It’s that time of year again… and the task this year is even more difficult than usual because 2018 has been a particularly brilliant year for books (which is just as well as it’s been an especially horrible year in lots of other ways). I must thank all of the wonderful publishers and authors who have brightened my year. Plenty of debut authors have now been added to my list of authors to watch while other writers whose books I’ve loved for years have once again fed my habit for their books – and I’m so grateful.
There are still a few days left of 2018 and so I don’t yet have my final tally of books read but it will be about 192 books, which is over 20 more than last year. That amazes me as I thought I read a lot last year but I think I’ve spent quite a bit of 2018 heads down with my nose in a book. And, as I mentioned, I think 2018 has been particularly strong for books, especially historical fiction. Conversely, I haven’t read as much science fiction as normal this year, which is not a good thing. Usually the year is finished off with the latest Expanse novel by James S.A. Corey but the new one won’t be out until well into 2019. But there has been far less science fiction about in 2018 that’s grabbed me or that I’ve discovered. Which means I’m going to seek out more of it in 2019.
Historical fiction, as I say, has been on top form in 2018, which has made my top books selection especially hard. I could have filled the entire list with it. But I’ve done my best to be strict and resist the temptation to divide my top books by genre. I want it to be difficult!
I’ve also enjoyed crime fiction and thrillers enormously in 2018. I’ve largely avoided psychological thrillers because I read too many of them in 2017 but historical crime and detective crime have been so good this year. As has horror and the Gothic! I’ve especially enjoyed both crime and horror books set in unusual and atmospheric places, such as haunted houses, old mansions, Scottish islands, the Peak District or the Scilly Isles.
Without further ado, here is my top 10, which is actually more like sixteen and a bit. It’s a miracle I got it down to this few as my first list had 58 books on it. They’re in no particular order except at the end when I will try and make my final choice for my favourite book of 2018. I must first, though, thank everyone for taking the time to read my reviews over the past year. I love writing them but you make it all worthwhile. Here’s to a 2019 of books that is every bit as good as 2018. I’ve read a few 2019 books already and the signs are very good indeed!
London Rules by Mick Herron
The fifth book in Mick Herron’s brilliantly witty, sharp and clever Slough House series of spy novels but miraculously the first I’ve read. It won’t be the last and I have the rest all ready to go. Mick Herron is so good at combining tragedy and comedy, showing how closely the two can be linked and how this pulls emotions from us. Jackson Lamb, a man held together by bad habits, once met is impossible to forget.
Don’t Make a Sound by David Jackson
One of the most compelling, gripping and accomplished crime novels I’ve read in a very long time. What it describes is so horribly awful and yet it feels completely believable and real. Outstanding characters, beautifully written, and all presented with a style and skill that urges the reader to keep turning those pages. When you pick this book up, put everything else aside. Prepare to be lost within it. Brilliant.
Night Flight to Paris by David Gilman
This year I was fascinated by stories of spies and wartime, possibly because of the centenary, and more than one of these novels stood out and there’s another on this list. I could also mention Rory Clements’ Wilde trilogy. But Night Flight especially gripped me. I urge you to read this novel and meet these fantastic characters. To feel the tension of following them through the danger of missions and just in daily life, which can be every bit as terrifying, waiting for a car to screech to a halt outside the door, for the sound of boots running up the stairs, the bang on the door, the guns in the face. Clever, complex, gripping, emotionally engaging, terrifying. And so much more.
The Stranger Diaries by Elly Griffiths
I couldn’t wait to read The Stranger Diaries, a stand alone Gothic murder mystery set in an old school by an author I have such affection for, and I loved it even more than I knew I would! This is the best of writing. Elly Griffiths is brilliant at creating characters that might have their flaws and eccentricities but we fall for them so deeply all the same. I love the theme of writing and diaries that runs through it. It is also extremely chilling – imagine writing in your diary only to find out that a stranger has left a message in it! The setting here is every bit as central to the story as the plot and characters and I loved every minute of it all.
