Top 10 Books Of The Year – 2018 – Part 1 (10-6)

2018 – 66 books read, which was one down on last year.  It looked like I would beat last year’s total until it took me a month to read the final book.  That seems to be very much around the sort of total that I can manage in a year, apart from 2016 when I managed 80, my 2015 figure was exactly the same as last year.  So, now it is time to whittle those 66 down to the 10 which created the greatest impression.  For the first time ever I’ve awarded more 5 stars than places in the top 10, 12 in fact, which means that two five star reads will not even make my Top 10, which has never happened before because I’m stingy with those five stars.  It just shows how many good books I have read this year.  To complete the breakdown I read 12 five stars, 32 four stars and 22 three stars (2017’s spread was 10/31/26).  Like last year I haven’t read anything I rated below three stars (I think this is because I am better at choosing titles to read) and absolutely everything I read this year has been reviewed on this site.

Where things are different to last year is the publication dates.  Last year the whole top 10 was made up of books published either that year or the year before, here there is a wider spread as I’ve caught up with older books I’ve been meaning to read for ages.  If I read it this year then it’s eligible for a Top 10 placing.  There’s a geographic spread of writers from the UK, US, Europe and Africa and co-incidentally I’m back to the 50-50 gender balance after last year when the women edged ahead.  Unlike last year when all the authors made their first appearance on the list this year three have been celebrated here before and for the first time since 2014 when Peter James appeared twice there is an author who takes up two of the coveted spots (and also just missed out on a third novel making the Top 10).  Last year the list was entirely fiction but we have a bit of non-fiction creeping in for 2018.   If you would like to read the full reviews on this site just click on the link to be taken to the full review.

10. The Tin Drum – Gunter Grass (Vintage 1959) – Read and reviewed in June

the-tin-drumI’m still not sure whether I count this as a re-read or not, for although I know that I started to read it not too far off 40 years ago I’m not sure whether I ever finished it but I put that right this year with a different translation by Breon Mitchell which was authorised for the fiftieth anniversary of this classic of German post-war literature. Nobel Prize winner Gunter Grass’ (1927-2015) most famous work.  I said of it “This is an extraordinary novel which at times I loved and at other times felt frustrated or just plain baffled by but it is incredibly powerful and would benefit from countless re-readings.”  As this made my Top 10 I’m allowing myself to hold on to my copy (the books that don’t make this list get culled, unfortunately)  so that re-reading may be sometime within the next 40 years!

9. Dead Man’s Grip – Peter James (Macmillan 2011) – Read and reviewed in February

peterjamesNo stranger to my end of year Top 10, in fact James’ Brighton-set Roy Grace novels have now made it four times from the first seven books in the series.  I felt this was his best yet and yet, because of strong competition he has just crept in the lower reaches of the list.  The other titles to make the list in previous years are the first instalment “Dead Simple” (#3 in 2008), Dead Man’s Footsteps (#10 in 2014) and “Dead Tomorrow” (#3 in 2014).  I also read the 8th book this year “Not Dead Yet”, a four star read but not good enough to do the double for a second time.  Of “Dead Man’s Grip” I said “this really does have everything I look for in a police procedural crime novel.

8. The Water Thief – Claire Hajaj (Oneworld 2018)- Read and reviewed in November

waterthiefI was sent this novel as a potential longlister for the Edward Stanford Travel Awards in their Fiction with a sense of place category and although the location is non-specific Claire Hajaj, in her second novel, creates a vivid picture of African life.  It’s a rich, haunting tale and the author almost brought this tough old reviewer to the verge of tears with superb characterisation and the unfolding of the plot, as gripping as any thriller I have read this year.

7. The Mermaid And Mrs Hancock – Imogen Hermes Gower (Harvill Secker 2018) – Read and reviewed in May

mrshancockOne of two debut novels to appear in my Top 10 this year. Published early on in 2018 there was a lot of buzz around this book and it made shortlists for the Women’s Prize for Fiction and a National Book Award amongst others and has appeared on a number of best of the year lists but has been eclipsed by some of the big hitters of the year.  I thought it was a terrific read and deserved all the accolades it has got.  I loved the first two thirds best before a little fantasy crept in when it read like a right rollicking modern slant on “Vanity Fair”.  I said “This is an ambitious novel which works beautifully.  It’s the kind of gutsy, spirited writing that I love with rich characterisation and a real feel of a love for history and literature.”

6.Ladder Of Years- Anne Tyler (Vintage 1995) -Read and reviewed in March.

tylerladderI have only read two of Anne Tyler’s 22 novels yet they have both appeared in my end of year Top 10 (“A Spool Of Blue Thread was my #3 in 2015 in the year of its publication).  I’m  not even sure I can explain the appeal of this author to me, I wouldn’t have thought that tales of American family life would really strike that much of a chord but I can tell that as I read more of  her novels she is going to appear more and more in my end of year lists.  Here a middle-aged woman who feels her family is taking her for granted just walks away to start a new life- a selfish act, which nevertheless got this reader willing her to succeed. I said “it is just the quality of the writing and the deftness of characterisation that has me hanging on every word, not wanting it to end and that is what makes it a five star read.”  If you haven’t discovered Anne Tyler yet you have a treat in store.

Next post – My Top 5 reads of 2018

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100 Essential Books – Ladder Of Years – Anne Tyler (Vintage 1995)

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This is only the second Anne Tyler novel I have ever read.  2015’s “A Spool Of Blue Thread” was my introduction to her work and I described it as “a highly readable, high quality work with bags of appeal.”  I reviewed it under my 100 Essential Books thread and it appeared in my end of year Top 10 at number 3.  Although I haven’t read much by her I do know that she is a writer many readers hold dear for her beautifully written tales of American life.  This book confirms this.

