Our favourite books of 2018 (so far)
Our staff share the best books they’ve read so far this year, including new releases and older titles just discovered.
Danielle Mirabella, buyer at Readings Hawthorn
It’s great that Andrew Sean Greer’s Less won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction this year, as I probably would never have picked it up otherwise. However, I’m so glad I did! Less is a delight to read. It’s hilarious, uplifting and endearing, without becoming saccharine. As far as Australian fiction goes, Ceridwen Dovey’s In the Garden of the Fugitives is a standout literary novel for 2018. Not only is it utterly unique in its form, with a dual narrative between the two main characters, it’s addictive, unsettling and compelling. A work of quiet brilliance.
And really who can go past David Sedaris? Not me! Calypso has everything you expect from one of his essay collections. It’s dark, rude, sharp and just downright side-splittingly hilarious. This might be his best yet.
Alison Huber, head buyer
I’ve had a great reading year so far. The pace was set early in January by an advance copy of Ceridwen Dovey’s smart and unsettling novel, In the Garden of the Fugitives. Since then, I’ve bailed people up to explain the excellence of Lisa Halliday’s Asymmetry, Kevin Powers’ A Shout in the Ruins, Bri Lee’s Eggshell Skull, and Sayaka Murata’s Convenience Store Woman (translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori).
Brett Anderson’s memoir Coal Black Mornings was as wonderful as I knew it would be, and I read the whole thing with a smile on my face. One of my favourite books of 2017 was Paul Lynch’s Grace; this year I went back to read his first novel, Red Sky in Morning, which passed me by in 2013. It’s a great debut novel, and I’ll read his second novel, The Black Snow, soon. Though it’s not out until September, it’s no surprise that Stephanie Bishop’s Man Out of Time is already one of my top books of 2018.
I’m not a huge connoisseur of the short story form, but I can’t speak highly enough of Curtis Sittenfeld’s collection, You Think It, I’ll Say It: every story is a winner. She and I are on the same wavelength. I also loved AM Homes’s new collection Days of Awe, and though her wavelength is totally different to Sittenfeld’s, I’m on that too. Homes is one of my favourite writers.
Maria Tumarkin’s Axiomatic is game-changingly brilliant creative non-fiction and deserves accolades from far and wide. #StellaPrize2019 – I want to start the campaign here.
My most significant reading experience of the year by far has been Sheila Heti’s Motherhood. I can’t write anything further about this book: it means more to me than I can say.
Nina Kenwood, marketing manager
I am a Curtis Sittenfeld aficionado, and her new collection of short stories You Think It, I’ll Say It is my favourite book so far this year. I adored it, in a clutch-it-to-my-heart, slow-down-or-I’ll-finish-too-quickly kind of way – the sort of reaction you might expect from a devoted fan, but trust me, this book is special.
I’ve also read a lot of brilliant Australian YA novels this year: Between Us by Clare Atkins is an astonishing book, with not a word out of place; Amelia Westlake filled me with joy from its first page to its last; Small Spaces gave me bad dreams (in a good way); and Neverland moved me in ways I wasn’t expecting.
In non-fiction, my top two picks are Educated by Tara Westover, a harrowing but unputdownable memoir of a strange and violent childhood, and I’ll Be Gone In The Dark, a harrowing but unputdownable investigation of a strange and violent man.
Julia Gorman, bookseller at Readings Kids
My favourite book so far this year is the anthology, Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia, which is edited by Anita Heiss. A moving and thought-provoking collection, the writers are all ages and come from all over the country. It’s a book that everyone living in Australia needs to read. I have also recently read Kintu by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi, an epic Ugandan novel spanning from 1750 until the present day. Using a multilayered narrative technique, the novel ties the mythical story of the man Kintu into family and history in modern-day Uganda.
The first half of 2018 has seen an amazing number of excellent young adult books published. Erin Gough’s Amelia Westlake reminded me so much of being at high school and is the perfect book for young adults in light of the #metoo movement. Award-winning slam poet Elizabeth Acevedo’s debut novel The Poet X is written entirely in verse and it is easy to race through the story of a young woman’s struggles with race, family and first love in America. The Poet X is the perfect book for those impatiently waiting for Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give to come out as a film later this year.
Ann Le Lievre, schools & libraries liaison
Earlier this year I had a strong desire to suddenly abandon my unread pile of new releases – I was unexpectedly yearning for ‘something else’. And when I came across my old copy of Emma, I found what I was looking for. I was completely swept up in Austen’s use of language, observing Emma’s quiet struggles. It was a strange feeling being immersed in another time, place, dress and custom.
