My Favourite Books of 2018

Well, that was a year. A year in which a lot of my favourite reads involved escapism and humour, because the real world was not an especially fun place to be. I read 54 books that were new to me (I don’t count re-reads). About a third of these books were adult non-fiction, a third were adult fiction, and the remaining third were books for children and teenagers. Here are the books that I liked the most in 2018:

Adult Fiction

'Behind The Scenes At The Museum' by Kate AtkinsonBehind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson was a brilliantly funny account of a Yorkshire childhood, related by a not-entirely-reliable narrator with a lot of eccentric relatives. I don’t know how I managed to get this far in life without reading any Kate Atkinson novels, but clearly I need to read the rest of her work. I also enjoyed whimsical, meandering Winter by Ali Smith, another new-to-me writer whose work I need to explore. I have read most of Alan Hollinghurst’s books and The Sparsholt Affair was optimistic and heartwarming (not words I ever thought I’d use to describe a Hollinghurst novel), a beautifully observed story about the families that gay men and lesbians construct for themselves.

Non-Fiction

'Girt' by David HuntThe Disaster Artist by Greg Sestero and Tom Bissell, the hilarious story behind one of the worst movies ever made, was a truly fascinating read. I also enjoyed Girt: The Unauthorised History of Australia by David Hunt, a very silly and mostly accurate history of the first decades of colonial Australia, and How Not To Be A Boy, Robert Webb’s funny, thoughtful memoir about a boyhood spent absorbing toxic messages about masculinity.

'Depends What You Mean By Extremist' by John SafranI also liked John Safran’s Depends What You Mean By Extremist: Going Rogue with Australian Deplorables. Safran gets to know Muslims who support ISIS; Muslims who hate ISIS but also hate Jews, Christians and gay people; Jews who hate Muslims; white supremacists who aren’t as white as you’d expect; anarchists who hate racists but think anti-Semitic violence is okay; and conservative Christians who hate Muslims even though there doesn’t seem to be much practical difference between their belief systems. While most of these extremists come across as confused attention-seekers with no real ability to threaten society, Safran makes the serious point that most Australians – secular, rational, democratic Australians – don’t understand “the mindset of the devout: magical thinking, seeing patterns in the world, a sense that there are no coincidences, a determination that friends and strangers must be saved, karma and providence”. This was a timely read, full of Safran being his usual annoying but hilarious self.

Children’s Books

'The Terrible Two' by Jory John and Mac BarnettFor some reason, none of the Young Adult books I read this year captured my interest. I’m sure it was me, rather than the books, which were mostly well-reviewed and award-winning. I had more luck with books aimed at younger readers. I liked The Endsister by Penni Russon, Front Desk by Kelly Yang, and Peter’s Room by Antonia Forest. I also enjoyed the first book in The Terrible Two series by Jory John and Mac Barnett, illustrated by Kevin Cornell, with well-drawn characters, a clever plot and lots of humour.

Thank you to everyone who read and commented on Memoranda posts this year, with special thanks to the Antonia Forest fans who make such thoughtful contributions whenever I do a Forest read-along. I haven’t been blogging much lately due to um, life, but I hope to get back into it now that I’m on holiday. Happy Christmas to everyone celebrating it and Happy End of 2018 to everyone else!

‘Front Desk’ by Kelly Yang

“I used to think being successful meant having enough to eat, but now that I was getting free lunch at school, I wondered if I should set my standards higher.”

'Front Desk' by Kelly Yang (Australian cover)

It’s 1993 and ten-year-old Mia Tang has migrated from China to America with her parents. They’d hoped for a better life in the Land of the Free, but they’re reduced to living out of their car and taking whatever badly-paid casual jobs they can find. It seems like a miracle when Mr Yao, the owner of a motel near Disneyland, offers them accommodation plus wages if they’ll manage his motel. There’s even a swimming pool! But ‘coal-hearted’ Mr Yao exploits them mercilessly, penalising them for infractions of his ever-changing rules (and he definitely doesn’t want Mia or anyone else actually swimming in the pool). Mia’s parents exhaust themselves with the constant cleaning, laundry and repairs, while Mia appoints herself front desk manager, dealing with missing keys, stolen cars and belligerent drunks. Things are even worse for her at school, where her teacher criticises her English and Mr Yao’s nasty son encourages the class to laugh at Mia’s cheap clothes. Mia’s only schoolfriend Lupe, a Mexican immigrant, is convinced the two of them are stuck on a “rollercoaster” of poverty that they can never get off, but Mia, with the help of the motel’s permanent residents, finds a way to improve the lives of her family and friends.

