“Strange…funny…lyrical…surreal…affecting…” – Bookmunch Best Of 2018

Liam Bishop: I read a whole series of writers either based, or published by presses in Northern England. This meant I was introduced to writers like Martyn Bedford, through his short story collection Letters Home (Comma Press), and Jacob Ross thanks to his collected short stories Tell No-One About This (Peepal Tree Press). One such novel that wasn’t concerned about borders though was Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi’s second novel, Call Me Zebra (Alma). This quixotic tale of literary exile was a tonic to any geographically-influenced reading. In terms of poetry, Andrew Wynn Owen’s debut The Multiverse (Carcanet), heralded the emergence of an exciting new talent on the poetry landscape, whilst Julian Turner’s fourth collection, Desolate Market (Carcanet), was an excellent addition to a developed oeuvre. But finally, a brief word for some non-fiction – Mothers (Faber) by Jacqueline Rose. As I am thankful to be able to visit mine for Christmas, I will be reminded of Rose’s powerful work.

Daniel Carpenter: If there’s a book that I read this year that deserves to be crowned book of the year then it’s Frankenstein in Baghdad. This novel about the cyclical nature of violence is astonishingly good. Not just moving and strange, but funny to boot. Ahmed Saadawi is a fantastic author and not nearly enough people picked this book up. Elsewhere, I was transported to the afropunk world of Rosewater in Tade Thompson’s novel of the same name, which is a true gem of a sci-fi novel. Finally, I would be remiss not to mention Sweet Fruit, Sour Land by Rebecca Ley, a novel about near future London and Scotland in which food shortages ravage the working class, whilst the upper classes host lavish gourmet feasts. It hits incredibly close to home, and is all the better for it.

Jim Dempsey: The Word for Woman is Wilderness by Abi Andrews has stuck with me throughout the year. It’s one of those that my mind keeps coming back to now and then. It tells the story of 19-year-old Erin who goes off on her own to an Alaskan wilderness, something typically only done by men, and rugged mountain men types at that. Erin is struggling with her thoughts on feminism, among other things, and this journey helps her – and me – come to some useful conclusions. Throughout, Andrews often refers to some of those great wilderness writers, mostly men, and their macho-riven stories, but the one thing that confirms this book as my pick for this year is how it introduced me to many other great writers, mostly women. From Abi Andrews I jumped straight to Rachel Carson and then to Lynn Margulis, and I learned something every time from them all.

James Doyle: My discovery of 2018 is Georges Simenon’s Maigret novels, not the most obscure of writers but a revelation. Maigret is the archetype for contemporary detectives, Columbo owes him a debt, he investigates by “sniffing in the corners, having a chat here and there, asking apparently futile questions.” There are 75 novels, which Penguin are publishing in fresh translations, but the older editions come with some surprising translators, including Julian Maclaren-Ross (a cult writer himself). Each individual novel adds to the whole, especially in the consistency of Maigret’s character (and the supporting characters, from Mrs Maigret to the other policemen). For Maigret crime is a part of daily life (like having lunch), “there was a secret somewhere, a secret important enough to warrant the taking of a human life.” Simenon is a marvellous craftsman, plotting, atmosphere and so readable that getting through all 75 novels is something to look forward to.

Carola Huttman: My literary ‘discovery’ of 2018 is the work of the author Melissa Harrison. Her third novel Among the Barley was published in August and is set in 1930s rural England. The writing is reminiscent of Thomas Hardy or Lewis Grassic Gibbons. Harrison has been called a nature writer. Her quartet of books named after each of the four seasons are lyrical, full of subtle observations without sounding obsessive. In her novels she gently melds nature into her stories so that it becomes intrinsic to them. The writing in her debut novel Clay (2013) and her second novel At Hawthorn Time (2015) is gentle, but never boring with insightful, thoughtful characterisation which stays with the reader long after the last page has been turned.

