2018 in 170 Books—and how to read around your unconscious biases

So here we are, finally, at the end of the longest year in recorded history. January feels like several decades ago, and still 2018 limps on, serving up bigger and bigger piles of political shit. Christ, we’ve done well to survive it.

But survive it we have, and I don’t know about you, but I only did so because I read a metric shit ton of books.

At the end of every year I like to take a wee while to look over the books I’ve read and take stock of the previous twelve months. This number is growing every year, but reading is part of my job. In the words of Stephen King:

If you don't have time to read, you don't have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.

I’ve found this to be painfully true. The more I read, the better my writing, and the more I write, the more I need to research—and with a bookseller partner, it’s difficult not to be surrounded by books just begging to be read. My goal is always 100 books in a year, and this year I overshot that by *checks notes* quite some margin.

The goal of this blog is not to tell you all the ones that were good, because there are too many, but to highlight the ones that really affected me and that might have slipped under your radar. We’ve all heard of the big name ones; you don’t need me to tell you how good they are. But what about the ones that don’t get all the media?

The rules for my reading list, as ever, are simple. To be counted, a book has to be over 50 pages and has to be something worthwhile. YA counts, and longer kids books do too. So do poetry collections, and collected volumes of comics. Individual comic issues do not. I’ve pushed this a wee bit with the six short stories I read at the end of the year, but they were individual books and I think all over 50 pages, or thereabouts.

You’ll notice amongst this list a disproportionate amount of R. L. Stine books. This is not because I suddenly regressed to my 12-year-old reading self, though close. Rather, this is because the excellent, trash-literature-loving Kirsty Logan invited me to do a podcast with her revisiting the Point Horror titles of our youth, and I jumped at the chance. The result has been two seasons (so far) of Teenage Scream, and I’ve had a blast doing it—though the quality of the books has been variable at best, and so many of them are about awful rich teenagers, which I managed to never notice as a kid. Shoutout to Caroline B. Cooney for serving up batshit fun and boo hiss to R. L. Stine who thinks all teenagers smell like cinnamon and sexualises them by having them act like babies. No, Robert. No.

Speaking of Kirsty, I got to re-read her second novel The Gloaming when it came out earlier this year, and I can’t recommend it enough. I’ve also had a sneak peek of her new short story collection, Things We Say in the Dark, which is feministy and horrory and brilliant, her best collection yet. You’ll be able to read that on Halloween 2019 and it will change you. The woman goes from strength to strength.

To the fiction, then. I’ve read a hell of a lot of it this year. As a nice companion to Kirsty’s work, I hugely enjoyed The Doll’s Alphabet by Camilla Grudova, a collection of defiantly strange and unsettling feminist Victorian-feeling short stories that never go where you think they might. The Atrocity Exhibition by J. G. Ballard was a reminder of the necessity of pushing the boundaries of literature, even if the result is nuts, and Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders made me actually weep as well as showing that novel structure needn’t be set in stone.

A couple of books arrived on my desk with no fanfare at all and blew me out of the metaphorical water. Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi is a gorgeous exploration of selves and multiples and worlds and identities, and Mrs Caliban by Rachel Ingalis is essentially the novel version of The Shape of Water, but with a lot more cynicism and super sharp satire. I also got around to reading We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson, which made me kick myself for having gone so long without doing so, and Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel, which holds the title of Only Book Ever to Make Me Give a Shit About Kings and Queens. That Mantel; holy shit, she can write!

I had arrived, flesh from flesh, true blood from true blood. I was the wildness under the skin, the skin into a weapon, the weapon over the flesh.

- Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi

I should mention for a second two books that have drastically altered my thoughts about genre writing this year. I don’t really read crime, or thrillers, or crime thrillers, but I finally read Thomas Harris’ The Silence of the Lambs and found that this book is a MASTERCLASS in writing. Not a word more than necessary, not a character unused. Like the film adaptation it uses its shocking points sparsely and instead spends its time building character incredibly skilfully. I raved about this books for weeks afterwards and would read it again in a heartbeat. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say this book will teach you how to write a novel.

