There have been many excellent books to enjoy in 2018 and choosing the top ten from among them has proved pretty tricky, but the titles included in this list all stand out as being particularly special. Their tone, style, subject matter and genre all vary (and one might have even been published in 2017, although it is too good to leave off the list), but they are all alike in terms of their wonderful and inventive storytelling and the lasting impact they have on the reader.
1. Their Brilliant Careers by Ryan O’Neill (Lightning Books)
Their Brilliant Careers is the sublime account of the extraordinary lives of sixteen of Australia’s foremost (or should that be infamous?) literary figures. From Dame Claudia Gunn, better known as the Antipodean Agatha Christie, to Frederick Stratford and his masterpiece Odysseus (to say nothing of his later works, The Prodigious Gatsby and The Sun Comes Up Too), to Arthur Ruhtra, experimental author and founder of the Australian avant-garde writing collective Kangaroulipo, to Rand Washington, noted science fiction author and fascist, Ryan O’Neill has delved where no biographer has delved before in an effort to fully chronicle the lives of these great figures. Their Brilliant Careers has everything that fans of great literature could possibly want – feuds, intrigue, romance, plagiarism, bush yarns and even murder.
2. The Murderer’s Ape by Jakob Wegelius (Pushkin Children’s Books)
The first thing you need to know about Sally Jones, in her mind at least, is that she is not a human being, she’s an anthropoid ape (from the subspecies Gorilla gorilla graueri to be specific). The second thing you should realise is that she’s a skilled engineer and an experienced sailor. She’s serves aboard the SS Hudson Queen with the Chief (real name Henry Koskela), who is her best friend and most certainly not her owner. The pair of them make a living transporting cargo around the world. However, what you really need to know about Sally Jones is that she’s an amazing individual and that her adventures, as related in The Murderer’s Ape (which she has painstakingly typed up on her Underwood No. 5 typewriter), will transport you on a fabulous journey to exotic and dangerous places as she attempts to explain the intrigue that she unexpectedly became caught up in some four years previously.
3. Fish Soup by Margarita Garcia Robayo (Charco Press)
Charco Press aims “to change the current literary scene and make room for a kind of literature that has been overlooked”, that is, “books from a different part of the world”, and one of the publisher’s greatest successes is the translation into English (by Charlotte Coombe) of Fish Soup, which collects some of the work of Margarita Garcia Robayo. The book contains two novellas and a collection of seven short stories, all of which are set in Colombia. The first novella, ‘Waiting for a Hurricane’, chronicles the life of girl who is willing to do anything to escape both her family and her country, while the second, ‘Sexual Education’, follows a student’s attempt to reconcile the notion of abstinence that is preached at her school with the more ambiguous attitudes to love and sex that are prevalent among those she knows. The short stories included in ‘Worse Things’ talk of outsiders, of the lost and the discarded, those who lives are in turmoil and who will do anything to get away. Garcia Robayo’s writing is darkly humorous, cynically twisting mundane scenarios and average people into something almost otherworldly.
4. Circe by Madeline Miller (Bloomsbury Publishing)
Circe, daughter of Helios, God of the Sun, and Perse, an Oceanid nymph, sits apart from her illustrious, golden family. “Her hair is streaked like a lynx. And her chin. There is a sharpness to it that is less than pleasing.” But it is her voice, weak and scratchy to the ears of gods, that draws the most scorn. She is considered the least among her siblings, but Circe has fortitude that the rest of her family cannot comprehend, as well as a talent for magic that frightens even Zeus. Tired of the isolation of her father’s halls, Circe seeks companionship among mortals and it is the love she feels for Glaucos, a simple fisherman when she meets him, which causes her to develop her talent for spellcasting and transformation. When her attempts to safeguard her love prove unsuccessful, Circe’s anger and jealousy lead her to create one of the most fearsome monsters in all of mythology: Scylla, the six-headed sea monster that devours passing sailors. When word of Circe’s power reaches Mount Olympus, Zeus orders her banishment and she is exiled to the island of Aiaia for eternity. Despite how difficult and brutal her time on the island frequently is, it is in exile that Circe finally manages to take charge of her own destiny. It is epic in scope, but at its heart, Circe is a book about the importance of the individual, about the need to be true to yourself and the potential to heal from the damage caused by others. While ballads are sung about the exploits of heroes, other, still vital, characters such as Circe are often overlooked, but with this book, Miller demonstrates just how important “lesser characters” are to the world at large.
5. Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata (Portobello Books/Granta)
Keiko Furukura knows that she isn’t normal and she’s perfectly comfortable with that fact. Unfortunately, other people, particularly her family but also her friends, co-workers and former classmates, are not so comfortable with it. Keiko was an outsider from a very young age and she soon recognised that her diverging behaviour caused distress to those around her, which led her to adopt masking tactics to seemingly fit in despite not personally being bothered by her situation. Keeping quiet and remaining in the background proved sufficient while she was at school, but once she started university, she realised that she would have to take further steps towards mimicking normality. It was at this point that the Hiiromachi Station Smile Mart entered her life. Convenience Store Woman is a highly unusual and downright charmingly odd tale narrated by a central character who is quite delightfully lacking in self-consciousness. In addition to taking readers on a whistle-stop tour of Keiko’s life, Sayaka Murata manages to use humour and notions of absurdity to critique serious issues such as prevailing society norms, gender roles and the unfair pressure placed on non-neurotypical people to conform. It makes for a brilliant, entertaining and insightful read.