The author does an admirable job of addressing some heavy topics – including racism, immigration and poverty – in an accessible way for middle-grade readers, but Front Desk is also an engrossing and entertaining story featuring a smart, creative heroine. Mia is far from perfect, but she has a good heart and she learns from her many mistakes. The other characters are similarly nuanced. Mia’s mother loves her daughter and wants the best for her, but her ambition combined with their desperate circumstances can make her ruthless. Mia’s father is more sympathetic, but he’s fairly inept. Mia’s teacher, though well-meaning, is clueless about Mia’s struggles. Both Mr Yao and a Chinese-American security guard hold appallingly racist views about African-Americans. And even Mr Yao’s horrible son, bullied by his own father, finds the courage to be compassionate when Mia needs his help.

'Front Desk' by Kelly Yang (US cover)It’s especially nice that books and writing (and an enormous thesaurus) are the key to most of Mia’s eventual successes, whether she’s penning a threatening letter to the exploitative boss of an illegal immigrant friend or she’s writing down her family’s story to win a class competition. I must admit that the novel’s conclusion seemed implausibly optimistic and saccharine to me, but by that stage, I was so happy to see good triumph over evil that I didn’t mind too much. The author, Kelly Yang, provides useful notes at the end of the book, explaining that Mia’s story is based on her own experiences helping her migrant parents run motels in California in the 1980s and 1990s. She notes that these immigrants were “particularly vulnerable to exploitation and hardship. No group of Chinese immigrants before or since came with quite so little and gave up quite so much.” Front Desk offers a strong argument in favour of #OwnVoices, because it rings with authenticity. Its messages about immigration and racism are sadly relevant today, but don’t be put off, thinking this is all Serious Discussion of Worthy Issues – it’s simply a good, fun, heartwarming story.

If you’ve enjoyed Memoranda’s Antonia Forest discussions …

If you’ve enjoyed the Antonia Forest discussions at Memoranda, you might also be interested in these posts about twentieth century children’s books.

'The Years of Grace', edited by Noel StreatfeildI was entertained and educated by The Years of Grace (1950), edited by Noel Streatfeild. As the jacket states,

The Years of Grace is a book for growing-up girls who are too old for children’s books and are just beginning to read adult literature. It is a difficult age – difficult for parents and friends, but more difficult for the girls themselves. What are they going to do when they leave school? How should they dress? What is a good hobby? How can they make the right sort of friends? The problems are endless, and here in The Years of Grace is to be found the wisdom of many of our greatest writers and most distinguished people of our time.”

Noel Streatfeild must have realised that there was a lucrative market for this sort of thing, because she followed this up with Growing Up Gracefully in 1955. This guide to good manners for young people includes chapters on ‘Manners Abroad’, ‘When and When Not To Make A Fuss’ and ‘Don’t Drop That Brick or The Gentle Art of Avoiding Solecisms’ and it is even more amusing than her first etiquette guide.

'Friday's Tunnel' by John Verney

Readers who enjoy children’s adventure books may be interested in discussions about Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome, Emil and the Detectives by Erich Kästner and Friday’s Tunnel by John Verney.

'T.H. White: A Biography' by Sylvia Townsend Warner

Finally, here are some links to blog posts about the biographies of children’s writers T. H. White and Dodie Smith.

