Mini-reviews of my favourite reads of 2018
Mild spoiler alert for these reviews!
For more reviews and more information on the books I've read this year, check out my Goodreads account www.goodreads.com/places_and_books
Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston 
A heart-warming and heart-breaking story of African-American experience in post-slavery America. 4.7*
I’d seen this book several times on social media, and been recommended it nearly as many times, but it took me a while to get to it. When I did however, it was hugely rewarding. It tells the story of Janie Crawford from wild, vibrant teenager to womanhood, her life chances and life changes, her trial tribulations, successes and failures. Her character holds the book and shapes it. She tries most things. She tries conforming, she tries rebelling, tries loveless marriage and tries crazy love, tries following and tries leading. Above everything she really lives her life and is true to herself. The story is told with personality, some of the narration is homely in style, some of the dialogue colloquial. But it flows. It’s hard to compare to anything else. Just read it. . (This was a #vote100books read http://www.hayfestival.com/vote-100-books/books.aspx ).
We Have Always Lived In The Castle, by Shirley Jackson 
A story that defies analysis, summary or categorisation. 4.7*
This is the story of Merricat and Constance, and Uncle Julian. That I can say. Beyond that, facts are hard to come by. Merricat is a most unreliable narrator. She may be unhinged by tragedy, she may have always been like that. She may be playful, she may be a romantic soul with poetry in her heart, she may be a prankster and she may be a dangerous psychopath. The absolute joy of this novel is the playful, funny, unsettling, creepy narrative that Jackson keeps up. You are never quite certain is Merricat is in the right, in fact sometimes you are sure she's not, but I for one was always on her side. An absolutely unique novel.
My Antonia, by Willa Cather 
An enchanting and gritty tale of pioneer life and the characters of early American immigrants. 4.6*
This is a tale of American immigrants from all over old world Europe, some seeking opportunity and a new life, others running away from horrors. It is narrated by a boy, and is about his life and the characters in the country, and the town, the hardships they face and the happinesses they share. It is a hard life but it is full of life and death, struggle and triumph. It is a sweeping tale but it is haunted throughout by the fierce and wonderfully vibrant character of Antonia Shimerda, who is the elder daughter in a family of Bohemian immigrants, who is at the same time a giant literary creation, but one who does not overshadow a wonderful book.
Fictions, by Jorge Luis Borges 
Ground breaking fiction, ground breaking thinking and mind-spinning concepts. 4.6*
How did I go fifty years without discovering Borges. It was like discovering a new literary solar system. His work - collections of short stories and poetry - turns perceptions and understanding on their heads. His dialogues between two versions of himself in The Book of Sand made my jaw drop, and The Garden of Forking Paths with it's labyrinths within labyrinths within symbolic labyrinths is breath-taking. Your mind is in open rebellion when reading it. There are weaker moments in the collection, but like a set of Monty Python sketches, the highs are so very high, it's easy to overlook the lows.
Restoration, by Rose Tremain 
Historic fiction full of love for humanity, with a deeply flawed, wonderfully human narrator. 4.5*
Oh wow, this book really spoke to me. The flawed narrator, Merivel, was so very human, fallible and engaging. We follow him through the ups and downs of his life and of the real historical events of the early 1660s. There was such a consistency to the narrative voice, and such a lovely tone to this book, that I did not want it to end. Tremain did a brilliant job. Merivel is an amazing achievement. Apparently there is a Merivel sequel novel but I'm not sure if I want to read it, much as I don't want to read the last of Hilary Mantel's Thomas Cromwell trilogy. I just love the character too much.
White Noise, by Don DeLillo 
A sparkling, rollercoaster modern satire on the human condition. 4.4*
This is a stunning piece of work. pacy, modern, hilarious, anxious and brilliantly written. It sparkles with pithy quotable soundbites but remains a visceral commentary on the perils of being human and the cancers of modern society. It covers everything from morbid angst to multiple divorce child-rearing, nuclear power to modern academia. A brilliant book that delivers punch after hilarious punch and never lets up.
The Red Badge of Courage, by Stephen Crane 
A powerful and honest account of a young soldier's first encounter with battle. 4.3*
This was not at all what I was expecting! I thought it would be a boys' adventure story based on the cover and the fact that it is often bracketed with the likes of Jack London stories. In fact in turned out to be an intelligent and involving treatise on morality and moral strength/weakness against a backdrop of the American Civil War. It covers the young soldier's reasons for signing up, his expectations and his reaction to the realities of battle. It's a really very impressive piece of work which takes you into the battle and inside the protagonists mind.
Testament of Youth, by Vera Brittain 
A brilliant and emotional female perspective on World War I, duty, loss, with plenty of social insight. 4.3*
After reading many first world war novels, poetry collections and memoirs from the combatant’s point of view - Goodbye to All That, All Quiet on the Western Front, Journey’s End, Birdsong, Siegfried Sassoon, Rupert Brooke – it was really enlightening and sobering to read a woman/non-combatant’s perspective. For all the awful waste of a generation’s youth, WWI produced some of the most devastating and affecting writing of the last century. This is the story of a very intelligent, driven young woman whose life was dominated and overshadowed by the great war, whose friends, family members and lover were all lost during a very short period. The futility and loss shine though her writing, but it’s more than just 1914-18. It tells of her upbringing, her desire to study at Oxford in an era when very few women did, her drive to ‘do something’ to help during the war which lead her into nursing in temporary hospitals behind the front line. It also tells of the time after the war, and of the generation that came after, and how the war blighted even the survivors. The only criticism I have of the book is that it peters out in a little at the end, and that possibly the post 1920 stuff could have been a sequel. (This was a #vote100books read http://www.hayfestival.com/vote-100-books/books.aspx )
The Colour Purple, by Alice Walker 
A powerful and emotional social novel covering the lives of African-American women in Georgia of the 1930s. 4.3*
This book has nearly everything - brilliant writing, amazing vivid characters who will stay with you long after you finish the novel, a broad sweep of time, and even a good ending. It pulls no punches, its direct and honest and unflinching. It gets away the narrative device (a series of letters written by the main character) - just. My only criticism, which seems a little churlish, is that it was written so far after the fact. For that reason and that reason only I very much prefer Their Eyes Were Watching God, which feels more real, and less like an historical novel told with the benefit of hindsight.
The Pursuit of Love, by Nancy Mitford 
A wild romp through the childhood and lives of a hilariously eccentric family, with a surprising depth. 4.2*
The first thing to say about this book is it is a joy to read. Beautiful, engaging, witty and amiable. Even when it is hilarious the style is amiable and kind. Like the Colour Purple there are some vivid and memorable characters here, largely drawn from real people in the author's life. Whilst it is funny and rambunctious, the novel also has a surprising emotional analysis and insight, and does not shirk away from moments of real pathos, and it is probably this that elevates it and secures its a reputation as a minor classic.