty nine of the authors were female, 37 male. Below is, after much anguish, my Top Ten, listing the ones I found particularly memorable, surprising, challenging and always, entertaining. In no particular order they were:
Warlight by Michael Ondaatje, (Vintage): The Second World War is drawing to a close and Nathaniel and his sister are left in the care of a mysterious figure known only as The Moth while his parents return to Singapore. By default, the siblings are absorbed into a strange but carefree world of eccentric misfits and dodgy dealers. The second half of the book moves to 1959, the adult Nathaniel has joined the Foreign Office ostensibly investigating espionage but also providing cover as he tries to locate his mother. I’m not sure I agree with the decision earlier this year that Ondaatje’s The English Patientis the best of the Man Booker Prize winners, but Warlightis a triumph
Florida by Lauren Groff (William Heinemann); The weather outside was chill and wintry but Groff magically transported me to the glaring sunshine and omnipresent heat of the American state of Florida. As one reviewer put it “(Florida) isn’t a short-story collection so much as an eco-system”. They are funny, sad, cruel, compassionate, weird and completely compelling. If Ghosts and Emptieswas a recording I’d just leave it on repeat.
The Last Children of Tokyo by Yoko Tawada translated by Margaret Mitsutani (Portabello Books): Intriguing sci-fi novel where an unexplained environmental catastrophe has reversed life – the elderly keep soldiering on, seemingly for ever, whilst the children are dying before they reach adulthood. Told through the eyes of four generations of a Japanese family its ostensibly grim message is punctuated by fabulous satirical gems.
Lullaby by Leila Slimani translated by Sam Taylor (Faber & Faber); The subject is so bleak I have a
friend who still refuses to read this novel. When middle class French-Moroccan lawyer Myriam decides to return to work after having two children, she and her husband, slightly hesitantly, hire Louise, a local nanny. Louise rapidly becomes indispensable, managing and improving the lives of all the family whilst gradually insinuating herself further into their world. But when there are problems the hidden chasm of division of power and class prove is revealed.
Frankenstein in Baghdad by Aahmed Saadawi, translated by Jonathan Wright (One World): Junk
dealer Hadi collects the parts of corpses left strewn in the streets of US-occupied Baghdad, purportedly part of a plan to force the Government to accept responsibility for ensuring a proper burial for everyone. But his hybrid human develops an insatiable appetite for flesh, escapes and wreaks havoc.
The Friend by Sigrid Nunez (Penguin Random House): A delightful, amusing yet absorbing reflection on grief, loss and the restorative power of animals (in this case a Great Dane). Winner of the National Book Award, Nunez’s book shows the debilitating effect that the sudden death of her friend and mentor (in all his weaknesses) has and her gradual obsession by the apparently restorative powers of her friend’s dog.
The Fifth Risk by Michael Lewis. After his surgical dissection of the 2007-08 Financial Crash in The Big Short, Lewis turns his attention on the long-term impact Trump’s tenure as President will have on the Government of America. Slowly, with meticulous detail he explains the minutae of how government actually functions to benefit the American people. In a quiet, understated manner, he zeroes in on a clutch of Departments revealing the complex ways they work across a lasagne of levels, and slowly reveals the inevitable and devastatingly detrimental longer-term impact Trump’s lack of experience, of interest and of probity is having on the country. Worth it for the section on the weather monitoring alone. Scary.
Bit on the Side by William Trevor (Penguin): A deliberately uncomfortable set of short stories from one of England’s most enduring and elegant writers. In what is a recurrent theme in his work Trevor focuses on the more squalid side of relationships – revenge, solitude, the infliction of pain, the seeking of absolution. Offsetting, or perhaps accentuating this, is the undercurrent of empathy, albeit seemingly, reluctant.
Three Daughters of Eve by Elif Shafak (Penguin) one of Turkey’s most acclaimed writers: The complex intertwined story of three students, Shirin, Peri and Mona, whose friendship flourishes despite their wildly different backgrounds. When a scandal erupts not only is their relationship tested but also their deepest sense of who they are and the value of the life each has embraced.
Pachinko by Min Jin Lee (Head of Zeus): Sprawling, bleak saga taking the reader through almost
100 years of in the life of a poor multi-generational Korean family. It starts at the beginning of the 20thCentury soon in a Korea newly annexed by Japan and follows the family as they migrate to Japan desperately seeking a better life. Eking out a precarious existence they find themselves trapped at the very bottom of a society that despises them surviving only by remaining culturally invisible.
