It’s that time again! In terms of reading, 2018 has been pretty solid, with many great reads amongst the 129 books I’ve managed to complete thus far. (I may finish another one or two before the year is out, but I’m pretty happy with this list, and so was eager to just share it now.) And since we all like to reflect on the cream of the crop, let’s jump right in.
I’m going to give an honourable mention to Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss. I should probably just make this list a top 11, because the exact number is arbitrary, but I do like the neatness of a top 10. Written with eloquence and pin-sharp precision, it is a subtly powerful exploration of gender, class, nationalism, and violence, as we follow a small group taking part in an Iron Age re-enactment. By drawing on the past, Moss is able to say much about the present day, showing the cyclical nature of men using physical power as a means of oppression. Tension builds at an unsettlingly good pace, reaching its claustrophobic best in the shocking yet beautifully understated climax. Dark, though tinged with a hope for the future that lies in the notions of youth and sisterhood, I found it thought-provoking and surprisingly impactful. The only reason it didn’t technically make the cut for my top 10 is that I just read it this month, and so it hasn’t had to stand the test of time yet.
A quick shout out as well to The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, The Gloaming by Kirsty Logan, and Partners in Crime by Agatha Christie; the other reads that were in contention for this list. But enough dallying; on with the actual countdown!
10. The Corset by Laura Purcell
This is an intricately plotted and thematically rich gothic chiller that follows the dual narrative of a 16-year-old seamstress accused of murder, and the wealthy young woman who takes to visiting her in prison, determined to prove or disprove her guilt through the use of phrenology. An undercurrent of mystery and threat bubbles throughout this page-turner, which beyond its bleak and immersive core, manages to explore the notions of poverty, trauma, the class system, and female autonomy. Equal parts poignant and horrifying, Purcell maintains the perfect amount of ambiguity regarding its flirtation with the supernatural, leaving the reader satisfied, without losing the sinister tone of the book at large. It was also exactly what I was in the mood for when I picked it up, and there’s a lot to be said for finding the right book at the right time.
9. A Kiss Before Dying by Ira Levin
This was the first read of the year to give me the elusive book tingles (that prickling feeling of excitement that a book could well become one of your new favourites), and for that, I still think back on it very fondly all these months later. We follow a decidedly menacing chap, whose plans to claim his fiancé’s inheritance are scuppered when she falls pregnant, and risks being disowned by her father. He resolves to get rid of the baby, and his fiancé too if necessary. Clever, masterfully plotted, and just damn thrilling to read, this is perhaps one of the best crime books I’ve encountered, with a deliciously sinister plot, and brilliantly executed twists.
8. The Last Witch by Rona Munro
I adored reading this play, and I subsequently saw an excellent adaptation on the stage. It’s a powerful and atmospheric dramatization of the story of Janet Horne, the last woman to be executed for witchcraft in Scotland, in 1727. Janet as a heroine is fascinating, complex, and skilfully constructed; the atmosphere both tense and melancholy. As we delve into why Janet seems so hesitant to either confirm or deny the accusations against her, the story becomes a rousing look at the struggle for power between the sexes; othering; and the inherent hypocrisy of misogyny. I also loved its nuanced look at sisterhood, the power of language, and the magic of nature.
7. Mary’s Monster by Lita Judge
This book completely defies categorisation. It is, essentially, a novelised graphic memoir written in verse. It presents itself as though it’s the diary of Mary Shelley, exploring the events in her life that led to the creation of her magnum opus, Frankenstein. The poetic prose is beautiful; the first-person perspective intimate and engrossing; the accompanying black-and-white artwork both haunting and transporting. It’s a fascinating, original, engaging, and enlightening insight into an iconic work of literature. Above all else, however, it is a stunning love letter to the genius of Mary Shelley, and how she channelled great suffering into great art.
