Welcome to the fourth and final instalment of my favourite reads of the year. Here I’ll share micro-reviews of my four final favourites (from November and December) along with an overview of all 19. You’ll find links to the full reviews if you’re curious to read more. Plus I’ve got some pretty charts to show how these, and the 147 books I read in total, measured up against the targets I set last year.
Nothing but Dust by Sandrine Collette translated from the French by Alison Anderson is a startlingly honest account of the harshness of life on the Patagonian steppe and the impact of a mother’s inability to love on herself and her sons.
With themes of incarceration, hunger, and the location of madness, Dark Water by Elizabeth Lowry is a multilayered historical novel set in an asylum near Boston, on the island of Nantucket and a US naval ship.
If you want to check on any of the previous 15 before moving on to the analysis, click on the relevant image below.
One of the reading goals I set myself earlier this year was to analyse the year’s favourite reads to identify any common factors that make them work for me. To this end, for each of my 5-star rated novels, I identified two out of a possible six factors that made that particular novel stand out. Although I enjoyed the exercise, I’m not sure I’m much wiser! And it took me until October to realise I should have included plot and character. Let’s see what you make of it!
While it’s a given that every book I love is well-written, 5 stood out for the splendour of the narrative voice (A Long Way from Home; Such Small Hands; Whistle in the Dark; The Sealwoman’s Gift; The Eight Mountains).
Similarly, while every novel should address human and psychological issues, 9 of my favourites particularly grabbed me in this way (addressing motor neurone disease; forced removal from one’s homeland; the aftermath of a trauma that is beyond words; psychoanalysis, failure and friendship; the tragedy of family life; obsessions and delusions; female friendships; returning to ordinary life after trauma; an unloving mother).
I identified 7 as having particular emotional depth (Such Small Hands; Every Note Played; The Sealwoman’s Gift; Jott; The Eight Mountains; Land of the Living; And the Wind Sees All; Dark Water) 4 as zany (featuring friendly space monsters; time travel; a former slave on an unlikely adventure; a writer prepared to sell his own mother for the sake of his literary ambition) and 3 for making me laugh (Miss Blaine’s Prefect and the Golden Samovar; Whistle in the Dark; A Ladder to the Sky).
Although I didn’t set out to monitor this, I also chose four novels featuring imperfect therapists (Jott; Spaceman of Bohemia; Whistle in the Dark; She Chose Me) and one in imperfect psychiatrist (Dark Water).
I also set myself targets to read at least 50% female authors and books from independent publishers, plus 20%/25% translation/BME authors. As you can see from the chart above (blue bars), I met the first three but failed for authors from black and ethnic minority backgrounds. Read on if you’re interested in the detail!
As expected, independent publishers are well represented among my favourite reads (Faber and Faber for A Long Way from Home; Portobello books for Such Small Hands; Saraband Books for Miss Blaine’s Prefect and the Golden Samovar; Allen and Unwin for Every Note Played; Oneworld for House of Stone; ; Serpent’s Tail for Extinctions; Washington Black; Legend Press for She Chose Me; ; Bloomsbury for Land of the Living; Europa editions for Nothing but Dust; Peirene for And the Wind Sees All) easily exceeding my 50% target.
Translations comprise 21% (Such Small Hands; The Eight Mountains; Nothing but Dust; And the Wind Sees All) against a target of roughly 20%; 63% from female authors (Miss Blaine’s Prefect and the Golden Samovar; Every Note Played; Whistle in the Dark; The Sealwoman’s Gift; House of Stone; Extinctions; Washington Black; She Chose Me; Old Baggage; Land of the Living; Nothing but Dust; Dark Water;) against my ≥ 50% target; but only 11% from authors identifiable as BME (House of Stone; Washington Black) against a target of at least 25%.
Although I had no target for this, five debut novels made it onto my favourites list for 2018: Jaroslav Kalfar’s Spaceman of Bohemia; Olga Wojtas’ Miss Blaine’s Prefect and the Golden Samovar; Sally Magnusson’s The Sealwoman’s Gift; House of Stone by Novuyo Rosa Tshuma; and Tracey Emerson’s She Chose Me.
After all that data, I won’t say much about the other 128 books I read this year; totalling just under 40,000 pages, about 1000 fewer than last year. You can see from the red bars on the chart above, I did marginally better overall regarding BME authors but nevertheless failed to meet the target. The image to the right shows a selection of those who didn’t get passed on to the library.
I’ll be sharing my reading goals for 2019 later this month but I promise they’ll be a lot more straightforward. There’s data and data …
But the exercise has inspired this year’s first flash fiction challenge on the subject of looking back. You can set out on any self-monitoring exercise – recording your reading, keeping a diary – with the best of intentions but, if you tend towards the obsessional, you can end up drowning in data you’d need another lifetime to use.
She mentioned a diary; looked pleased when I invited her to bring it in. A slim substitute for a confidante, but somewhere for her feelings at least.
“January – twenty bananas and sixty slices of toast.”
Strange: the referral didn’t mention eating distress.
“February – fifty robins and three jays.”
A metaphor for escape?
“March – seventy sudokus and fourteen crosswords.”
Life was a puzzle? I shifted in my seat.
“April – eighteen library books.”
I couldn’t stay silent. “Did anything else happen that year?”
She closed the book, her face too. I cursed my impatience. Counting saved her. I should respect that.