Top 5 Books of 2018
Instead of individual reviews to go with this book video, I thought that it would be the perfect time to do a round-up of the best books I read this year. I'm so nitpicky with books these days that I figured it'd be a nice thing to point to those ones that I absolutely loved (or at least found intriguing) and would wholeheartedly recommend. It’s also that time of the year that I suspect a few more of us are curling up on the sofa to dip our noses into new worlds, so if you do need a little inspo this is for you.
The Broken Earth Trilogy by N. K. Jemisin
I couldn't write this post without talking about the Broken Earth trilogy, even though it's kind of a cheat; a) it's three books and b) I started reading these around this time last year, though I probably finished the last book in early January. However, it does count because I reread the whole series two more times this year because I loved them so much I made them the basis for my Master's dissertation.
I find these books incredibly hard to describe but they exist within the speculative fiction bracket (hovering somewhere between the sci fi and fantasy subgenres), and they depict a continent called the Stillness which is anything but still. It erupts, fluctuates and shudders constantly, causing the life on its surface to live in a perpetual survival-only state. There also exists a people called 'orogenes', who seem to be able to manipulate the earth beneath their feet through unknown powers; they are both discriminated against and the only reason for life's survival. From this brief description, I'm sure you can see how these novels cover everything from climate change to racism, and that’s really just the tip of the iceberg in terms of both plot and themes.
Furthermore, out of all the other books on this list, I'd recommend these the most to read at this time of year. They are incredibly readable and gripping (there's plenty of plot and none of the clunky worldbuilding you might expect from some speculative fiction), whilst also delivering on the big ideas. Even for readers not accustomed to speculative fiction, I think these books are so uniquely imaginative and have such wide-reaching consequences in terms of how we think about so many things in our lives that they are well worth a try. PLEASE READ THEM! I'll conclude this before I start to beg (but seriously if you read them and like them please leave me a comment or message me somewhere because it makes me extremely happy).
How Long 'Til Black Future Month? by N. K. Jemisin
I thought I may as well slot this one in here whilst I'm still in an N. K. Jemisin lovefest. This is her book of short stories that she released this year, and it's easily another of my favourite reads of 2018. There are twenty-two stories, and all of them are also speculative fiction. Each one has a whole different premise and focus, and the sheer breadth and depth of Jemisin's imagination never ceases to amaze me, as well as her ability to write in many different voices. One thing to note though - I bloody hate the title. I don't know why she chose one of her essay titles for this collection (it's not actually in the book), and I just find it a bit jarring. I wholeheartedly agree with her, but I think it just could've been better.
There are stories set during segregation in America, or the nineteenth century in post-Haitian revolution New Orleans; there are stories set in space, or a cyberpunk alternative cyberspace called 'Amorph'; there are fairytales and stories that count 'Death' and 'Sleep' as characters; there are stories addressed directly to the reader and first person stories and stories that read like blogs. Needless to say, it’s a wildly diverse collection. I picked up on its relationship with materiality particularly, whether that be the materiality of human thought, or the ways in which our very food affects us and works through us, the matter/mater inherent to the figure of 'mother', or the ways that cities form and become beings of their own. For the first time I noticed themes of faith and belief both secular and religious that I hadn't seen in Broken Earth, and throughout there was also a strong sense of the importance of adaptation, of thinking through problems and finding new possible worlds.
One such world might be the one depicted in the first story, 'The Ones Who Stay and Fight' in which Jemisin describes a utopia (or is it?). I don't find it to be the strongest in the collection (in fact it's probably one of the ones I enjoyed the least, though I do find violence an interesting theme in it) so push through if you're unsure, but it sure does pack a punch; the narrator says 'we have a bad habit, encouraged by those concealing ill intent, of insisting that people already suffering should be afflicted with further, unnecessary pain. This is the paradox of tolerance, the treason of free speech'. This particular story ends with the words 'Let's get to work', and for this reason I can see why she chose for it to go first; this is a hopeful collection, one that seeks to question the unquestioned and unpick the tenets of our world so that we might do better.
Just like Broken Earth, however, this book is extremely readable and doesn't feel heavy or difficult at any point (indeed I think I've made it sound more complex than it actually reads). Jemisin's books work extremely well if you're feeling either attentive or inattentive, and you can still absorb many of the ideas she puts forward without having to try too hard. Jemisin has a real talent to be able to do both so I would also recommend this one even if you're just looking for a good read for the holiday period.