Similarly, Claire Askew’s first novel All the Hidden Truths takes the crime genre and turns it inside out. Centred around a school shooting in Edinburgh, the novel follows the effects of the crime on the women closest to it as they search for meaning in a meaningless act. I actually couldn’t put it down.

I haven’t read much poetry this year, but really enjoyed Tonguit by Harry Giles, who does brilliant things with language and structure, and Spells, edited by Rebecca Tamas and Sarah Shin. This collection is focused on the idea of language as magic, and of the figure of the witch; the sexual, unruly, unfitting individual. The quality is so high it’s ridiculous.  

You’ll notice a bunch of cookbooks on this year’s list, and that might seem strange: who reads a cookbook? But these aren’t your bog-standard collections of recipes. Oh no. These are beautiful tomes about what food is, and what cooking should be. They’re about the pleasures of eating and the science of the kitchen. If you know me, you’ll have either endured me talking for hours about Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat by Samin Nosrat or you’ll just have received a copy from me, because it fundamentally improved the way I cook, and the accompanying Netflix four-parter is a total dream. Similarly, Eat Up! by Ruby Tandoh is a book-length rumination on the joys of eating, of “bad” foods as well as “good”, and about how to have a better relationship with what you put in your mouth. Nigel Slater’s The Christmas Chronicles is so pure it hurts your teeth, but it’s worth it.

Alongside cookbooks I’ve read a hell of a lot of non-fiction this year, much of which has been for research and therefore has been about either corpses or sex with robots. Stiff by Mary Roach and Smoke Gets in Your Eyes by Caitlin Doughty both come in the former category, and they’re equal parts funny and informative. I think differently now about my own eventual death and also about what happens to bodies when we die. Can we not deal with death better than we do? I think so. Away from the corpse genre, Notes on Camp by Susan Sontag was the purest type of reading pleasure, and Notes to Self by Emilie Pine, a collection of personal essays, kicked the butt of all other books in that genre. If you’re at all interested in menstrual health, It’s Only Blood by Anna Dahlqvist is a great read about global menstrual taboos and how they affect individuals, societies and economies. It’s also trans-inclusive, which feels positive, given the absolute kicking trans people have taken in the media this year.

As the political landscape continues to degrade I find myself reading more and more political books, and being left cold by ones that don’t attempt to alter our ways of thinking or offer better solutions for the future. To this last point, Utopia for Realists by Rutger Bregman is an incredible book that turns popular narratives of thinking on their heads and shows us better alternatives—and then backs them up with the numbers, the studies, the money trails. I recommend it to everyone, much like the utterly brilliant Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire by Akala. Giving us the racial and social education we should all have had, Natives is the sort of book that you spend hours and hours talking about over coffee with friends. I was honoured to chair Akala at this year’s Edinburgh International Book Festival and the conversation we had about Natives was one of my highlights of the year. I’m also a big fan of Naomi Klein, and No Is Not Enough was a great call to arms in these difficult times. Naomi gives us potential solutions and grassroots ways of thinking. We should listen to her more.

The officer's question already let me know that in his eyes I was dirt; that is, matter out of place.

- Natives by Akala

I can’t write this blog without waxing lyrical about Revolting Prostitutes: The Fight for Sex Workers’ Rights by Molly Smith and Juno Mac. Sex workers writing about sex work should not be a surprise, but it is; so many of the voices we hear on this issue have no first-hand experience of it and yet they drive the conversation. This book is a reaction to that, and it’s also about resources, the police, borders and the very nature of work. Every page was an education. Read it, read it, read it.

Oh, and in my list of Trash Reads That Made Me Happy, king of cheer Dick Van Dyke wrote a book about staying healthy and young in old age and it was honestly such a tonic. The man once fell asleep surfing and got rescued by porpoises. Is he even real? The same goes for Dolly Parton; the biography I read of her was woefully out of date and concerned mainly with her mammaries. These books made me happy.

