Best Books 2018

I read exactly 100 books last year which is probably a record for me. An update of the statistics from my first blog post:

Half of the fiction books I read were historical fiction. This year included more New Zealand authors, and more biographies and memoirs.

I tried to get back into reading more short stories again, but I find they just don’t stick in my overloaded brain that well – I like getting involved with a narrative that stays with me once the book is finished. These days I also struggle to get into books with alternating points of view unless the characters are well-defined, each with a distinctive voice.

Most of the books I read were recently published (with over half published in 2017/2018) but the oldest was The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner first published in 1824.

Choosing my top ten was not easy, and I’ve read many other good books that feature on other Best of 2018 lists but, without further ado, here is my selection:

  1. Warlight by Michael Ondaatje

Two teenagers, Nathaniel and Rachel, are abandoned by their parents during WWII and left in the care of an enigmatic man they call The Moth. Many years later Nathaniel is able to unravel and understand his vague, lurking sense of bewilderment and menace.

2. Mothering Sunday by Graham Swift

A perfectly formed novella about an orphaned servant meeting her upper-class lover on her day off, the eponymous Mothering Sunday. A small gem, full of light with an intriguing proleptic style.

3. Master Georgie by Beryl Bainbridge

An assortment of hangers-on follow surgeon George Hardy to the Crimean War: his wife and children, his devoted servant Myrtle, the pompous Dr Potter, and a photographer Pompey. I loved the way BB lets the reader puzzle out the hidden relationships. We stood there a long time, motionless as statues, except for the children. ‘Be still, my sweet babes,’ Myrtle murmured, as they leapt like fish in her arms.

4. Passport to Hell by Robin Hyde

One of the best accounts of a New Zealand soldier’s WWI experience. Based on Hyde’s interviews with James Douglas Stark who fought at Gallipoli, Egypt, and the Somme. An anti-authoritarian troublemaker, Starkie was also one of the bravest soldiers. If he hadn’t been court-martialled several times, he might have received the Victoria Cross .

5. A Long Way from Home by Peter Carey

A return to form for Peter Carey about the 1950s Redex Reliability Trial, driving cars across the outback of Australia into a Heart of Darkness scenario where Irene, Titch, and Willie discover that “our mother country is a foreign land whose language we have not yet earned the right to speak.”

6. No Place for Ladies by Helen Rappaport

A fascinating and well-researched non-fiction book about women’s involvement in the Crimean War: soldier’s wives, nurses both official (Florence Nightingale) and unofficial (Mary Seacole), tourists, and the women left behind in England.

7. I Am, I Am, I Am by Maggie O’Farrell

A memoir with an unusual premise – the author’s seventeen brushes with death. Beautiful, analytical writing.

8. Death of a Murderer by Rupert Thomson

A policeman with a troubled marriage is assigned to guard the body of a notorious murderer who has died in gaol. As the night progresses, he looks back over his past and its turning points, where he too could have gone down a much darker path.

9. Sweetland by Michael Crummery

A complicated structure, deftly managed as a slow burn reveal. Set in Newfoundland, the story deals with the resettlement programme to relocate an isolated fishing community. Moses Sweetland refuses to leave which brings out old rivalries and secrets.

10. The Great Swindle by Pierre Lemaitre

This won France’s top literary prize, the Prix Goncourt, in 2013. Based on the corruption scandal over military exhumations after WWI, it centres around two unlikely friends, Albert Maillard and Edouard Pericourt, bound by their wartime trauma. Their adversary, Henri d’Aulnay Pradelle, wants to restore his aristocratic home and fortune.

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