“Ladder Of Years” was her 13th novel and appeared in 1995.  There’s a 1982 copyright at the front of the book which suggests it may have been around in some format for a considerable time before that publication.  Like many of Tyler’s novels it features a family living in the Baltimore area.  The most striking thing about it is how calm and quiet it is as a novel which places it at loggerheads with the dramatic decisions characters make but on this occasion this makes it seem all the more effective.

 Forty year old Delia Grinstead is feeling taken for granted, by her husband, a GP who practises from their home, the same house her father ran his surgery from; by her adolescent children and by other family members.  An infatuation with a younger man reaches a dead end and one day on an extended-family annual beach holiday Delia just walks away along the sands and into a new life.

 We’re never totally sure why she does this other than she fancies a change.  There’s no fireworks and little emotional trauma on show as Delia just knuckles down and begins again somewhere new.  It’s beautifully written, the reader knows how selfish Delia’s act is yet still wills her to succeed.

 The title refers to a metaphor used by one of the older characters who employs a playground slide ladder to convey how we climb up through life, with others following close behind leading to the moment when you have to go over the top and commence the slide downwards – there’s no turning back.

 The introduction of a couple of cats into the narrative caused me momentary stress (in case something bad happened to them) but Vernon and George are great cat characters who enrich the lives of those they meet.  As with “A Spool Of Blue Thread” I couldn’t imagine a book which examines the details of American middle-class family life would have much resonance for me, but I was wrong and I’m not yet sure how Tyler has managed with both offerings to really reel me in.  It could be seen as a simple tale of a female mid-life crisis but it is much richer than that implies.  There’s no gimmicks and no real set pieces here.  When there is a dramatic situation – a confrontation at a family event, Delia’s walking out and last- minute wedding jitters, for example, they are pretty much underplayed for their dramatic potential and it really works.  It is just the quality of the writing and the deftness of characterisation that has me hanging on every word, not wanting it to end and that is what makes it a five star read.

 I actually don’t think that us Brits can fully engage in  quite the same way with feeling that we know these characters, their locations and lives in late twentieth century Baltimore anywhere near as much as her American market would and this also adds to the achievement in winning me over.  I did have some reservations about the ending but then life doesn’t always turn out as we expect, so why should it in fiction?

 Structurally, “The Ladder Of Years” is a simpler novel than “A Spool Of Blue Thread” and I think it may just be behind it in the impression it has made on me but without doubt Anne Tyler scores 2 from 2 for me with five star essential reads.  

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I read the 1996 Vintage paperback edition of “Ladder Of Years”.  It was first published in the UK in 1995 by Chatto & Windus.

100 Essential Books – A Spool Of Blue Thread – Anne Tyler (Vintage 2015)

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This is my first introduction to American author Anne Tyler.  I knew her by reputation but have never read her before.  Her latest novel, her 20th  in a 51 year publishing career is selling so well it is likely to be many readers’ introduction to her work.  I picked this up as part of Richard & Judy’s Book Club promotion – Buy one and get another for £1.  This one leapt out at me, it is the one I wanted.  I had to spend some time choosing the additional £1 book – this seemed to be in a different class to the others, and yet, would still be a perfect Book Club choice.

Feedback about this book has been extremely positive and there was the suggestion that it had wide appeal, turning up on Book Prize short and long lists as well as being a popular favourite and word-of-mouth bestseller.  I cleared my mind of all the hype (“One of the finest novelists of modern times” – Bella Magazine. “How can it be so wonderful?”- Washington Post.  “Every sentence is perfect” – The Sun – the list goes on) and sat down and read…………and read……….and read………

I found it genuinely hard to put this book down and now have that feeling of loss got only when you have the finest literary experiences.  I wasn’t really expecting an American family saga to sweep me away, but it is up there amongst the best I’ve read this year, if not the best, and has all the characteristics for me to recommend it as one of my 100 Essential Reads.

This is the tale of four generations of the Whitshank family.  Unusually, it is structured so it tends to move back in time.  This gives Tyler the opportunity to use the family anecdote as a framework.  Every family has a few stories that are told over and over again, slightly reshaped by the telling and often moving through the generations.  The Whitshanks have two such stories, which they use as examples of holding out for what you want.  Moving the plot back in time picks up the moments when these stories originate, after we have become familiar with the present oft-told version.

The central characters Abby and Red Whitshank reside in a house that belonged to and was very special to Red’s father.  It remains central for their family of four children and their children.  Amongst Abby and Red’s offspring is the gloriously unreliable Denny, the son who disappears and turns up throughout his adult life and gives very little away.  The sense of frustration towards him is one of the things that binds this generation together.  The novel starts with him, in a typical act, phoning his parents to tell them he is gay and then hanging up –  a revelation which is never brought up again or seems to have any basis for truth.  The family also have to increasingly face up to the age-related failings of Abby and Red.

This branch of the family were so beautifully drawn that when there was a shift to the younger Abby and Red and his parents, Junior and Linnie Mae, I thought my enjoyment might diminish but it did not.  Within all the generations there’s the odd surprise which I didn’t see coming but which Tyler manages to seamlessly introduce into the plot – often with a sentence that just changes everything.  I can see why she is being called one of the most accomplished authors of our time.

Her books are generally set in the Baltimore area and seem to be all stand-alones meaning I have the opportunity to pick and choose what I want to read next.  (I’m usually such a stickler for reading authors work in chronological order, but as I’ve started with her 20th I feel confident I can go anywhere from here through the Tyler oeuvre.  Any suggestions anyone?

This was an excellent introduction and a perfect example of a highly readable, high quality work with bags of appeal.

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A Spool Of Blue Thread is printed in the UK in 2015 paperback by Vintage (Penguin Books)