My 2018 Reading List

What a goddamn year this last one was, hey? This is a little delayed due to the unrelenting chaos of the end of my 2018, and so much has happened that I find my memory of a lot of these titles somewhat hazy, but I’ll do my best to recap.

I have read a total of 38 books this year. Some random stats:

  • 12 books were by Australian authors (many of them Sydney-siders), which is just under a third of my total.
  • 19 of the books were borrowed from the library – many of them are things that I only picked up because I happened to come across them, rather than seeking them out specifically (though some of them I got the library to order in just for me). I enjoy the element of eclecticism that library work brings to my reading life.
  • The longest book I read (in terms of page count) at 659 pages was Gemina, book #2 of the Illuminae Files, and I started and finished it within about 48 hours.

On to the list!

1. The Hours by Michael Cunningham

Being a big fan of Virginia Woolf and Mrs Dalloway, I was interested in reading this (I haven’t seen the movie of it). It was quite beautifully written, a good tribute to Woolf. Don’t remember much else about it! Except I felt for the 50s housewife who drove away from her husband and young child to go hide out in a hotel and read books all night…

2. The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

Barbara Kingsolver is my author of the year. It’s not the first time I read her, but this year her reputation has solidified for me as someone who I must read absolutely everything of. The Poisonwood Bible is about a family with four daughters in the Congo during the 60s, and apart from being an amazing and emotional read it also taught me a lot about the country and the time period and America’s interference in international affairs. I’m one of those people who pretty much only gains historical knowledge through reading fiction.

3. Nausea by Jean-Paul Sartre

I’ve always wanted to read Sartre ever since a character in Secret Scribbled Notebooks raved about him, but sadly I was not a fan. The writing was not particularly interesting and, well, the main character’s existential philosophy seemed to boil down to ‘I’m a middle-class white man in my mid-20s and I’m so much smarter than everyone else around me and no one understands me’. Very much like if That Guy In Your MFA wrote a novel.

4. Dancing at the Edge of the World: Thoughts on Words, Women, Places by Ursula K. Le Guin

gran's favourite quotes

Gran’s favourite quotes from ‘The Dispossessed’

I was very upset that the world lost Ursula K. Le Guin in 2018. I read The Earthsea Trilogy as a child and it has always stuck with me. She is also one of my Gran’s favourite authors and so I was sad on her behalf. I’d long been meaning to pick of some of Le Guin’s ‘writing about writing’, so I got this out of the library. As well as interesting essays it had some great road trip poetry in it.

And it’s not from this collection, but I also want to share the first stanza of this: Poem written in 1991.

 


5. The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood

I saw an author talk with Charlotte Wood in Gleebooks a while ago, and enjoyed it enough that I bought the book as a gift for my Mum and then got the book out of the library for myself. It’s a weird, gritty, confronting story about a group of women imprisoned for mysterious and misogynistic reasons in a remote country compound. I did find it very hard to believe that these women never seemed to consider banding together and taking out their three captors, (who they greatly outnumbered and who did not seem to have serious weapons of any kind), and never even attempted to escape (???). But gradually it drew me in further and further and I found myself embracing the story, until…….. an irritatingly inconclusive ending. Argh.

6. The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd

I should have a special bookshelf for ‘I Read This as a Kid and it’s Still As Good As I Remembered!’ books, because they are such a joy. This book is like a honey-scented hug. It was an interesting re-read because when I first read it, I knew and understood almost nothing about the context of the story (South Carolina in the 60s). But it’s a beautiful coming-of-age story about a girl who scribbles in notebooks. I have a type. ❤

Secret life of bees tweet

 

7. Daemon Voices by Philip Pullman

A richly-bound and engraved red hardcover full of Philip Pullman’s essays on writing. He is the purest ‘storyteller’ that I know, and his passion for his craft shines through in everything he writes.