As you’ll know if you’ve read any of my previous end-of-year blogs, a few years ago I realised how disgustingly skewed my reading list was towards male writers, and in subsequent years I’ve tried to right that imbalance—which has also improved the quality of my reading immeasurably as I’ve been forced out of the traditional English Literature degree canon. This year, the spread was thus:

Female writers: 88
Male writers: 78
Trans / non-binary writers: 4

Not bad, could do better. But one thing this process has made me realise is that my list is skewed in other ways; towards white writers, towards European or North American writers, towards writers working in English. To tackle all three of these at once, I’ve tried to read more work in translation this year, and have also followed the recommendations of some excellent booksellers who know much more about this than me.

To that end, and because their books are beautiful and brilliant and always so gorgeously translated, I’ve read a hell of a lot from Charco Press this year, including Resistance by Julian Fuks, The President’s Room by Ricardo Romero and Die, My Love by Ariana Harwicz, all of which were stunning. Based in Edinburgh, Charco produce the most delicious-looking translations of Latin American fiction, and they have had several of their writers come speak at Golden Hare Books, which has been a delight. They’ll no doubt be doing exciting things in 2019, so keep your eye on them.

I’ve also read a few more Black, Indian and African writers this year, and this is something I’ll be focusing on next year, especially with regards to politics and fiction.

But how can you read around your unconscious biases?

So what can you do if you, for instance, take a look over your own bookshelves and realise that, like me, you’ve been unconsciously choosing books from straight white male writers disproportionately? What can you do if you realise you haven’t read a Black author all year, or that you’ve hardly ever read any books in translation, or that your queer reading is severely lacking?

  1. Check out a particular publisher or agency

    There are a number of smaller publishing companies or imprints who, like Charco Press, focus solely on one particular, often under-represented, group of authors. While there aren’t a huge amount, the number is growing, and there are also certain agencies that are tackling the huge lack of diversity in British publishing, including the Good Agency, set up by Nikesh Shukla and Julia Kingsford. Seek them out and look at their lists. Start there.

  2. Ask a bookseller

    Where the rest of us fail, booksellers excel. Go to your local indie bookshop and get chatting to the staff. Tell them what you’re looking for, or what you’re looking to avoid, and they’ll guide you around the shop pointing out exactly what you could be reading. They will likely have you walking out of the door with arms full of books and a list of even more to come back for. And you’ll be helping to keep a small bookshop alive.

  3. Head to a specialist bookstore

    In the Everyday Heroes section of life are the small bookshops who have sprung up to tackle exactly this issue. Lighthouse Books in Edinburgh and Category Is Books in Glasgow have a particular focus on radical politics and queer writers respectively, and both will help navigate you towards writers of colour, trans writers, those writing about disabilities; whatever you’re looking for, or whatever you don’t even know is there to be read. There’s likely a specialist bookstore around you, so have a look and give them a visit.

  4. Phone a friend

    That bookish mate that always shows up to drinks with a book in their hand? They love this shit. Ask them.

  5. Follow the book trail

    Call me a total loser (no, wait, not that quickly), but I love a good Google. If you’ve read a great book by a Black writer and you want to know where to go next, give it a Google. You’ll find an interview with the writer where they talk about their influences, or you’ll see other writers published by the same publisher, or entire genres you might know existed. Order them at your local library and give them a read. The great thing about opening the door on genres you’ve been unconsciously biased against means that whole new worlds of reading open up to you—and with those, new worlds of understanding, of meaning and of learning. To be hugely earnest for a second, it’s a beautiful thing.

So to end this overlong post, here’s the list in full, just in case its helpful or interesting.

And no, I still don’t really know why E=MC2.  

