Books of the Year 2018: Part One

Looking back at 2017’s books of the year posts, I see I started with the state of the world and the need for distraction from it. If anything, things seem to have got worse out there but, as Cover imageever, books have provided both escape and enlightenment. H and I are still steering clear of politics over supper although there’s the odd furious outburst aimed not at each other but at the *expletives deleted* who seem to have been calling far too many shots. Anyway, enough of that and on to books. I’ve long since given up trying to curtail these posts so, just to warn you, there will be four of them, all with links to reviews on this blog.

January’s reading started well with Michelle de Kretser’s beautifully crafted, thoroughly engaging The Life to Come which manages to be both funny and poignant as it examines the state of Australia through the stories of a disparate set of characters linked by their relationship to one infuriating woman. Through the stories of Pippa’s friends and acquaintances, de Kretser deftly explores modern life with a deceptively light touch and a hefty dollop of dry, often waspish humour. Barbs are tossed at a multitude of modern obsessions, from social media to faddish food. Throughout it all, de Kretser’s penetrating observation and mordant humour is underpinned with compassion, most movingly so in the final section which explores the loneliness of old age.

Peter Carey’s A Long Way From Home kept me in Australia as it followed the Bobs family, who’ve  moved to Bacchus Marsh in an effort to escape Titch Bobs’ overbearing father, and their neighbour Willie Bachhuber who finds himself navigator in the Bobs’ attempt to win the inaugural 6,500-mile Redex Trial in 1953. Echoing the themes of The Life to Come, Carey’s novel tackles identity, racism, sexism and Australia’s shameful treatment of its indigenous people, all framed within the context of a riveting piece of storytelling with a rich vein of humour running through it. I can’t say that I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve read by Carey but a new novel by him is always worth investigating. My absolute favourite is Oscar and Lucinda, so much so that I’ve read it three times. I can’t quite put my finger on why but there’s something about the tone of A Long Way From Home that reminded me of it despite their very different subject matters.Cover image

January’s third favourite took me to France with Delphine de Vigan’s riveting Based on a True Story. I’m not a thriller fan but metafiction fascinates me which is what attracted me to this novel whose narrator, Delphine, finds her life entirely taken over by a woman she meets at a party. We know from the beginning that L. has had a sinister influence on Delphine, creating a psychological state in which she is unable even to send an email let alone begin her next book. The result is a constant feeling of claustrophobia, persistent doubts and questions. L. is chillingly convincing – manipulative, plausible and ultimately terrifying. Hard to avoid all the clichés associated with the genre when talking about this one  – ‘gripping’, ‘riveting’, ‘unputdownable’ – take your pick. All apply to this fiendishly smart piece of writing which has at its heart a debate about fiction and truth.

February began with Rachel Malik’s Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves based loosely on the author’s family history, making her novel all the more poignant for this is not always a happy story. Struggling to keep the family farm afloat, Elsie Boston takes on a Land Girl. These two find a way to accommodate their very different habits until their lives become so entwined that they leave together when Elsie is forced off the farm. Twenty years later, Rene learns of the death of a close family friend to whom she owes a debt of gratitude. She and Elsie take in Bertha’s ageing, alcoholic husband who sets about disrupting their life. When Ernest finally dies it might almost seem a cause for celebration but then the police arrive. Malik combines quietly understated prose with cinematic, vivid episodes in this touching absorbing novel.

My other February favourite was also a novel based on true events. Hallgrímur Helgason’s The Woman at 1,000 Degrees grew out of a canvassing phone call made on behalf of his partner, a candidate in Iceland’s municipal elections. The third name on his list Cover imageturned out to belong to an eighty-year-old woman living in a garage who kept him talking for nearly an hour. A few years later, Helgason chased down the identity of his late conversationalist to find that she was the granddaughter of Iceland’s first president. Renaming her Herra, both a woman’s name and Icelandic for ‘mister’, Helgason injects a good deal of black humour into a story which spends much of its time exploring the worst of human behaviour, managing to both entertain and horrify as it tells the story of Herra’s remarkable life.

That’s it for the first two months of this year’s highlights. The next instalment covers March, April and May in which one title lives up to enormous hype, another takes me entirely by surprise and a third has quite possibly the longest title I’ve come across in a contemporary novel.

22 thoughts on “Books of the Year 2018: Part One”

  1. The Carey is still on my tbr list. I didn’t get round to it when it first came out and somehow it has slipped off my radar without my noticing it. Thanks for the reminder.

  2. Interesting – I hadn’t heard of Michelle de Kretser till Saturday when I downloaded The Lost Dog on audio from the library. The limited choice does sometimes lead to lucky discoveries! Looking forward to it after reading your comments about her writing.

  3. I believe there’s a film adaptation of Based on a True Story, directed by Roman Polanski no less. Should be an interesting one given the premised of the book.

    Have you read Delphine deV’s Nothing Holds Back the Night? I loved that book when I read it a few years ago – such a powerful and compelling story, it had quite an effect on me at the time.

    1. A tricky book to adapt, I think, but Polanski may have pulled it off.

      I’ve read No and Me which I enjoyed, and Loyalties which is to be published next year. A bit disappointing after this one. Nothing Holds Back the Night looks excellent, though. Thanks for alerting me to it, Jacqui.

  4. So glad to see Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves on your list as it’s reminded how much I loved that book. It’s also reminded me that I still have one book to read from The Walter Scott Prize 2018 shortlist – Manhattan Beach.

    1. It’s a book that took me by surprise, and I’m pleased to see that it’s been mentioned in at least one newspaper’s picks of the year. Good luck with Manhattan Beach.

    1. The author approached me to review it which always give me the jitters but Ali over at Heaven Ali loved it and a friend had reviewed it and also loved it so I took the plunge, and I’m very glad I did.

    1. I’m afraid I’m the kind of anorak who’s kept a record of everything I’ve read since my late teens! It’s very satisfying although somewhat alarming when I see titles about which I can remember nothing. Thankfully not the ones I’ve reviewed – yet…

  5. I’m making a note of the Peter Carey. So far by him I’ve only read The chemistry of tears (which I liked though I was puzzled by the ending) but I’ve been eyeing Oscar and Lucinda for some time too. Time to put either this one or A long way from home on my Christmas reading list!

    1. Ah, that’s not one I’ve read. You might be surprised to hear that even though I’ve read Oscar and Lucinda three times and A Long Way From Home is one of my books of a very good reading year, I’d plump for O & L! Hope you enjoy whichever you choose.

  6. I remember your reviews of all of these, but for some reason the first and last covers don’t look familiar (even though I love them both!).
    I love that your last paragraph is somewhat of a cliffhanger. One I don’t have to wait for, since I’m very late to this party!

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