‘The Endsister’ by Penni Russon

'The Endsister' by Penni RussonI really enjoyed The Endsister, a thoughtful and beautifully composed ghost story for young readers. The Outhwaite family decide to uproot themselves from their comfortable semi-rural Australian life when they inherit a large, dusty house in London. Of course, this house turns out to be haunted, although the two girl ghosts, Almost Annie and Hardly Alice, drift about harmlessly, noticed only by the youngest Outhwaite, four-year-old Sibbi. But there’s something far more malevolent lurking behind the locked attic door: “a cobwebbed thing, tattered and dusty, so long forgotten, so long forgetting.” This dreaded Endsister seems to be sucking the life out of poor lonely Sibbi and feeding on the unhappiness of the older Outhwaites, especially teenage Else, trying to discover who she is now that she’s abandoned her once-beloved violin, and Olly, their mother, who’s left behind her friends and teaching job and is toiling fruitlessly at her PhD thesis.

All of the characters are vividly drawn, with the story told mostly from the perspective of Else, Sibbi and their stoic, nature-loving brother, Clancy. The descriptive prose is lovely and the family’s squabbles are both funny and sadly true to life. I was interested to read that this story was initially conceived as a weekly serial, because the narrative is complex and cleverly constructed, neatly looping back on itself – as Clancy concludes, it is “a story that ends where it begins: a story about coming home.” The revelation of the Endsister’s mystery is poignant and deeply satisfying, and there’s a lot to contemplate in this book about memory, creativity and belonging.

In fact, this novel is so intricate and ruminative that it won’t be for all young readers. It’s also quite spine-chilling in parts (the scene with Sibbi in the study gave me the creeps, although admittedly, I am easily spooked). The publisher says it’s for 10-14 year olds – I’d recommend it for readers in that age group, and older, who enjoy thoughtful, character-based stories.

As I was reading The Endsister, I was reminded of Come Back, Lucy by Pamela Sykes, a very spooky children’s book written in the 1970s that I’d thought no one (except for me and presumably Pamela Sykes) had ever read, although I have just discovered that it was made into a terrifying-looking television series and that there was a sequel novel called Lucy Beware! (because apparently Lucy didn’t learn anything from her first experience of being haunted). Here’s my beloved Puffin paperback copy:

'Come Back, Lucy' by Pamela Sykes

Lucy is an unhappy orphan sent to live with her youthful aunt, uncle and cousins, who are renovating a large Victorian-era house in London. Up in the dusty attic, Lucy encounters ghostly Alice, who at first seems to be the only one who truly understands and cares for Lucy. Alice, though, is gradually revealed to be capricious and self-centred, with sinister plans for Lucy … But does Alice really exist? Are Lucy’s experiences actually due to repressed grief and loneliness? Come Back, Lucy would be an excellent companion read for The Endsister, if you can get hold of a copy. As added incentive, the Puffin edition has lots of fab 1970s illustrations by Tessa Jordan:

'Come Back, Lucy', illustration by Tessa Jordan

'Come Back, Lucy', illustration by Tessa Jordan

‘Falconer’s Lure’ by Antonia Forest

'Falconer's Lure' by Antonia ForestI have been working very hard on my new book and felt I deserved a reward, so you know what that means – Antonia Forest read-along time! And really, with the world in its current state of chaos and despair, what better time to immerse oneself in a nice story about English children enjoying their summer holidays on a country estate. That’s pretty much all I know about Falconer’s Lure, except I’ve also read that it’s a pony book, but with falcons instead of ponies. I am totally on board for anything involving posh country estates, although I’m a bit wary about the falconry, being very much against animal cruelty, especially involving birds. Then again, most of my knowledge of falconry comes from reading T. H. White’s biography and he was notoriously bad at doing it, so maybe it’s not as awful as I think.

For those new to this series of books, they feature the Marlow family, which consists of Commander Marlow, Mrs Marlow and eight Marlow offspring: Giles, Karen, Rowan, Ann, Ginty, Peter and identical twins Nicola and Lawrie. In the first book, Autumn Term, the twins had an eventful first term at their new boarding school. In the second, The Marlows and The Traitor, Nicola, Peter and Ginty got caught up in a terrifying adventure on land and at sea after uncovering a naval spy. Whatever will they get up to on their summer holidays? With Antonia Forest, anything is possible.

