Happy new year! And happy new reading, too, with all the fresh new books that hopefully have come your way and are lined up in your future. I hope you find the time and space to read them all.
I have to admit I struggled to read as much as I wanted to in 2018, and part of that was a lack of enthusiasm that overtook me at times. I couldn’t seem to commit, reading or writing-wise, to more than a few pages at a time. I think that’s entirely my own lethargic fault as I let the news and real life invade, but I won’t feel too bad about it because it proved to me that really great books can cut through even the most slothful of states, and I was so grateful for each one that did. A heartfelt thank you to all the writers I read this year who managed to get me to commit to their worlds; it was no small feat.
Tade Thompson woke me up and badgered my imagination into taking part once more with both Rosewater and The Murders of Molly Southbourne. Both of those stories are electrically charged, passionate engagements with great big concepts. He’s a fearless and intelligent writer that I will continue to read whenever I get the chance.
Marian Womack’s short story collection Lost Objects looked hard at the future and found personal inroads into dangerous territory, holding the reader’s hand and leading them onwards. I’m going to return to these stories often, I think. They make kind and common sense to me as a way of dealing with the here and now.
I wasn’t expecting to fall back in love with hard-boiled detective thrillers, but Jeff Noon’s A Man of Shadows had such a beautiful precision to it, and an understanding of what we’re really dealing with when we investigate a crime, a time, a place and a personality. I’m saving the next book in the John Nyquist series for a time when I need it.
I was fortunate to have my latest novel launched alongside a new discovery that I loved – Peter Haynes’ The Willow By Your Side explored rural territory both familiar and frightening, and brought that world to life with delicacy and mournfulness. It’s a winding read that leads to revelations beyond the mystery as first presented, building and building to the final pages that held me fast.
Another writer that’s new to me (but no doubt not to practically everyone else) is Richard Brautigan. I came across The Hawkline Monster by chance in the library and couldn’t believe I’d never heard of it before. It’s all Frankenstein and Magic and the Wild West and Ice Caves and, yes, everything deserves capital letters.
The graphic novel Rover Red Charlie (Garth Ennis/Michael DiPascale) surprised me in the best way. Once I found out that it examined a post-apocalyptic world through the eyes of a dog I was reluctant to get involved. I can’t bear dogs in books; they always end up dead, and I end up caring far more about that than about anything else that happens, for what it says about us as writers as much as about society. Killing the dog seems like such a cheap trick at times to me. But this was life-affirming and generous in its wonderful ending, rewarding the reader twice with its big-hearted decisions in the last pages.
And Lavie Tidhar’s The Violent Century was an imagining of superheroes in wartime that felt clammy and downbeat and perfect. I wouldn’t have changed a word of it.
I also leaned heavily on some of my long-term favourite authors to see me through the year:
I thought I’d read Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana. It turned out I hadn’t. It was great, of course.
Iris Murdoch’s The Time of the Angels was a brooding Gothic tale of abuse that haunted my nights for a while.
Rupert Thomson’s Secrecy was created with his usual clear, beautiful style that I have come to cherish. I treated myself to another of his books for Christmas and will start it shortly; no doubt it’ll turn up amongst my favourite books for 2019. He’s reliably amazing.
The Quiet Woman by Christopher Priest was wonderfully slippery and strange while concerning itself with domestic and intimate events. How does he do that? I’ll keep reading everything he writes in the hope of working it out one day, but also because nothing entrances me quite like one of his novels.
I have loved Nevil Shute for years and when all else failed in 2018 I found one I hadn’t read before – In The Wet – and let him take me away to a 1953 vision of 1983. Visions of the future from the past become more and more revealing as we move both away and towards them. It reminds me of the dolly zoom (first used in Hitchcock’s Vertigo), both zooming in and tracking back simultaneously to produce a queasy feeling.
That’s an odd note to end on – queasiness as an enjoyable side-effect from the reading experience – but it’s probably a good call for New Year’s Day, when the hangover from last year starts to dissipate and there’s a pause between pages. Here’s to feeling and thinking all kinds of things from the books you read next year.