6. A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay
It isn’t easy to pen a horror novel that is as unsettling as it is achingly sad, but that is exactly what Tremblay has done here. Plot-wise, we follow a family who fear their eldest daughter’s increasingly strange behaviour may be caused by some kind of demonic possession. When the church gets involved, and money gets tight, they agree to let cameras into their home to document the attempts to exorcise her. On the one hand, the book is a very meta, critical analysis of the horror genre at large, with many clever homages to the classics, but it also has much to say about the demonization of mental health; religious pushback against the advances of science and medicine; and the moral depravity of a society obsessed with exploitation as a means of entertainment. It’s well worth checking out if you want to be disturbed and have your heart broken at the same time.
5. Dracula by Bram Stoker
This is one of those classics that is so iconic I thought I knew it before I’d even picked it up. I got so much more from it than I anticipated, however, in terms of both reading enjoyment and literary merit. Its epistolary structure lends an air of realism that enhances the unsettling atmosphere, and as a lover of all things gothic-horror, I thoroughly enjoyed delving into the origin of many aspects we now consider conventions of the genre. From a thematic point of view, it was a rich treasure trove to pick apart: the primal fear of bodily and sexual corruption; gender dynamics; mistrust of the unknown; and fascinating queer coding being just a few of my favourite themes to mull over. It might not be perfect by modern standards with regards to pacing and climax, but I both appreciated and enjoyed the time I spent with this book.
4. Little Boy Lost by Marghanita Laski
I found this book instantly absorbing, and utterly compelling throughout. An overlooked classic that focusses on the instinctual draw of paternal love, it follows one man’s attempts to track down his missing infant son, post-war. The emotional complexity of the hero is fantastic, as is the pacing, which sees the narrative unfold with real elegance and poignancy. The central themes of loss and healing are cleverly reflected in several aspects of the story; the backdrop of war-torn France attempting to reclaim its identity following decimation and liberation highly effective as a setting. Beautifully realised, I took its characters to heart, and they remain there to this day, despite having read it early in the year.
3. The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham
This was a gripping read with strikingly vivid world-building. As an early post-apocalyptic novel, it was also interesting and fun to read from the perspective of seeing where so many modern entries in the genre have subsequently drawn from. Beyond the enthralling tale of survival it presents at face value, there is also a surprising amount of depth and social commentary going on; with conflict between survivors, gender dynamics, and ensuing moral dilemmas proving more troublesome than the deadly, sentient plants that have devastated the population. The prose itself is very readable, with flashes of evocative beauty, and I loved its exploration of the illusion that humans have tamed nature and assumed ultimate power; making this, in many ways, a cautionary tale more relevant now than ever before.
2. Everything Under by Daisy Johnson
There is so much narrative and thematic depth to this book, which made it a read for which my admiration only grew the more time I took to reflect on it. A tinge of almost ethereal otherworldliness is befitting of the classic myths and fairy tales it so strongly feeds from, but it still maintains a bold, original identity all of its own, thanks to its intricate plot, and its complex, fascinating characters. Its tragically inevitable outcome, and its sense of pathos and quiet magic may not work for everyone, but I was swept up by its lush prose, clever structure, and its nuanced look at identity and gender fluidity; fate vs free will; the power of language; storytelling as a means of preserving memory; acceptance of the truth; and whether or not children have a duty to their parents.
1. The Lightkeepers by Abby Geni
In The Lightkeepers, we follow a nature photographer who secures a residency on a small cluster of remote, untouched islands, where the only other inhabitants are a group of scientists studying the indigenous animal species. Geni’s prose is utterly breathtaking, and she captures the raw beauty, daunting power, and savage menace of the natural world like no other writer I’ve ever encountered. When violence disrupts the group dynamic, the story becomes a fantastic meditation on the nature of storytelling as a means of coping with trauma. There are excellent parallels between Miranda’s work as a photographer and the ‘framing’ of a story to distort reality; between the cycle of the seasons and the process of grief; and a core of mystery with pleasing homages to Christie’s And Then There Were None. Rich, intricate, and expertly handled, I was utterly enthralled; by its narrative, its construction, and by its deceptive complexity. The Lightkeepers serves as a powerful and somehow timeless reminder that we too are just animals, doing what we have to do to get by – however ugly it may be.
There we have it! Here’s to lots of great reads for us all in 2019. Have you read any of these? What were your favourite reads of the year?