  1. Daisy Miller by Henry James

  2. Dulcima by H. E. Bates

  3. Let Them Eat Chaos by Kate Tempest

  4. Ritual Lighting by Carol Ann Duffy

  5. Profit and Loss by Leontia Flynn

  6. Extreme Metaphors: Interviews by J.G. Ballard

  7. Cocaine Nights by J. G. Ballard

  8. No Is Not Enough by Naomi Klein

  9. I Am Not Your Negro by James Baldwin

  10. Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat by Samin Nosrat

  11. The Christmas Chronicles by Nigel Slater

  12. The Doll’s Alphabet by Camilla Grudova

  13. Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne

  14. Twelve Years a Slave by Solomon Northup

  15. Swamplandia! by Karen Russell

  16. The Blood of Strangers by Frank Huyler

  17. Stiff by Mary Roach

  18. 100 Artists’ Manifestos by Alex Danchev

  19. The Doll: Short Stories by Daphne du Maurier

  20. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers

  21. The Atrocity Exhibition by J. G. Ballard

  22. Concrete Island by J. G. Ballard

  23. Little Black Dress edited by Susie Maguire

  24. Not One Day by Anne Garreta

  25. Brain Matters: Adventures of a Brain Surgeon by Katrina S. Firlik

  26. Hallucinations by Oliver Sacks

  27. Eat Up! by Ruby Tandoh

  28. The Iron Woman by Ted Hughes

  29. The Iron Man by Ted Hughes

  30. Goblin by Ever Dundas

  31. Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

  32. Mislaid by Nell Zink

  33. Six Feet Over by Mary Roach

  34. For the Muslims by Edwy Planel

  35. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz

  36. In Search of Perfection by Heston Blumenthal

  37. Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin

  38. Grid by Alice Tarbuck

  39. Rise by Liam Young

  40. The Gloaming by Kirsty Logan

  41. Til September Petronella by Leonara Carrington

  42. The Skeleton’s Holiday by Leonara Carrington

  43. Notes on Camp by Susan Sontag

  44. Gutshot by Amelia Gray

  45. Utopia for Realists by Rutger Bregman

  46. Fever Dream by Samantha Schweblin

  47. Shapeshifters by Gavin Francis

  48. The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai

  49. The Twelve Poems of Christmas vol. 5 by Christina Rossetti

  50. 50 Queers Who Changed the World by Dan Jones

  51. Keep Moving by Dick Van Dyke

  52. Connect by Julian Gough

  53. The Life and Death of Yukio Mishima by Henry Scott Stokes

  54. The Penguin Atlas of Women in the World by Joni Seager

  55. Packing for Mars by Mary Roach

  56. Sexing the Cherry by Jeanette Winterson

  57. Attrib. and Other Stories by Eley Williams

  58. Full Scottish Breakfast by Graham Fulton

  59. The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris

  60. The Lifeguard by Richie Tankersley Cusick

  61. The Witness by R. L. Stine

  62. We Shall Fight Until We Win by 404 Ink

  63. The Perfume by Caroline B. Cooney

  64. Folk by Zoe Gilbert

  65. Love and Dirt by Diane Atkinson

  66. Bread Matters by Andrew Whitley

  67. The Hour of the Star by Clarice Lispector

  68. A Jihad for Love by Mohamed El Bachiri

  69. All the Hidden Truths by Claire Askew

  70. The Girlfriend by R. L. Stine

  71. Heather, the Totality by Matthew Weiner

  72. Smoke Gets in Your Eyes by Caitlin Doughty

  73. Teacher’s Pet by Richie Tankersley Cusick

  74. Dream Date by Sinclair Smith

  75. Crudo by Olivia Laing

  76. The Monsters We Deserve by Marcus Sedgwick

  77. The Babysitter by R. L. Stine

  78. Twins by Caroline B. Cooney

  79. Funhouse by Diane Hoh

  80. Notes to Self by Emilie Pine

  81. The Lucky Ones by Julianne Pachico

  82. Who Rules the World? by Noam Chomsky

  83. Don’t Look Now and Other Stories by Daphne du Maurier

  84. Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney

  85. She Called Me Woman edited by Azeenarh Mohammed, Chitra Nagarajan and Aisha Salau

  86. My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite

  87. The Death of Grass by John Christopher

  88. In Love with Death by Satish Modi

