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.


'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!

Great (and Not-So-Great) Expectations

Life is short and there are many books in the world, so it’s not surprising that readers take short cuts when deciding what to read next. In my case, I often make decisions based on my experience with the author. If I’ve loved an author’s previous books, I’ll probably pick up his or her next book. If I’ve disliked a book, I’m unlikely to give that particular author another try, although I can sometimes be swayed by friends’ recommendations, award short-listings or the fact that there’s nothing else that appeals to me on the library shelves.

So it was that I picked up The Other Family, by Joanna Trollope, at the library last month. I’d read an earlier book by this author (I think it might have been The Choir) and I’d disliked it intensely. I didn’t like the characters, I wasn’t interested in their smug, boring, privileged lives and I thought the plot was stupid and pointless. I didn’t even like the author’s photograph. (Why do publishers put author photographs in books, anyway? I don’t care what the author looks like!) But it was years since I’d read The Choir, and I’d subsequently seen a positive review of Joanna Trollope’s most recent novel, and I was in the library, not a bookshop, so I wouldn’t be investing anything except a little time if I took the book home with me. So I did, and you know what? I liked it.

'The Other Family' by Joanna TrollopeThe Other Family begins with the sudden death of Richie, a moderately successful musician. Chrissie, the mother of his three daughters, is bereft, especially when she discovers he’s remembered his first wife and his son in his will. Worse, Richie never actually got around to marrying Chrissie in the twenty years they were together, so she’s faced with a huge inheritance tax bill and may have to move out of the family mansion in London. I think we’re meant to sympathise with Chrissie, but she came across to me as a spoiled, self-centred idiot, and her two eldest daughters were just as bad. Luckily, there was Amy, the youngest child and still at school, but also the smartest, most compassionate person in the family. Amy is the one who reaches out to Margaret and Scott, her father’s first family, who live in the north of England. Margaret is an especially appealing character – an intelligent, strong-minded woman who managed to bring up her son and establish a successful business after Richie abandoned them. However, I have to admit my favourite character was Dawson, Margaret’s overweight cat:

“If Margaret was restless, Dawson reacted to her by being particularly inert. He would lengthen himself along the back of the sofa in the bay window of the sitting room and sink into an especially profound languor, only the miniscule movements of his little ears registering that he was aware of her fidgeting round him, endlessly going up and down the stairs, opening and shutting drawers in the kitchen, talking to herself as if she was the only living creature in the house. Only if it got past seven o’clock, and she seemed temporarily absorbed in some area of the house unrelated to his supper, would he lumber down from the cushions to the floor, and position himself somewhere that could not fail to remind her that she had forgotten to feed him. He was even prepared for her to fall over him, literally, if it served his purpose.

This particular evening, seven o’clock had come and gone – gone, it seemed to Dawson, a very long time ago. Margaret had been in the sitting room, then her bedroom, then back in the sitting room, then at her computer, but nowhere near the place where Dawson’s box of special cat mix lived, alongside the little square tins of meat that Dawson would have liked every night, but which were only opened occasionally by some arbitrary timetable quite unfathomable to him. He had placed himself in her path at least three times, to no effect, and was now deciding that the last resort had been reached, the completely forbidden resort of vigorously clawing up the new carpet at a particularly vulnerable place where the top step of the stairs met the landing.”

Yes, that’s all it takes to make me approve of a book – the addition of a charismatic cat. But there were other things to like in this novel – for example, the descriptions of Newcastle and the quays of North Shield. The depiction of grief and bereavement felt authentic to me, too, although I never managed to work up much sympathy for Chrissie. I think the concluding chapters wrapped up everything too neatly for each character (even Dawson got his tin of meat for supper), but overall, I enjoyed this book. There are some interesting interviews with the author here and here. And if you have no intention of reading The Other Family, but are curious about the plot, there’s a hilarious (and, I have to admit, accurate) Digested Read of it here.

'The Stranger's Child' by Alan HollinghurstOf course, just as I am sometimes pleasantly surprised by a book, there are times when I’m disappointed, and so it was when I read The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst. I’d loved his previous novels, particularly The Line of Beauty, which won the Booker Prize in 2004. And The Stranger’s Child sounded so promising. An aristocratic family with scandalous secrets! A rambling old house in the English countryside! A beautiful young poet, tragically killed in the First World War! The poet’s biographer, who has secrets of his own, struggling to unravel truth from lies! And yet, this novel dragged. There was simultaneously too much detail, and not enough useful information. There were too many unnecessary characters – what, for instance, was the point of introducing the Strange-Paget family, when they added little to the narrative and were never mentioned again after that chapter? And while some of the prose was sharp and amusing, there were too many sentences like this:

“Daphne’s second husband’s half-sister married my father’ s eldest brother.”

That was actually a relatively clear explanation of one of the complicated relationships in the novel. Mostly, the reader was left to figure all this out for herself, and I often found myself flipping back to earlier sections, muttering, “Now, what was Revel’s surname? Does that mean Jenny is his daughter? Or no, she’s too young, must be his granddaughter, except wasn’t he gay? Did he end up marrying Daphne, anyway?”

There were parts I found interesting, particularly in the first section, but I had to force myself to finish this book. (Maybe Alan Hollinghurst should have added a cat or two for my benefit.)

To end on a more positive note, I just finished reading the latest novel of one of my favourite authors of all time, and it really did live up to my extremely high expectations. I’m referring to The Beginner’s Goodbye by Anne Tyler, which was absolutely wonderful, and highly recommended if you like her work. I will get around to writing a proper blog post about it soon.