When I put the book down I wanted more so I turned to biographer Claire Tomalin and launched into Jane Austen: a Life. This is an utter illumination of the setting, mores and etiquette which defined the author’s life.
Tomalin was already known to me through her autobiography, A Life of My Own, which I had read earlier and loved. Her own story is one of professional achievement against a backdrop of personal heartache and trauma. The book offered me an insight into the life of a woman who developed a pervasive talent as a literary editor and who later in life went on to follow an enduring passion as literary biographer.
My most absorbing YA read for this year, so far, is Clare Atkins’ Between Us. The two central characters of Ana and Jono are tenderly drawn, and the writing is so light on the page. My understanding of the cost of daily life in a detention centre has been awakened by this story.
And finally Educated by Tara Westover has been another heart-stopping favourite read of my year. This talented writer depicts a childhood that is hardly imaginable, taking my emotions on a roller-coaster ride of shock and tears.
Angela Crocombe, manager at Readings Kids
There have been so many wonderful books that I have already devoured this year, but the following ones feel very close to my heart. As a children’s book buyer, I primarily read books for a variety of ages of children, so I have chosen one from each age group, but I also like to keep up with adult fiction, so there’s a crime thriller thrown in at the end too.
My pick for picture books is When’s My Birthday? – a stunning reminder of that intense anticipation for a big event that only 3- 5-year-olds can muster. This book perfectly captures the many questions and answers that youngsters have about this most exciting day: How far away is my birthday? What kind of party will I have? Who will come to my party? How many candles will be on the cake? This book is so much fun and so full of life that I feel compelled to recommend it regularly.
I only recently picked up Scarlett Thomas’s brilliant middle fiction novel, Dragon’s Green, of last year when its sequel, The Chosen Ones, arrived in store this year. With rave reviews for the author from Neil Gaiman and Phillip Pullman, I figured it must be good but it still managed to surpass my expectations. This story about three young heroes who set out to save a collection of magical books from an evil magician is oozing with excitement, adventure and humour. There are sly references to a famous series of books about a boy wizard, special boons (gifts) that bestow magical powers, and ways of literally falling into books. Dragon’s Green is utterly wonderful and perfect for readers who may feel at a loss after finishing the Harry Potter series.
I love reading Australian young adult and am still reeling from the witty repartee of the smart, sophisticated young women in Erin Gough’s second novel, Amelia Westlake. This is a really fun feminist romp through a prestigious private school that never takes itself too seriously, and it has a seriously sexy romance between two girls as well. I’m so thrilled it exists and am delighted that it made it on this year’s Readings Young Adult Book Prize shortlist.
I am always on the lookout for a good crime thriller. Last year I devoured the novels of Jane Harper, and so when I heard similar buzz about the forthcoming novel, The Nowhere Child, I had to grab myself a reading copy. I started the first page intending to just dip in briefly but found I could not stop reading until I had discovered the mystery at its heart. This novel centres on a tricky casea bout a two-year-old girl who disappeared from her home in Manson, Kentucky. Who took her and is she really a young woman living in Australia with a seemingly ordinary past two decades later? I thought I had this novel all figured out about three-quarters of the way through, but instead this thriller kept twisting and turning right until the exciting conclusion.
Lian Hingee, digital marketing coordinator
I’ve been on a bit of a short story-bent over the past couple of months, and my favourite books of the year are definitely reflecting that.
I loved Carmen Maria Machado’s collection of stories, Her Body and Other Parties, which blends together magical realism, feminism, fairytales, body image, comedy, and horror. In a similar vein is The Merry Spinster, by Daniel Mallory Ortberg, whose book Texts from Jane Eyre never fails to make me laugh out loud. Where Machado’s book was inspired by classic fairytales, Ortberg re-imagines the original tales in their entirety, but – true to form – has given them a decidedly subversive edge. The result is an unsettling, unexpectedly melancholic collection that includes a murderous Little Mermaid, a psychopathic Velveteen Rabbit, and a gender-fluid Cinderella.
Hands-down the best book that I’ve read so far this year is Elizabeth Acevedo’s verse novel The Poet X. Acevedo is a slam poet who grew up in a family of oral storytellers, and The Poet X is as raw and as powerful as you could imagine. This is the story of a young woman who struggles against the expectations of her strict Dominican parents, but finds her place in the world through poetry, sex, and feminism, and it’s an extraordinary read
Dani Solomon, assistant manager at Readings Kids
I absolutely loved Peadar Ó Guilín’s terrifying fantasy novel The Call last year, and this year’s follow-up, The Invasion was everything the first book was but bigger and scarier. Plus – more unsettling monsters, more fair folk with their joyless Grey Lands, more intense romances (the world is ending after all) and a very satisfying, if disturbing, conclusion. I can’t wait to see what Ó Guilín comes out with next.
