This year I have been making a lot of conscious efforts. I’ve made an effort to understand classical music, to write more poetry, and to quit drinking.
The effort most pertinent to this review has been one that I made sometime around August. I decided stop piling up books that I thought I ought to read, and allow myself to buy books on a whim. As a result, I’ve read far more contemporary novels than ever before, and quite a lot more poetry.
I’ve also read far fewer academic books, and nearly zero political ones.
What I discovered when I freed my reading, however, was that I can’t trust my own taste. Rachel Cusk’s Kudos and Olivia Laing’s Crudo were both books I leapt into thinking, “yes, this is exactly my kind of book,” only to emerge disillusioned, and mildly peeved. I don’t read the Guardian anymore, which might be why they irked me so. I don’t think they’re bad either, just not for me.
Meanwhile, I picked up Ruth Hogan’s The Keeper of Lost Things based solely on its floral cover. The cover featured a recommendation from The Lady which, at the time, I didn’t really know what to make of. Turns out, the novel was brilliant! An interesting premise, cheery characters getting into japes, and then three-quarters of the way through it suddenly becomes a ghost story. The Lady knows good literature, clearly.
What I like, I think, are novels with original premises, good pacing, and some drama in them. If they can do this and be experimental, then I’ll sing their praises to the heavens (I’m looking at you, Adam Roberts’ The Black Prince), but frankly I’ll settle for a good story well told.
Only this month did I wander into the “sci-fi and fantasy” section at Deansgate Waterstones. I think this is where they’ve been hiding all the interesting books. I’ve read a Katherine Arden and a Francesco Dimitri so far. Are these even sci-fi or fantasy? There’s neither an elf nor a space ship in sight. They should re-label it the “interesting premise” section, I think. I’ll certainly be spending more time there next year.
What all this paddling around in the contemporary has done, however, is provoke a certain longing for the greats; the guaranteed classics. I miss the sense of pride you get when someone mentions a Great Work of Historical Significance and you can say “yes, I read that”. There’s a horrible sense of impermanence that comes of reading a blockbuster novel knowing it’ll be forgotten in five years.
New books in hardback also take up an unforgivable amount of shelf-space. I bought An Absolutely Remarkable Thing by the YouTuber Hank Green (it was for research, honestly!). The damn thing’s as big as all my Thomas Hardys put together. It’s got font the size of your head. There’s no excuse for that.
So I guess what I’m getting at, as I approach my top 5 of 2018 (in no particular order), is that my relationship with my own reading taste is as messed up as it’s possible to be. I am in no fit state to be giving recommendations. Nevertheless, now that you are duly warned, these are the five books I’d definitely suggest you check out from this year:
– Hiro Arikawa, The Travelling Cat Chronicles
Okay, so this one came out in late 2017, but I only got around to it this spring. It is the story of a bachelor, dying of terminal cancer, who travels across Japan to the homes of various friends and relations looking to find a new owner for his cat. The story is told from the cat’s perspective, and does an excellent job of capturing the haughty demeanour of a former stray. I liked it for its perfect balance of drama and quiet, its colourful cast of characters, and the sudden moments of poetry that broke out unexpectedly within an otherwise innocuous story. It’s a great commuter book, and even made me look forward to the inevitable delays outside of Cornbrook as I’d have more time to read.
– Zoe Gilbert, Folk
I admit that I pre-ordered this one for the sake of the cover alone, but it’s lucky that I did as it was a work surpassing any of my expectations for contemporary literature. Set on a fictional North Sea island in an indeterminate, pre-modern time, Folk presents a series of interlocking stories, some magical and some mythical, all of which perfectly capture the essence of the folktale. The first section, where young men dive into gorse bushes to retrieve arrows shot by the girls of the village, is one that has stuck vividly in my memory. This is a book that I feel like I’ll still be recommending in twenty or thirty years’ time.
– Jane Draycott, Pearl (A New Translation)
I’m about six hundred years late in recommending this one. Pearl, a masterpiece of the late fourteenth-century written by the poet who gave us Gawain and the Green Knight, begins as a poem mourning the loss of the knight’s young daughter only to transform into a mystical vision of heaven, filled with pearls, gold and a river of gems. This is a poem I have long felt obliged to read in the original Middle English, but somehow never got up the energy to do so. Instead, Draycott has produced a new translation that positively glows with a sense of spiritual rapture. She has translated medieval wonder into a wonder for the modern reader.
– Tillie Walden, On a Sunbeam
What began as a webcomic by indie comics workhorse Tillie Walden is now a lusciously presented space opera spanning hundreds of pages and thousands of galaxies. A coming-of-age drama set against the backdrop of intergalactic exploration, Walden’s unique art style is given free rein in this book like never before. It represents, for me, the best of what indie comics have to offer; fully-fleshed imaginative worlds that are nevertheless solid enough that we can learn from them and grow with them. Her art is a treat for the mind, and her stories are always touching. If the price tag is a little steep, I’d recommend starting with A City Inside, which I consider her masterpiece.
– Jason Heller, Strange Stars: David Bowie, Pop Music, and the Decade Sci-fi Exploded
I had the pleasure of meeting Heller when he came to speak at the Burgess Foundation on the weekend before Halloween. It was a fitting day on which to purchase the book; mobs of students dressed as characters from Star Wars and Doctor Who walked the streets with Ziggy Stardusts and Jimi Hendrixes. Heller’s book is a damn-near comprehensive study of sci-fi’s infiltration of pop music during the 1970s. From the earnest escapades of prog rockers to the silliness of space disco, the book paints a remarkable picture of just how much interaction occurred between science fiction and music within this decade. Brilliant fun to read and packed with surprises, I’d recommend perusing it with Spotify open to fully immerse yourself in the space rock weirdness.
Those are my recommendations from 2018, that also go some way as to explaining why I have not yet been appointed as a judge on the Man Booker Prize awards panel. Perhaps in time my reading tastes will align with the popular consensus, although I fear it would prove a great effort for minimal rewards.
Now, who knows where 2019 will lead us…
– Joe Darlington