  89. Undying Love: The True Story of a Passion that Defied Death by Ben Harrison

  90. The Stepsister by R. L. Stine

  91. The Bride by D. E. Athkins

  92. Halloween Party by R. L. Stine

  93. Baking with Kafka by Tom Gauld

  94. Tonguit by Harry Giles

  95. Joy by Sasha Dugdale

  96. There’s a Witch in the Word Machine by Jenni Fagan

  97. Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire by Akala

  98. Miss Laila, Armed and Dangerous by Manu Joseph

  99. House However by Kathrine Sowerby

  100. The Book of Chocolate Saints by Jeet Thayil

  101. How to Live by Simon Munnery

  102. Night School by Nicholas Pine

  103. Whisper of Death by Christopher Pike

  104. The Mall by Richie Tankersley Cusick

  105. Cook Korean! By Robin Ha

  106. Mary Wept Over the Feet of Jesus by Chester Brown

  107. Things That Are by Amy Leach

  108. The Curated Closet by Anuschka Rees

  109. Worlds from the Word’s End by Joanna Walsh

  110. Paper Girls vol. 4 by Brian K. Vaughn

  111. Capitalism: A Very Short Introduction by James Fulcher

  112. The Story of Sex: A Graphic History Through the Ages by Philippe Brenot

  113. The Lost Diary of Count Von Cosel by Count Von Cosel

  114. Do Robots Make Love? Transhumanism in 12 Questions by Laurent Belando

  115. My Father Was a Man on Land and a Whale in the Water by Michelle Steinbeck

  116. The President’s Room by Ricardo Romero

  117. Austerity by Yanis Varoufakis

  118. Kudos by Rachel Cusk

  119. The Little Snake by A. L. Kennedy

  120. Livestock by Hannah Berry

  121. Killing and Dying by Adrian Tomine

  122. Die, My Love by Ariana Harwicz

  123. Older Brother by Daniel Mella

  124. The Mummy by Barbara Steiner

  125. I’m Not Scared by Niccolo Ammaniti

  126. Resistance by Julian Fuks

  127. Freeze Tag by Caroline B. Cooney

  128. The Hitchhiker by R. L. Stine

  129. Leila Khaled: Icon of Palestinian Liberation by Sarah Irving

  130. For Every One by Jason Reynolds

  131. The Order of the Day by Eric Vuillard

  132. Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi

  133. The Yearbook by Peter Lerangis

  134. Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto

  135. The Waitress by Sinclair Smith

  136. Trick or Treat by Richie Tankersley Cusick

  137. Scavenger Hunt by Christopher Pike

  138. The Train by Diane Hoh

  139. Revolting Prostitutes: The Fight for Sex Workers’ Rights by Molly Smith and Juno Mac

  140. Mooncop by Tom Gauld

  141. Ellen Wilkinson: Red Suffragist to Government Minister by Paula Bartley

  142. We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

  143. Tofylis, or the Marriage of Zose by Zemaite

  144. From Here to Eternity: Travelling the World to Find the Good Death by Caitlin Doughty

  145. Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

  146. Spells edited by Rebecca Tamas and Sarah Shin

  147. Window by Lesley Storm

  148. Mrs Caliban by Rachel Ingalis

  149. The Babysitter II by R. L. Stine

  150. Dolly by Leonore Fleischer

  151. The Cheerleader by Caroline B. Cooney

  152. A Rose for Winter by Laurie Lee

  153. Why Does E=MC2 by Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw

  154. Propaganda Blitz by David Cromwell and David Edwards

  155. It’s Only Blood by Anna Dahlqvist

  156. A Man in the Zoo & Lady Into Fox by David Garnett

  157. The In Crowd by Nicholas Pine

  158. The Mental Load by Emma

  159. The Iliac Crest by Cristina Rivera Garza

  160. Slow Burn by Jamie Denton

  161. Turned On: Science, Sex and Robots by Kate Devlin

  162. She Wasn’t Soft by T. Coraghessan Boyle

  163. Drowned Son by David Guterson

  164. Hello World: Being Human in the Age of Algorithms by Hannah Fry

  165. A Story for Europe by Will Self

  166. Foundations of Flavour: The Noma Guide to Fermentation by Rene Redzepi and David Zilber

  167. The Expedition to the Baobab Tree by Wilma Stockenstrom

  168. The Labrador Fiasco by Margaret Atwood

  169. The Queen and I by Jay McInerney

  170. Maître Mussard’s Bequest by Patrick Suskind