And below is the full list of all my 2018 books: January: Girl in Snow by Danya Kufafka (Picador); Netherland by Joseph O’Neill (Harper Perennial); The Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles (Hutchinson); Dance of the Jakaranda by Peter Kimini (Akashic); The Stakes by Ben Sanders (Allen & Unwin); La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman (David Finkling Books); Lullaby by Leila Silmani (Vintage); The Drowning Lake by Arnarldur Indridason (Vintage).
February: Sign by Colin Dray (Allen & Unwin); Moshi Moshi by Banana Yoshimoto (Counterpoint); The Woman in the Window by A.J.Finn (Harper Collins).
March: She’s Not There by Joy Fielding (Zaffre), The German Girl by Armando Lucas Correa (Simon and Schuster).
April: The Story of the Shipwrecked Sailor by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (Vintage); Chronicle of a Death Foretold by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (Vintage); Winter by Ali Smith (Hamish Hamilton); A Higher Loyalty by James Comey (Macmillan); The Traitor’s Story by Kevin Wignall (Thomas Mercer); Three Daughters of Eve by Elif Shafak (Penguin).
May: In the Garden of the Fugitives by Ceridwen Dovey (Penguin); Blood Kin by Ceridwen Dovey (Penguin); My German Brother by Chico Buarque (Picador); The Death of Noah Glass by Gail Jones (Text).
June: Eventide by Kent Haruf (Vintage); Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi, Bluebird, Bluebird by Attica Locke (Serpent’s Tail); Pachinko by Min Jin Lee (Head of Zeus).
July: Seventeen by Hideo Yokoyama (Hachette); The Temptation of Forgiveness by Donna Leon (Penguin); Florida by Lauren Groff, (William Heinemann); The Monsters of Templeton by Lauren Groff (Windmill Books); Warlight by Michael Ondaatje, (Jonathan Cape); Youth by J.M.Coetzee, (Vintage); Lucky Us by Amy Bloom, (Granta); A Bit on the Side by William Trevor, (Penguin).
August: He Wants by Alison Moore, (Salt); In The Skin of a Lion by Michael Ondaatje (Picador Classics); The Search Warrant by Patrick Modiano (Harville Secker); Less by Andrew Sean Greer (Hachette); The Devil’s Half Mile by Paddy Hirsch (Corvus); Running in the Family by Michael Ondaatje (Bloomsbury);The Nowhere Child by Christian White (Affirm);Poso Wells by Gabriela Aleman (City Lights); The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari by Robin Sharma (Jaico).
September: The Knowledge by Martha Grimes (Grove Press UK); 2028 by Ken Saunders (Allen &
Unwin); Ordinary People by Sally Rooney (Faber & Faber); The Shrouded Path by Sarah Ward (Faber & Faber); Bogata 39, edited by Juliet Mobey (Oneworld); Transcription by Kate Atkinson (Doubleday).
October: Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor (Virago); Severance by Ling Ma (Text); Death at La Fenice by Donna Leon (Arrow Books); The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver (Abacus); Forest Dark by Nicole Krauss (Bloomsbury); Black Sheep by Susan Hill (Chatto and Windus); The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner (Jonathan Cape); Unseen by Mari Jungstedt (Corgi); The Obelisk by E.M.Forster (Hesperus); The Friend by Sigrid Nunez (Penguin Random House).
November: In a House of Lies by Ian Rankin (Hachette(; Delicate Edible Birds by Lauren Groff (Hachette); The Fifth Risk by Michael Lewis (Penguin); The Travelling Cat Chronicles by Hiro Arikawa (Doubleday); After the Quake by Haruki Murakami (Vintage); The Last Children of Tokyo by Yoko Tawada (Portabello Books); Trick by Domeico Starnone (Europe Books); Difficult Pleasures by Anjum Hasan (Brass Monkey).
December: In Your Hands by Ines Pedrosa (Amazon Crossing); The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides (Picador); The Outlaw Album by Daniel Woodrell (Sceptre); Flight Risk by Michael McGuire (Allen & Unwin); Please Look After Mother by Kyung-Sook Shin (Weidenfeld & Nicolson); We Were Eight Years in Power by Ta-Nehisi Coates (Hamish Hamilton); The Children’s Bach by Helen Garner (Text).