Reading pile

 

8 & 9: Gemina and Obsidio (The Illuminae Files, #2 & #3) by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff

I read book one of this series, Illuminae, back in mid-2017 and described it as a ‘space-opera-zombie-thriller-hacker extravaganza’. Books 2 and 3 of this trilogy continue in the same vein and add pulpy-romance-scifi-alien-horror and probably a few other glorious descriptors that I haven’t yet thought of. The most page-turny page turners I’ve read in a while. Plus, I recommended the series to Bec and thus had the enjoyment of reading her outraged and sometimes traumatised reactions via text message (she loves my recommendations, really):

Bec.jpg


10. The Eye of the Heron / The Word for World Is Forest by Ursula K. Le Guin

Two separate novellas by Le Guin which I picked mostly at random from her sizable back catalogue of stories. She was an amazing author of the best kind of thought-provoking science fiction – somehow very different in tone and approach to any other scifi I’ve ever read. Her stories quietly question everything about established world orders – masculinity, violence, conquest, power – without ever feeling like they’re hitting you over the head with a big stick of sanctimoniousness.

11. Harry Potter and the Cursed Child: Parts One and Two by Jack Thorne

This book wins my ‘Golden Raspberry’ award for the year.

It was truly and almost uniformly terrible. Indistinguishable from bad fanfiction.

Luckily, it had been out for a good while before I got around to reading it, so I had my expectations appropriately lowered in adavance. Thus I didn’t suffer too much disappointment from this glimpse into the future of the wizarding world.

Maybe it’s better on stage? Who knows.

12. We Are Okay by Nina LaCour

I picked this one up because of the cover. A coming-of-age YA romance between two girls, that slowly unravels a backstory to explain the current mysterious situation. I quite like this narrative format but this book sure does make you wait for it, and I’m not sure the payout was quite worth the suspense. But it was a sweet little book with understated but beautiful prose.

13. The Blue Cat by Ursula Dubosarsky

I really enjoy Ursula Dubosarsky’s writing for kids, as it’s somewhat darker and quirkier than your average YA fare. I also visited Luna Park shortly after reading it (it’s a featured location in the book), and found myself absent-mindedly looking for a blue cat everywhere.

14. Paula by Isabelle Allende

This is a book that I read in high school (year 10 I think it was?) which I really enjoyed, and strangely almost everyone else in my class disliked. It had a lot of parts that I didn’t remember very well (lots about Chile, and various love affairs that the author had over the years) and plenty of parts that I did remember, about death and loss and grief. “Silence before birth, silence after death; life is nothing but noise between two interminable silences.”

15. Willow Tree and Olive by Irini Saviddes

This is a YA coming-of-age story about a Greek-Australian girl. The main character almost immediately put me off when in one of the first chapters, she laughs at a white waiter/caterer being upset about their plates getting smashed at a Greek wedding. Being annoyed by the destruction of your property makes you a clueless white person? Hmmm okay then. My opinion of the character never quite recovered from this setback. Which is a shame, because I really like the other book I’ve read by this author.

16. Origin Story: A Big History of Everything by David Christian

I’ve seen David Christian give a presentation on Big History and he is an excellent speaker, so I thought I’d read the source material. I really like his over-arching approach to science as being an ‘origin story’, a story that we use to make sense of our world and our place within it (since many of us don’t use religion for this sense of meaning any more).

make the beast beautiful.jpg


17. First, We Make the Beast Beautiful: A New Story 
About Anxiety by Sarah Wilson

I wanted to read this book because of its pretty cover. However, from the perspective of a person who is lucky enough not to suffer from anxiety, I think I still don’t understand ‘The Beast’.

That being said, it does get my personal Book Cover Design Of The Year award! (I’ve decided to make this a regular thing.)


18. Begin, End, Begin: A #LoveOzYA Anthology by multiple authors

This is a collection of YA short stories from Australian authors, and it reminded me how incredibly lucky I am to have grown up reading excellent fiction by local writers. As a teenager there was nothing like the thrill of reading a story and finding out that the characters hung out at all my local haunts. From this collection, it looks like young Australian readers these days have even more of a smorgasbord to feast from. A lot of my enthusiasm for Australian fiction this year came from this book!