Hammer of Rome by Douglas Jackson
The wonderful Hero of Rome series comes to an end with Hammer of Rome. It’s time to say goodbye to Gaius Valerius Verrens. We’ve been through so much together, fighting in some of Rome’s most infamous of conflicts across the empire, beginning with Boudicca. This finale is superb as Valerius returns to where it all began, Britannia.
A House of Ghosts by W.C. Ryan
I love a haunted house ghost story and this is quite possibly the best I’ve ever read. I particularly enjoyed the way in which the story relates to the First World War, a conflict that created so many ghosts. Kate Cartwright is a brilliant heroine with an attitude towards ghosts that is fascinating and so effective here. It’s beautifully written and richly evocative of its time and setting. It’s frightening in places but also, rather unexpectedly, I found it comforting and warm, despite the chill of its winter storm.
Dark Water by Elizabeth Lowry
This irresistible novel presents a thoroughly engrossing and immersive tale of seafaring disaster, madness, impossible love and loneliness set against the backdrop of 19th-century Boston, Nantucket and the vast blue expanse of the ocean. Its portrait of Hiram Carver, doctor to the insane in Charleston near Boston in Massachusetts, and a man we watch disintegrate, should not be missed. I love novels about the sea, especially when they’re tinged with the hint of mystery, of the unknown, and this beautiful and exquisite novel swept me off my feet.
Someone Like Me by Michael Carey
This wonderful book, my favourite by this fabulous author, works so well as a work of horror but it also travels so deeply into the human psyche to explore the ways in which its characters cope with trauma and loss. I fell very deeply for this book and for some of its lives – most particularly Fran, Lady Jinx and Molly. I have no words to describe how much I love Molly and Jinx. The love we feel for them makes sections of this novel heart wrenching. It’s impossible not to feel completely involved. And with the pain we feel comes the huge reward of reading a novel that is so utterly captivating.
Tombland by C.J. Sansom
At last Matthew Shardlake returns! The setting is Norfolk during the reign of young Edward VI, a time of unhappiness and revolt, and Shardlake and his friends are caught up in the very heart of it. Sansom is an exceptional writer. His prose is truly immersive, bringing the Tudor world to life around us with his elegant and precise descriptions. The plot is riveting and goes way beyond the case that Sansom has been sent, by the Princess Elizabeth, to investigate. In my opinion, this is the best in the series.
Noumenon Infinity (and Noumenon) by Marina J. Lostetter
The Noumenon books (hence the total of 16 and a bit for my list because I’m including two books here) are, with the addition of another SF book later on in the list, the most fun I had reading science fiction this year. I read them back to back and they ticked every box. Spaceships, distant planets, alien artefacts, AIs, time distortions, people adapting to life aboard a generation starship, bloodcurdling terror, love, the unknown. All of it described so beautifully and evocatively, with humour and sensitivity, by Marina J. Lostetter, an author who can do no wrong in my eyes.
The Moscow Cipher by Scott Mariani
If I had to choose one series of books to smuggle away with me while I was marooned on a desert island (with a cocktail bar and air-conditioned suite), it would be Scott Mariani’s Ben Hope thrillers. These are my favourite thrillers in the world and I’ve read them for years. I could rave about Ben Hope all day long and very happily I get the chance to do so twice a year because that’s how often he’s published. The Moscow Cipher is the book I’ve picked here but it could just as easily have been the second 2018 Hope novel, The Rebel’s Revenge.
Retribution by Anthony Riches
Anthony Riches is a prolific author of the most brilliant Roman military historical fiction. His Empire series is one of my very favourites from any genre but more recently he’s given us the Centurions trilogy which brings to bloody life the Batavi Revolt that followed the death of Nero. This series is very fine indeed and the tale it tells is pleasingly complex and hugely rewarding, not to mention thrilling. It ends in spectacular fashion with Retribution, one of the very best novels I read this year.