Jackie Law: Little by Edward Carey tells the story of Anne Marie Grosholtz who would one day become known as Madame Tussaud. Marie’s story is one of survival during turbulent times. She learns the art of modelling with wax from their employer, Doctor Phillipe Curtius, who works for a hospital in Berne creating models from body parts that are used to instruct trainee physicians. Marie becomes Curtius’s assistant and he takes her with him when he moves to Paris. Their landlady takes an instant dislike to Marie but accepts her as a lowly servant. Curtius creates wax faces and figures of the famous and infamous of Paris at the time. A visit to his exhibits by the sister of the king leads to a change of circumstances for Marie who ends up serving in the Palace of Versailles. When forced to leave this proves fortuitous for soon there are the rumblings of revolution. This is a remarkable story. Marie’s varied experiences highlight the precarious life and lack of agency endured by a woman effectively owned by her employer. The voice created for her is perfectly balanced and paced for storytelling. This is, quite simply, a darn good read.

Valerie O’Riordan: The first book I read in 2018 was also one of the best: This Is Memorial Device, by David Keenan. A rockumentary-style exploration of the best band nobody’s ever heard of, that’s also a look at small town life, addiction, despair and obsession. It takes a while to get into, but it’s so worth the effort. Another, even older, one was The Vagrants by Yiyun Li – a heartbreaking account of a few days in a small Chinese town in the midst of the Cultural Revolution. Anakana Schofield’s Martin John was perverse and disturbing and utterly brilliant. And while I’ve read a lot of excellent new releases this year, top mentions have to go to Richard Power’s epic The Overstory, which made me look at trees in a whole new light; Glen James Brown’s Ironopolis, a stellar look at the grim effects of gentrification; and Ben Wilkinson’s beautiful and insightful poetry collection, Way More Than Luck – one of the best literary investigations into depression and anxiety that I’ve read in years.

Joe Phelan: First up I can safely say Zero Hours by Neil Campbell was one of the best books I read this year. I reviewed it previously on Bookmunch and can’t recommend it highly enough. Next is A Man of Shadows by Jeff Noon. The first part of Noon’s Nyquist Mysteries …Shadows is a surreal story which begins when  down at heel gumshoe John Nyquist’s is hired to find a teenage runaway. However the case evolves evolves into the hunt of a serial killer. Set in the city of Dayzone where night is nonexistent this is part crime novel, part sci-fi novel and 100% genius. Finally Embers of War by Gareth Powell. The first part of a space opera trilogy, this novel is a fast paced adventure story with well developed characters with who we can sympathise. A excellent yarn.

Tamim Sadikali: Among the short story collections I read this year, one stands clear of all others – Dazzling The Gods by Tom Vowler bristled with dis-ease from first page till last. For those who can hear their clock ticking, Vowler’s stories concerning disintegrated lives will haunt them. You have been warned… Salt Publishing’s latestBest British Short Stories’ anthology was once again brilliant – showcasing a real breadth of talent and style. Comma Press’s Conradology and Fox Season and other short stories by Agnieska Dale were collections that ebbed and flowed, but both held the power to take one out to sea. A few full-length works were so affecting, albeit in very different ways, that I’ve not attempted to rank. So, in alphabetical order… The Sound of My Voice by Ron Butlin (alcoholism), The Adulterants by Joe Dunthorne (assorted London wankers), A State of Freedom by Neel Mukherjee (‘Incredible India’) and The Stone Tide by Gareth E. Rees (Hastings, black magic and painful balls) – several months down the line, these works continue to surface in my imagination.

Peter Wild: If I had to narrow down the year to a couple of favourites, there are two obvious candidates and one runner-up: I liked Barbara Kingsolver’s Unsheltered a lot (it was just the right mix of narrative and proselytising) and Sam Byer’s Perfidious Albion, with honourable mention for Jonathan Coe’s Middle England. Each of these books, in their own ways, are trying to get to grips with the world in which we find ourselves (and what a world it is!) and there is something both reassuring and challenging about each of them (reassuring because, Heavens be praised!, we’re not alone! and challenging because… where do you start to put things right?!?). Honourable mention for best distraction goes to Beastie Boys Book which is tremenderful.

Happy Christmas and all of that to Bookmunch’s readers! See you in 2019 🙂

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