19, 20, & 21: Ancillary Justice, Ancillary Sword, and Ancillary Mercy – The Imperial Radch Trilogy, by Ann Leckie

Book one of this trilogy was a re-read for me, as I originally read it a while ago and couldn’t remember enough to confidently go on with the rest of the trilogy. Like most excellent science fiction, it dumps you in a vastly alien universe and story and it takes a little while of furious concentration to get your mind around what is going on. My favourite thing about this series is the (almost tangential) fact that gender is not an important signifier in Radch society and almost all of the characters are presented as gender-ambivalent. Additionally, the main character is a ship’s AI split into multiple bodies – so not even close to human, let alone gendered. And yet, the writing is so good that after half a book of figuring out what is going on, Breq is just Breq. She’s probably the most unique character I’ve ever read and I love her.

22. Confessions of a Young Novelist by Umberto Eco

I picked this up because I really enjoyed The Name of the Rose and Eco is known for his literary musings as much as his fiction. This was a collection of talks and essays he’d written. Nothing particularly jumped out at me or blew me away, though.

23. The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver

Book of the year award! Yay!

The main character of this book is a writer (amongst other things), and it was utter perfection. Authorship, censorship, art, life, and Frida Kahlo. What’s not to love? Kingsolver tackles huge ideas in the most readable format. She says, “A novel is like a cathedral, it knocks you down to size when you enter into it”, and that’s exactly my experience with her fiction. It takes my breath away and at the same time inspires me. I think it’s exactly the kind of fiction that I would aspire to write one day (you know, in my wildest dreams).

24. The Only Harmless Great Thing by Brooke Bolander

A short but piercing tale of radioactivity and elephants. Beautifully strange and full of a burning anger that is both alien and very familiar. This one is very hard to summarise. Definitely the weirdest thing I read in 2018 (in a good way).

25. A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller Jr.

I picked this up because I kept running across the title in /r/books and countless people seem to adore it. It won the Hugo Award in 1961 and I am a bit fascinated by science fiction written in that era, since it always feels like a such an odd combination of futuristic and retro/dated. Often because humanity is flying around on spaceships but women are still making the coffee and being good girls. (This novel avoided that issue by having almost no female characters at all). It’s about both humanity’s ever-reliable self-destructive tendencies, but also about its stubborn willingness to rebuild and treasure knowledge and learning. A very funny and tender book about the end of the world.

26. Walking Towards Ourselves: Indian Women Tell Their Stories by Catriona Mitchell

A collection of autobiographical writing by a diverse group of Indian women. The range of experiences within this collection really reflects the extremes of India’s culture, from rich to poor, powerful to disenfranchised.

27. Rush Oh! by Shirley Barrett

For some reason, the main character of this book reminded me (in the best possible way) of Cassandra in I Capture the Castle – something about a tale told from the first-person perspective of a girl with a somewhat eccentric family and supporting cast. Rush Oh! is about a whaling family in New South Wales in the early 1900s. It’s quirky and warm-hearted and (of course) has a lot in it about whales, both the ones that are hunted and the pod of orcas who assist the whalers. Based on a true story!

28, 29 & 30: The Fifth Season, The Obelisk Gate, and The Stone Sky – The Broken Earth Trilogy by N. K. Jemisin

I read this trilogy on recommendation from friends, and also on the strength of the fact that the series won three consecutive Hugo Awards for best novel, three years in a row. That’s an impressive level of consistency. Set in a geologically unstable fantasy world of volcanoes and rifts and sinkholes, with a magic system based around the manipulation of geological energy. See, this is what I love about fantasy: the series is about prejudice and discrimination, but it’s also about cool floating crystals and mysterious ancient cultures. Good, solid, imaginative fantasy with a social conscience.

31. The Yearbook Committee by Sarah Ayoub

This book was trying very hard to be the next Melina Marchetta, but it just didn’t quite get there. I’m not sure why, as it followed the format closely – a group of unlikely friends and frenemies are thrown together (some against their will) to make up the school’s yearbook committee, and we get to watch the characters and their relationships develop over the course of the school year. All of the pieces were there, but the alchemy didn’t happen. The ending felt like it was trying to hard to have a big emotional impact, but I never quite bought it, for some reason.