Chapter One: Jael in the Morning

This is the first Marlow book that’s explicitly stated the year in which it’s set. It takes place in the summer of 1948 at Trennels Old Farm (exact location unspecified), which was requisitioned by the military during the war and recently inherited by Cousin Jon after the death of their Great Uncle Lawrence. The story begins with Nicola fetching the breakfast eggs from the farmer and glorying in the sunlit countryside, when she hears what she thinks is a distressed cat stuck in a tree. Nicola, “who had a tender feeling for all animals except anteaters”, climbs to the rescue and finds herself facing what seems to be an enraged eagle. Actually, it’s a goshawk called Jael, as Nicola is informed by its supercilious owner, Patrick Merrick, whom she recognises as a friend of her brother Peter’s from before the war. Patrick snaps orders at her, calls her a “clot” and “silly” for not knowing everything he does about falconry and is unsympathetic when Jael slices open Nicola’s ungloved thumb. What a lovely boy. I sincerely hope he’s not a future love interest for Nicola. Or any of her sisters. Or her brothers. I think even Giles deserves better.

Anyway, they rescue Jael and walk back to Patrick’s house, exchanging family news. Giles is now a Lieutenant, Karen is off to read Classics at Oxford, Rowan is going into Sixth Form and will probably be Games Captain (what, not Head Girl?), Peter is doing well at Dartmouth, Nicola’s father has been promoted to Captain, and the Marlows’ Hampstead house is finally habitable again after being bombed in the war.

Meanwhile, Patrick’s father has just been elected an MP, so his family has to move to London. I’m not sure why – can’t his father stay in a flat there when Parliament is sitting so his family can remain at their country estate? Patrick also reveals he attends a local day school, which he loathes, but that he hasn’t been at school at all for the last two years:

“Expelled?” [Nicola] asked instantly, for she was always hoping to meet someone to whom this enthralling thing had happened.

But it turns out Patrick was ill. I wonder what made him too sick for school for two years. Polio? TB? They were both deadly diseases in the 1940s.

Nicola is impressed with Patrick’s beautiful hunting birds (even though the poor things are TIED UP and UNABLE TO FLY). Apart from Jael, there’s Regina, an imperious peregrine falcon, and The Sprog, a sweet little jack merlin. Patrick asks if Nicola will help him look after the hawks. They really belong to Jon, but Jon’s busy being a test pilot for experimental planes at the local airfield. Naturally, Nicola says yes. Then she goes back to Trennels to breakfast, Patrick refusing to come in and say hello to the family (“I don’t think I could meet eight practically strange people on an empty stomach”). That’s okay, Patrick, they probably wouldn’t enjoy meeting you, either.

Chapter Two: Grand Stoop

Back at Trennels, Mrs Herbert, the housekeeper, is loudly unimpressed with Patrick’s “nasty great birds”, because one of the hawks killed her old cat and she has quite reasonable fears for the wellbeing of young Fluff. Nicola tends to her wounded thumb and goes in to breakfast, where much is revealed about the Marlows.

Firstly, the hawks were really Great Uncle Lawrence’s and Jon inherited them reluctantly. Jon also says the RAF used hawks to kill pigeons near airfields during the war. Really? I happen to know a bit about pigeons in WWII and there was actually an official campaign to shoot birds of prey to stop them killing carrier pigeons, which were a vital part of military communications. That was mostly on the east coast of England, though, and who knows where Trennels is. Jon throws about a lot of hawking jargon, which interests Nicola and Karen, then they get onto the subject of Patrick. Nicola reports Patrick is “nicer than he was” (he must have been appalling before) and Jon tells them Patrick was badly injured and nearly killed when he fell off a cliff while trying to steal baby hawks from a nest. No wonder Patrick’s mother doesn’t like his hawks.

It also turns out Captain Marlow knows quite a bit about hawks, too (so Jon is his cousin, not Mrs Marlow’s) but he was never allowed to go near them because he was so “rough and rude”. Ginty is horrified to hear that hawks are used to hunt not just rabbits and partridges (that is, animals that you can eat) but also larks and blackbirds for entertainment. Jon says it’s all great fun, like “watching hounds at work with a fox” and that he thinks objections to blood-sports are “a bit exaggerated”. Well, I’m with Ginty on this issue. She storms off, but Mrs Marlow explains it’s only because she’s “been worked up and weepy since Easter”, after what Jon thinks was the children “getting themselves shipwrecked and having to spend the week-end in a lighthouse”. Captain Marlow is coldly unsympathetic and says “it’s time she got over it”.

