All week this week we present the best books of 2018. Today: the 20 best novels.
Past Tense by Lee Child (Bantam, $38)
Normal People by Sally Rooney (Faber, $33)
Was the Irish writer’s love story the best novel of 2018? From the forthcoming review at The Spinoff by Kim Hill: “Only a young person could have written this, with its vivid descriptions of what it’s like trying to figure out who you are, the struggle to make the inner and outer parts of yourself cohesive and consistent, the way you can be a different person, depending. We might remember the agony of it, in an inchoate way, but to describe it as Rooney does is an extraordinary feat.”
My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh (Jonathan Cape, $38)
Or was this the best novel of 2018? A narrator who decides to take the year off by balancing a recipe of prescription medication to keep her asleep for as long as possible. The trouble is, she keeps waking up to find she’s been out and about….Bleakly hilarious, My Year is The Bell Jar for the 21st century.
Less by Andrew Sean Greer (LittleBrown, $25)
One of the biggest-selling novels of the year follows Arthur Less, a minor novelist, on his travels around the world on a literary tour. There’s a bit where Less goes to see a Broadway show alone and he ends up (of course) sobbing his eyes out at the end of it, and the woman beside him says, “Honey, I don’t know what happened in your life, but I am so so sorry.” She gives him a hug. He wants to say to her, “Nothing happened to me. I’m just a homosexual at a Broadway show”, but doesn’t. Less is jaunty, tender and hilarious.
The Only Story by Julian Barnes (Jonathan Cape, $35)
From the review by Stephanie Johnson at The Spinoff: “A love story, a story of adultery…Narrator Paul returns us to the year he was 19 and home from university for the summer holidays and meets the woman who will disrupt his life and change it forever. Susan is 48, married with two daughters around Paul’s age, and more bored than he is….A masterful meditations on the meaning of love and sex between men and women.”
Milkman by Anna Burns (Faber, $33)
A big-hitting 70s Belfast tragi-comedy with a heap of pull and a bit of menace. It’s the 2018 winner of the you-know-what which attracts snivelling and whining in the old media about how this novel is gagging and unreadable, but readers are buying and loving it. What Burns achieves with expository dialogue could easily cause other authors – even Sally Rooney – to break down and cry. Read our review here.
A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles (Penguin, $26)
A gorgeous, endearing novel in which a wealthy count is sentenced to a lifetime of house arrest in Moscow’s Hotel Metropol after writing a counter-revolutionary poem. Spanning 50ish years from the 1920s, the count witnesses the changing politics and economy of Russia from his view in the hotel. It’s a gentle but entertaining read full of philosophical insights, charming encounters, and aristocratic class.
Mazarine by Charlotte Grimshaw (Penguin Random House, $38)
From the review by Charlotte Graham-McLay at The Spinoff: “Mazarine is…Gone Girl suspense paired with middle-aged, female sexual awakening. At once domestic drama, psychological thriller and a sort of sensual coming-of-age tale, Grimshaw picks and chooses which tropes from each style to use and which to let lie. It’s a brilliant and disconcerting strategy.”
Crudo by Oliva Laing (Picador, $35)
Crudo might sound like a headfuck but Olivia Laing is one of the most important and interesting cultural critics writing today and she knows what she is doing. It’s her fourth book but first novel and is a strikingly raw work of autofiction which documents in real time (she wrote it in a feverish seven weeks) the devastating fall-out after the Brexit vote. Fear! Anxiety! Confusion! Political terrorism! Laing has distilled the immediate atmosphere of shock felt by many at the time during that British summer of 2017. Writer Kathy (the character is based on Olivia Laing herself but channelled through the punk author and provocateur Kathy Acker) is getting married and grappling with fears of cohabitation. While experiencing the giddyness of falling in love, Kathy is also keenly aware of the feeling that politically, the world is falling apart around her.
The Outsider by Stephen King (Hachette, $55)
An 11-year-old boy is found murdered in a town park. Eyewitnesses all point to a baseball coach. DNA evidence and fingerprints confirm it. But after his arrest, the suspect provides a solid alibi. WTF! A man can’t be in two places at the same time. Can he…? King at his motherfucking scarily best.
Gabriel’s Bay by Catherine Robertson (Penguin, $38)
Chicklit with wit by New Zealand’s most entertaining novelist. Her cast of colourful characters get up to all sorts of mischief in a small seaside town and it makes perfect summer holiday reading.