6. The Bickford Fuse by Andrey Kurkov (MacLehose Press)
With The Bickford Fuse, Kurkov sets out to explore the psychology of “Soviet man,” who is neither good nor bad, but simply Soviet. Kurkov’s principal example of “Soviet man” is junior seaman Vasily Kharitonov, who begins the novel shipwrecked on Russia’s eastern coast. The Great Patriotic War is drawing to a close and Kharitonov is stuck sharing a beleaguered naval barge with his commanding officer and former friend, Fedya Gritsak, as well as with tons of dynamite and miles of safety fuses. It is not a living situation that Kharitonov finds easy, nor does he truly understand Gritsak’s determination to continue following military regulations and protecting the barge’s deadly cargo. Yet, when Kharitonov suddenly finds himself alone on the barge and without orders to follow, he doesn’t take the logical step of running away as far and as fast as he possibly can. Instead, he primes the dynamite in the barge’s hold, attaches a fuse to it, ties the other end of the miles-long fuse round his waist, and sets out on a trek across Russia. The Bickford Fuse is satire at its finest: sharp, irreverent, timeless, and willing to talk about things that are more frequently left unsaid.
7. The Which Way Tree by Elizabeth Crook (Scribe UK)
On April 25, 1866, in the small Texas town of Bandera, a grand jury is convened to hear evidence regarding the deaths by hanging of eight men who were murdered some three years previously, during the height of the American Civil War. The Which Way Tree opens with the presiding judge, one Edward Carlton, hearing the testimony of seventeen-year-old Benjamin Shreve, who is thought to have been the first person to find the bodies. Benjamin is also convinced that he knows the identity of one of the murderers, a sadistic Confederate soldier named Clarence Hanlin. When it becomes clear that Benjamin has a great deal to tell the court, as well as a rather roundabout way of doing so, Judge Carlton brings the initial hearing to a close and requests that Benjamin return home, write down his testimony and post it on to him. Benjamin takes to this task with gusto and his letters to the judge constitute most of the rest of the novel. In them, Benjamin relates his early life with his father, his stepmother Juda and his half-sister Sam. He also describes the fateful encounter with a panther that led to the death of Juda and the scarring of Sam’s face, and eventually prompted the brother and sister to embark on a quest for vengeance. The Which Way Tree is an action-packed western with a hell of a lot of heart. Despite its central brutality, it’s frequently very funny and always hugely entertaining. The characters, whether heroes or villains, are compelling and it is a joy to follow them on their (mis)adventures.
8. The Colour of Murder by Julian Symons (British Library Publishing)
John Wilkins is living a rather drab life when a chance trip to the library brings him into the orbit of Sheila Morton, librarian/femme fatale. Wilkins becomes obsessed with Sheila and engages in increasingly desperate attempts to spend time with her, ranging from regular borrowings of the novels of Moira Mauleverer, to cloak and dagger theatre trips, to a rather excruciating game of tennis. Of course, the more Wilkins comes to care (or, at least, believes himself to care) about Sheila, the more he comes to hate his wife, May. The situation is clearly untenable and, from the outset of The Colour of Murder, it appears that Wilkins has cracked under the pressure of his (not so) secret passion. The Colour of Murder was one of the most highly acclaimed British crime novels of the 1950s, and it was considered particularly innovative due to its consideration of the psychology of crime. Happily, it’s every bit as interesting now as it was when first published. Julian Symons’ exploration of justice – both the legal process and the moral concept – is engaging and insightful. He takes an unlikeable character who has clearly got up to a fair few dodgy deeds and causes readers to question (i) whether the man is in fact guilty and (ii) if so, to what extent can he truly be considered culpable. The storyline is twisting and regularly ambiguous, and it’s a real treat for the reader to attempt to puzzle out both the crime and the perpetrator.
9. Only Killers and Thieves by Paul Howarth (One/Pushkin Press)
Central Queensland, Australia, 1885: Drought, poverty, isolation and malnourished livestock all combine to make life practically unliveable for the McBride family. Fourteen-year-old Tommy McBride and his older brother, sixteen-year-old Billy, venture out into the ruined scrubland looking for food for the family, while their harried mother and younger sister Mary attempt to keep things ticking over at home and their father battles both alcoholism and the slow failure of his farm. One day, the boys stray onto the land of their neighbour, John Sullivan, and witness the feared Queensland Native Police as they mete out their own brutal brand of justice to a couple of Indigenous Australians. Shaken by what they see, Tommy and Billy attempt to hide, only to be spotted by the menacing Inspector Noone and questioned by Sullivan. The brothers are allowed to return home, but despite the violence that they have witnessed, they are little prepared for what is still to come. Only Killers and Thieves is the first novel by Paul Howarth and it is an astounding debut. The writing is by turns savage and poetic, powerful and tender. The landscape of Central Queensland forms the perfect backdrop for a story about depravation, brutality and human folly, with the harsh, barren terrain becoming almost a character in its own right.
10. When I Hit You: Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife by Meena Kandasamy (Atlantic Books)
A highly educated woman from an affluent Indian family marries a man who is both a respected college professor and a domestic tyrant, a social rights campaigner and an abusive monster. A marriage that should have been the perfect coming together of two staunch communist idealists enraptured by the multifarious possibilities of love instead becomes a fraught coupling characterized by brutality, isolation and dehumanisation. When I Hit You is a powerful fictionalised account of the horrors of domestic violence and marital rape, albeit one that is all the more emotive due to being heavily based on Meena Kandasamy’s own experience of marriage. It is a frequently harrowing read, the sense of violence and despair is vivid, but the story is also often poetically told. Kandasamy gives her lead character, who also happens to be a writer, a voice that is both raw and honest. She narrates the mental and physical torture and the sexual violence that her husband inflicts on her in a very matter-of-fact fashion, which renders her account all the more impactful. It’s impossible not to be shocked and repulsed by what is described, but it’s equally impossible not to believe that the narrator will eventually identify a means of escape.