Well, actually she wasn’t just shipwrecked. She was KIDNAPPED by a SOCIOPATHIC TRAITOR and DRUGGED and forced to wade through a tunnel (even though she’s been terrified of enclosed spaces ever since she was BURIED ALIVE UNDER A BOMBED HOUSE IN THE BLITZ) and then she nearly DROWNED and was on the verge of being MURDERED BY NAZI SPIES and afterwards was FORBIDDEN TO TALK ABOUT HER EXPERIENCES so if anyone has the right to be a bit shaken, it’s Ginty.

The family think Ginty’s lack of moral fibre is due to her new school friend Unity Logan, whom I kept picturing as Unity Mitford. Unity is an intense child who goes around adoring Ginty, telling Rowan, “I’d risk more than an order mark for a friend like Ginnie. I think she’s the most beautiful thing the gods ever made.” As if that isn’t bad enough, Nicola notes that Unity writes poetry. About Beauty. And also writes long holiday letters to Ginty.

Lawrie tries to draw attention back to herself by reminding them all she has a limp from when she was run over by a car. She is firmly squashed by her father, who says it’s boring to talk about illness. Then he humiliates Ann, who is just trying to make sure Nicola’s wounded thumb is properly bandaged. Then he tries to berate Peter for not addressing Cousin Jon with the proper formality, but fortunately Peter is already out of earshot. And Mrs Marlow hurries to placate her husband. My already low opinion of Captain Marlow has descended to uncharted depths. Maybe he and Patrick could go off and live together in some other, non-Marlow, book, so I don’t have to read about them anymore.

But I think my favourite bits of these books are the keen psychological observations. For example, here’s Peter when Nicola explains that Patrick only wants her to visit the hawks:

“Oh, all right,” said Peter carelessly. He felt such an odd mixture of feelings – hurt astonishment that Patrick should have warned him off, jealousy because Nicola was admitted to what was evidently privileged ground, and fury with himself for being either hurt or jealous – that the only thing to do was to spin round and dash after Cousin Jon, shouting “Wait for me, man! I’m coming!”

Peter goes off with Jon to the airfield while Nicola and Patrick walk to the Crowlands and try, unsuccessfully, to get The Sprog to pounce on a lure. There are some lovely descriptions of the countryside and of Jon’s plane “plunging down the sky”, the vapour trails “sketched across the blue like lines drawn by a slate pencil”. Then comes a moment when “the landscape seemed to quiver”, “as if the air went solid” and it appears someone has lit a bonfire on the horizon, although they don’t hear anything. And, because I’ve read to the end of the chapter and I know what’s coming, I’ll just add that Nicola then passes on the message that Jon will come to see the hawks soon and Patrick says, “Tomorrow, I expect. He’ll be dead to the world tonight.” Oh, no…

Anyway, Patrick and Nicola walk back to his house, having a bonding moment over their respective obsessions (medieval nobility for Patrick, the Navy for Nicola) and then tend to the hawks. But before Patrick can accompany Nicola to Trennels for supper, he’s stopped in a very awkward manner by his housekeeper. And then on the way back Nicola meets Peter, who looks and sounds very odd:

“The sun came down in slanting lines through the trees, and made a fishnet of light on the bed of the stream. It was doing that when Nicola and Peter first met. It was still doing so, five minutes later. But by then Peter had managed to tell her that Cousin Jon had been killed when the plane crashed, and that made everything look quite different.”

Oh, no! Poor Jon. Poor Peter, who had to watch his cousin being killed. And what’s going to happen to Trennels now? Jon doesn’t seem to have any children. Do the Marlows inherit Trennels or is there some other relative around?

Next, Chapter Three: “No One Ever Tells Us Anything”

You might also be interested in reading:

‘Falconer’s Lure’, Part Two
‘Falconer’s Lure’, Part Three
‘Falconer’s Lure’, Part Four
‘Falconer’s Lure’, Part Five
‘Falconer’s Lure’, Part Six
‘Falconer’s Lure’, Part Seven
‘Falconer’s Lure’, Part Eight