A Treachery of Spies by Manda Scott
Manda Scott can do no wrong in my eyes. Her writing is impeccable, her insight into human behaviour, as well as into the themes of history, is profound. A Treachery of Spies is a superb spy thriller which traces the origins of a complex web of treachery and lies back to the Second World War and a group of the French Resistance. Good and evil battle it out here, the fight that never ends. It’s like the end of the world to see such heroism and courage slaughtered while we must praise the valour of people like Picaut, our heroine, and others in this novel who will not give up the fight. An outstanding novel from one of the very finest authors writing today.
Head On by John Scalzi
This book is so much fun! A virus has left some people ‘locked in’, in a waking coma. They are able to transfer their consciousness into robots called threeps. And now threeps have become superstars, competing in a popular sport in which the object is to cut off the head of one’s opponent. It’s impossible for the locked in human controlling the threep to die – until one day one does. A threep FBI agent must investigate an extraordinary conspiracy. There are some big and serious themes here but Head On is also a book full of lightness, humanity and fun. John Scalzi is such a witty writer, one of my very favourites, and he’s filled his threeps with personality. I love this book!
The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton
This novel is astonishing, gobsmacking and all kinds of words that fail to do it justice. It tells an elaborate (that’s an understatement) tale set one party weekend in a country mansion just after the First World War. When one of the guests, Evelyn Hardcastle, is found murdered, the ingredients are there for delicious cosy crime. But throw those preconceptions out of the window right now! Evelyn will die not once, but seven times. Aiden Bishop must try to solve the crime, time after time, and each time he will inhabit the body of a different person. Someone is determined that he will not be successful. Stuart Turton is a genius. I’ve never come across plotting like this before. And I must also mention the gorgeous maps. This book is my runner up for top book of 2018.
Which leaves only one. My favourite book of 2018 was…
The Psychology of Time Travel by Kate Mascarenhas. This is the tale of four women who invented the time machine in 1967. Half a century later, in 2018, Odette discovers the dead body of an elderly woman in a locked room in a toy museum, a death perhaps foretold by a message sent from the future back to 2017. And so begins one of the most incredible novels I’ve read for several years. It’s an enormous achievement. It is an immensely rewarding novel that is also very cleverly complex and so you do need to pay close attention. It’s certainly worth it. It is mesmerising. The narrative jumps and skips backwards and forwards throughout, following the lives of a group of women over fifty years or so, but mostly focusing on events in 2017 and 2018. And making it even more complex and absolutely riveting is that sometimes we meet a character in the ‘wrong time’, when she is time travelling. There is none of that directive that we’re used to that two versions of the same person can’t co-exist in the same time – here you can have as many of yourselves as you like. You can revisit key times in your life and share those times with a limitless number of yourselves. You can even dance with yourself, if you fancy it.
The mystery at the heart of the book is such a good one and every bit as quirky and curious as the rest of the novel. But its enormous appeal lies mostly in its wonderful, wonderful people and the wit and warmth with which they’re described as they flit and dance through each other’s lives – and their own. Sometimes they can bring misfortune, even death, but mostly they bring love and such a depth of feeling. Utterly captivating and my favourite novel of 2018.
This list was very hard to compile. I had to make some difficult choices. So I thought I’d include here six honourable mentions for books I loved so much from the three genres that I adore – historical fiction, science fiction, crime/thrillers.
Clash of Empires by Ben Kane
The Tudor Crown by Joanna Hickson
Old Baggage by Lissa Evans
The Falcon of Sparta by Conn Igguldon
Blood’s Revolution by Angus Donald
The King’s Witch by Tracy Borman
Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers
Embers of War by Gareth L. Powell
Adrift by Rob Boffard
Ball Lightning by Cixin Liu
Salvation by Peter F. Hamilton
Drop by Drop by Morgan Llywelyn
Crime and thrillers
The Smiling Man by Joseph Knox
The Blood Road by Stuart MacBride
Panic Room by Robert Goddard
Star of the North by D.B. John
Under the Ice by Rachael Blok
The Sentence is Death by Anthony Horowitz
Phew! What a smorgasbord of fantastic books! The challenge is laid down to 2019….. bring it on!