A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley
This one is a retelling of King Lear set on a thousand-acre farm in Iowa. That sentence will either immediately excite you or turn your lungs to ice. Regardless of how you feel, I urge you to give this novel a try. You guys are lucky I don't have extensive notes on this one or you'd end up with a deluge of excited ramblings as you have above, but this novel was a complete surprise for me. My dad gave me a load of his books before he moved over to Memphis (thanks Dad!), including a few Jane Smiley novels. To tell the truth, even though she's pretty well known, I'd never even heard of her (she did win the Pulitzer prize for this novel in 1992). I took this one to Mallorca this year and ended up completely gripped. This is a solid American novel which closely investigates and subtly descends into the psychological depths of a rural farming family as the farm's patriarch tries to hand it over to his three daughters. The family slowly unravels in the aftermath of his decision.
Although it doesn't advertise itself as such (at least not on my copy), this is very much a feminist retelling of King Lear. It is told from the point of the eldest sister (a villain in the original play), and it intimately depicts women's labour and their vulnerability at the hands of the men in their lives. It’s also about America in the early 90s and how technology and the Law (with a capital 'L') have made their way into even rural life. The writing style is incredibly subtle but also powerful; as it is a first person narrative, the reader is gently encouraged to see the protagonist's unreliability and instability. For a piece of really good writing, you can't really fault Smiley on this one.
The Overstory by Richard Powers
I reviewed this book in detail here, so I won't go on too much about it, but its another one that stands out to me this year. Fundamentally its about trees, and it examines their lives so as to demonstrate not only the importance of plant life and nonhuman life, but also to surprise you as to what trees can actually do. There are poignant human stories here, too, but if you've never read any eco-fiction or the idea seems a bit off-putting, I highly recommend you start with The Overstory because I think this one will stick with me for a good while.
Milkman by Anna Burns
I kinda thought I'd hate this novel. As I'm sure many of you know, it just recently won the Man Booker prize, but that doesn't always translate to something I will actually enjoy. Many people have described it as a stream-of-consciousness novel, which is typically something I hate with a burning passion. However, I didn't really read it that way (I don’t really think it is one), and even if I had, there are many things to like about this novel.
It’s set during the Troubles in Northern Ireland, and its narrator talks us through a few months in her late teens when she was dogged by a paramilitary determined to have her called Milkman. It goes on to divulge the social consequences of this as well as the unfolding drama. The narrative is meandering, and she can easily be taken off course into pages of narration on the (un)political consequences of a sunset (its this which makes it border the stream-of-consciousness style). Not only is the novel interested in exploring the constant state of tension inherent to conflicts like the Troubles, it is also deeply concerned with matters of gender (indeed in the way that the two things interact). The narrator's harassment at the hands of the Milkman comes to take over her body and fills her with a sense of blankness even though it is never physical. For example, at one point she narrates:
'That was the way it worked. Hard to define, this stalking, this predation, because it was piecemeal. A bit here, a bit there, maybe, maybe not, perhaps, don't know. It was constant hints, symbolisms, representations, metaphors. He could have meant what I thought he'd meant, but equally, he might have meant anything. Taken on their own, or to describe each incident separately, particularly while in the middle of it, might not seem, once relayed, to be all that much at all.'
These worries go on for pages as she tries to sort out the mess of the situation in her head, only to come to no conclusion but to make herself less noticeable, more blank and stop doing all the things she likes. This book as many layers and complexities that it would take me thousands of words to go into, and therefore I believe its well worth a read even though it can seem dense at times. I have noticed that many of the negative reviews for this novel are by people who may not necessarily be that familiar with Northern Ireland or Northern Irish speech, and because this book has a kind of otherworldly and nameless aspect to it (no one has proper names), it might be easy to just write it off as overly wordy or discursive. However, to me this novel seemed extremely Northern Irish (and not just in its literary inspirations), and that wordiness was an important part of its narrative voice and structure. I found that the best way to read it was to go along with its lyricism and lilt and accept its gossipy tone as well as its more intense parts (and it also has some humour in there too!). I tried not to read too slowly or closely but rather let it buoy me along. If you read it or have read it, let me know how you got along with it, because I'd say in terms of getting *through* it, it's probably one of the more difficult books on this list.
So that's it, you guys! I hope you all have a wonderful holiday period, and get some relaxation in at this busy time of year. I can't wait to see what reads 2019 brings.
The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin - video review here
American Gods by Neil Gaiman - video review here
Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward - video review here
Bastard Out of Carolina by Dorothy Allison - video review here