Books Magazine

My Year in Books 2018

By Isabel Costello @isabelcostello

It’s time to reveal my Books of 2018, a post I always relish writing, but this year it’s more complicated than usual.  It’s been a strange reading year for me, frustrating in some ways and very rewarding in others. I’ve ‘only’ read 80 books, slightly down on my usual average, as was the proportion written by men at around 25%.  I’ve been harder than ever to impress, and quick to give up, an unwelcome consequence of working on my next book because my hyper-critical attitude towards my own writing rubs off on other people’s.  It’s not a pleasant feeling and that contributed to a decision to step away from the new releases scene over the summer and let my personal interests call the tune, which resulted in some wonderful reading, much of it in French – add in the books I’ve read for research (many non-fiction), at least a third of my 2018 intake was not published this year or last.  The good news is that I did get to feature most of the new releases I most enjoyed on the Literary Sofa.

All of the books which have appeared on the blog are ones I’d highly recommend, so I do urge you to have a poke around – the ‘Listings’ tab on the Menu is a good way in.  Those which make it onto my Books of the Year aren’t just excellent, in my opinion, but have made a deep personal impression by moving me and inspiring me as a reader and writer.  Click on the links to read my thoughts at greater length.

Les Années by Annie Ernaux (The Years – translated by Alison L Strayer, plain white cover)

As this selection shows, I like books with quality of boldness and honesty, a willingness to engage with the unsayable – and particularly when it comes to female experience which is so often misrepresented, sanitised or infantilised. Annie Ernaux has produced many works based on her own life – this is the first I’ve read and it takes the form of a third person ‘impersonal autobiography’ over 60 years.  I was completely blown away by the power, insight and lack of filter and it’s particularly of interest to francophiles.

Magnetism by Ruth Figgest

I read this novel set in the States a year ago and it has stayed with me as one of the most relatable and realistic novels I’ve encountered on the subject of difficult mother-daughter relationships.  It’s my kind of writing: stylish and taut, full of life.

I love you too much by Alicia Drake

Beautiful and poignant short novel, strong on voice and especially on place.  I recognised the 6th arrondissement of Paris (where my own novels are set) so vividly – now, when I go there, I think of this book!

The White Crucifixion by Michael Dean

As an art lover, I have a penchant for novels set in the art world and this was one of the most personally enriching reads of my year.  It was moving, fascinating and in addition to teaching me a lot about Chagall and his contemporaries, it prompted me to visit the Modigliani exhibition at Tate Modern and to read a wonderful French novel about his lover, Je suis Jeanne Hébuterne by Olivia Elkaim.

My Year in Books 2018
My Year in Books 2018
My Year in Books 2018
My Year in Books 2018

Bitter Orange by Claire Fuller

I’ve hugely enjoyed all of Claire’s novels but this is my favorite.  In a tricky reading year, I read Bitter Orange with unmitigated pleasure, admiring her gift for telling an intriguing story in sensual and visually rich prose. The odds were always good, given my fascination with books set in creepy old houses.

Putney by Sofka Zinovieff

The writing shone from the first paragraph; its precision and limpid elegance a joy despite the deeply disturbing subject.  This novel produced one of my strongest emotional responses of the year and demonstrates the importance of authors having the courage to take risks.

The Cartography of Others by Catherine McNamara (story collection)

Catherine and I have many shared interests as writers (as discussed in our joint blogpost) but she accomplishes in the space of a short story what many struggle to convey in a novel. I love the wide-ranging locations, the unique characters, the fully realised scenarios.  And I love the way she writes about sex and desire.

Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie

Chosen by my book group after it won the Women’s Prize for Fiction, this was a rare unanimous hit and prompted one of the most lively discussions we’ve ever had.  Intelligent, literary and compelling; great characters and lots of interesting questions about identity, race, religion and loyalty.

My Year in Books 2018
My Year in Books 2018
My Year in Books 2018

Milkman by Anna Burns

I don’t normally rush to read the Booker winner but there was such a patronising ‘not for the likes of you’ feel to the way this book was repeatedly described as ‘challenging’ that I wanted to judge for myself.  For what it’s worth, I didn’t find it particularly challenging.  There are unusual elements – mostly concerning the formatting/wildly uneven chapter lengths – and it wouldn’t fare well according to conventional thinking of what makes a good novel – BUT I found it darkly funny, moving, enraging, shocking, tragic, at times uplifting, and to be narrated in the extraordinary and unforgettable voice of Middle Daughter. I’ve recommended it to a lot of people and I’m really glad it won.

The Refugees by Viet Than Nguyen (story collection)

I started the year reading the author’s Pulitzer winning The Sympathiser whilst in Vietnam and was so wowed by his writing (and many YouTube videos later, his charisma), that I turned to his earlier story collection The Refugees. These are not stories, they are lives, conveyed with compassion and tenderness.  As the frequently awful events of this year show, the ability to empathise with others’ completely different experiences really matters – this is a book which promotes that.

The Madonna of the Mountains by Elise Valmorbida

A historical novel which juxtaposes lyrical and evocative descriptions of place and nature with the brutality of Fascist Italy and the impossible choices faced by ordinary people.  I found it transporting, illuminating and emotionally engaging.

If you’re interested in French language fiction, do check out my summer reading posts.

Many thanks to everyone who has read and supported the Literary Sofa throughout 2018, and especially to my guest authors for their brilliant and revealing pieces – if you’d like to receive notification of my (normally)n weekly posts, you can sign up with your email address.  I will be returning to the Sofa in mid January after a much needed break and lots of reading for my Hot Picks 2019.  Happy holidays!

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