32. The Adventure of English: The Biography of a Language by Melvyn Bragg

The history of the English language from its early roots to its modern-day permutations. The author was quite successful in making a language the central character of an adventure story, and it was very interesting and well written. Possibly even someone who’s not an English lit nerd would enjoy it!

33. The Secret Chord by Geraldine Brooks

I don’t read widely in the genre of historical fiction, but Brooks is an author that I’ve grown to trust implicitly with this type of story. The Secret Chord is the story of King David (of Goliath-slaying-fame) from his childhood to his death. Not my favourite from this author, but still very readable.

34. The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith

Long before J.K. Rowling ever even finished the Harry Potter series, I always said that if she were to go on to write something else, it would be crime fiction. Again, not a genre I usually read in, but I trust the author’s ability to lay a satisfying trail of breadcrumbs, and I wasn’t disappointed.

35. Bridge of Clay by Markus Zusak

A weighty book in many ways – physically (it’s a doorstopper), emotionally (you will cry), chronologically (it has been long-awaited, and it took Markus Zusak over a decade to write). It’s also set in Sydney, which I love. There’s so much affection for the area soaked into every word of the story. It’s the tale of five brothers (and a small menagerie of pets) and of their parents, so it jumps around in time quite a lot, and takes a while to really get going. But it’s most definitely worth investing the time and emotional energy and several boxes of tissues in.

36. The Second Cure by Margaret Morganthe second cure

Not only is this set in Sydney, but the main characters are based literally in the next suburb over from mine. This was a pleasant but unexpected coincidence, as I picked it off the library shelf based on the cover and the interesting-sounding blurb. A pointedly contemporary pandemic story about a disease that has deeply political consequences, effectively splintering the world into the left/centre and far-right conservative movements. (Sounds familiar, right?) I wasn’t sure I liked the final ‘twist’ of the story, but with such a solid set-up and great characters it was difficult for it to live up to its promise. The extra juiciness of reading a political and scientific thriller set in my own backyard more than made up for this, though.

37. A Very Unusual Pursuit by Catherine Jinks

I read Catherine Jinks’ Pagan Chronicles in high school and they were gritty and compulsively readable YA, so when I bumped into this on the library shelves, I thought I’d give it a go. This one is for younger readers, but still good. Urban fantasy set in Victorian-era London.

38. My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell

I hadn’t read this book for almost 20 years, but it all came flooding back. An autobiography of the author’s time spent on the Greek island of Corfu when he was a boy. This re-read made me desperately want to visit the Greek Isles, and also reminded me that the book was a powerful source of my obsession with animals and nature and the ocean as a kid. Another book to thank for my biology major! I mainly remembered the book for all of the wildlife writing, but discovered on re-reading that the author’s writing about his family members is hilarious, something which I probably didn’t appreciate as much on my first read when I was younger. A perfect summer read.

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4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. E. R. Attenborough
    Jan 13, 2019 @ 11:28:00

    Hooray for Barbara Kingsolver, Markus Zusak and Sue Monk Kidd! And you’ve prompted me to hurry up and read Gerald Durrell. He’s been sitting on my shelf for years while I allow other things to get in the way.

    Reply

  2. polloplayer
    Jan 13, 2019 @ 11:52:16

    I also (finally- I am an old person) read Poisonwood Bible this year. Your thoughtful reviews encourage me to add Lacuna in 2019. Also Umberto Eco…in return I will recommend Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. It is a revelation!

    Reply

  3. Nick
    Jan 13, 2019 @ 14:50:48

    I went to search ‘wine’ on this page to find your ‘me and glass of red’ line only to have the search come up blank cause it’s in an image. But that means the entirety of this post went without a further mention of wine, your glass of red might be feeling a little hurt by this 😉
    The point I was going to make though, you’re literally never happier than when curled up with a book. Dozens of these entries over the years demonstrate you really connect with so many of the books you read. Be it the warm hearted connection to the notebook scribblers, or the weighty emotional connection to clay bridges.
    So sure, 2018 by and large wasn’t the year of the century. But don’t write it off with a flamethrower, just look back remembering there’s a minimum of 38 happiest moments above 🙂

    Reply

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