Under The Sea by Mark Leidner (Tyrant, $35)
Into that whole epic, improbable, wildly imaginative George Saunders sort of thing? Leidner’s debut short story collection is far-reaching and far-out; he covers topics like extremely bad breakups, insects getting drunk at the brink of a civil war, and teenagers trying to get their stolen drugs back. His stories have a perfect laugh-out-loud balance of genius and stupidity.
This Mortal Boy by Fiona Kidman (Vintage, $38)
From the review by Tina Shaw at The Spinoff: “In her latest novel, Kidman explores the story of the ‘jukebox killer’, as Albert Black was sensationally described in 1955. Black was a mere 20-years-old when he was convicted of murder and then hanged at Mount Eden prison. He killed a man at Ye Old Barn cafe in Auckland by putting a knife in his neck. But it’s still unclear whether the murder of Johnny was premeditated or an accident…It’s clear where Kidman’s sympathies lie, and her portrayal of Black as a youth who makes an awful mistake is a heartbreaking one.”
In the City of Love’s Sleep by Lavinia Greenlaw (Faber, $33)
You’ve already read Sally Rooney’s Normal People, loved it, but not sure where to go next? This is sort of the grown-up version. Iris is a museum conservator who repairs and restores the unique objects in the museum’s collections, and Raif is a grief-struck academic whose friends have become bored with as he has become ‘iced over’ after his wife’s death. After a chance encounter, there is an immense gravitational pull between the two. The objects and artefacts that Iris deals with at work are things to be recovered, restored and repaired – just like relationships and people. In the City of Love’s Sleep is a beautifully crafted, immersive and elegant novel to get lost in.
Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday (Allen & Unwin, $32.99)
From Stephanie Johnson’s review at The Spinoff: “Lisa Halliday’s novel Asymmetry is divided into three parts. The first and longest concerns a love affair between Alice, a young publishing assistant, and Ezra Blazer, a famous Pulitzer Prize-winning author many years her senior. The second story gives us an Iraqi American doctor in transit in Britain and detained because of his nationality. The third returns us to Ezra…Halliday is the real deal, a truly unique, intelligent voice for our times.”
Transcription by Kate Atkinson (Doubleday, $38)
Set in 1940, in England, Atkinson’s slow, intimate love story also operates as a spy thriller. Juliet Armstrong enters a mysterious arm of the secret service as a teenager. They start her off listening in on bugged conversations among Nazi sympathisers. She shows a talent for covert operations and is promoted to spying in the field…where it all begins to go horribly wrong.
The Cage by Lloyd Jones (Penguin, $38)
The year’s most challenging read, partly on account of the fact it’s full of shit, faeces, excrement, as produced at constant levels by the book’s two main characters who turn up in a country town and are placed in a cage until the authorities decide what to do with them. Stephanie Johnson, reviewing it in The Spinoff: “Descriptions of the strangers shitting in their cage – how they cover it up or don’t, the positions each takes to relieve himself, filth on their hands and clothes, the appalling, gag-inducing stink of it – must number in the tens.” But Jones is a master storyteller, and his fable packs a profound punch.
The Book of Chocolate Saints by Jeet Thayil (Faber, $33)
Big, baggy and brilliant (think Anthony Burgess’s Earthly Powers), Thayil’s second novel captures the history, literature, religions, caste systems and general tumult of India through the life of poet and painter Newton Francis Xavier, a man with alcoholic and sexual appetites as enormous, and misspent, as his talent. Hypnotic and cheerfully debauched.
All This By Chance by Vincent O’Sullivan (Victoria University Press, $35)
From the review by Elizabeth Alley at The Spinoff: “O’Sullivan’s novel traces several generations of a New Zealand family, from 1947 to 2004…It requires close reading, concentration, patience and fortitude, the commitment to go where he takes you, in his unshakeable belief that the past so strongly informs the present.”
The Reckoning by John Grisham (Penguin, $30)
As chosen by our panel of readers Guy Somerset, Courtney Smith, Chloe Blades, Tilly Lloyd, Jenna Todd, Kiran Dass and Steve Braunias. All titles are available at Unity Books.
The Spinoff Weekly compiles the best stories of the week – an essential guide to modern life in New Zealand, emailed out on Monday evenings.