I’ve long admired Scot Gardner and the thing I loved most about his latest YA novel, Changing Gear, is that it’s been written specifically for young men. Gardner is an excellent author who brings his experience as a former counsellor and youth worker to his books. It’s great to see a YA novel tackle big issues – like finishing high school, pornography and broken families – in a way that feels completely non-judgemental, non confrontational and natural. Reading this book, I felt as though I was given a rare glimpse at the fears, worries and questions of teenage boys in modern society.
Ally Carter’s Not If I Save You First is 100% pure fun. Following some rebellious behaviour, the President’s 17-year-old son Logan is sent to the Alaskan wilderness to stay out of the way, and out of trouble. Here he discovers his ex-best friend Maddie. Maddie is the daughter of a Secret Service Agent who saved Logan’s life back when they were children and some Russians invaded the White House. She’s been stuck in near-isolation since that day, and she loathes Logan for never replying to any of her letters. Naturally, it doesn’t take too long before Logan is kidnapped by Russians again and it’s up to Maddie to (begrudgingly) save him this time – from the Russians, the Alaskan wilderness and himself.
Sammy J’s The Long Class Goodnight is another book that made me laugh. On the day before he starts high school, Justin’s parents solemnly inform him on that he has an inescapable destiny as a Loser ahead of him. His new school (motto: ‘Sport Before Thought’) is run by a comically strict principal who insists rules all be followed to a T. When Justin breaks the school bell, the principal decrees that since the rules state no one can go home until the final bell rings everyone must stay at school overnight until the bell is fixed. What follows is chaotic and hilarious – it’s as if Ronald Searle of St Trinian’s fame and Roald Dahl had a book baby.
I have to share my favourite line from the book. For context, the teachers are all asleep in the cafeteria and Justin is looking in on them: ‘Having spent the whole day in the classroom trying to look smarter, sterner and better behaved than their students, they were now slumped on the floor, snoring and drooling like a group of toddlers at childcare.’
Sharon Peterson, manager of Readings St Kilda
I’m pleased to say all my favourites are from Australian authors so far. Coming in at number one would undoubtedly be Robert Hillman’s The Bookshop of the Broken Hearted. Set in rural Victoria of the 1960s, this is a beautifully written, tenderhearted story. This is the kind of book that remains present even while you’re doing something mundane – like washing dishes. It lingered in my mind long after I’d finished the last page.
I also loved The Shepherd’s Hut by Tim Winton. I think it’s probably the best of his books I’ve ever read. As usual, his description of the landscape is extremely vivid and he’s created a very strong character in Jaxie Clackton.
Two other books I’ve enjoyed so far this year are by first-time authors: Christian White’s forthcoming novel, The Nowhere Child, is a suspenseful drama of a missing child that kept me guessing until the end, and Robbie Arnott’s Flames is a very readable, well written tale set in Tasmania.
Chris Gordon, events manager
This year I fell hard and fast into every book that Elizabeth Strout has ever written. Both My name is Lucy Barton and Anything is Possible are now on my ‘best books ever’ list. I can finally know something that the entire literary world has been across for years – this woman is an angel of a writer.
I’m been also blown away by the Trent Dalton’s debut novel, Boy Swallows Universe. There is something incredibly poignant about his writing, almost poetic, and the story itself is riveting. Robert Hillman’s The Bookshop of the Broken Hearted also warmed every part of my being – stories about impossible relationships that somehow manage to work always fill me with hopeless joy. Yes, I’m a romantic at heart… And my goodness, to read something that didn’t break my soul or fill me with fear was a treat.
I’ve really been enjoying a lot of long-form essays lately, including On Mother by Sarah Ferguson. This short book did, in fact, make me cry and call my mum, but it was also honest and good. I recommend you also seek out Erik Jensen’s essay on Helen Garner in this month’s edition of The Monthly. He revealed great insight into one of our most loved authors.
As the food and gardening columnist for the Readings Monthly, I of course have a couple of cookbooks on my best of the year pile as well.
I am in love with CIBI, a fantastic and straightforward guide for eating Japanese style food every night of the week. This cookbook should really be in every Melbourne kitchen. Meg and Zenta Tanaka show that fresh delicious food is possible without you making a fuss every night of the week. A cookbook that brings back memories, Naked for Satan celebrates everything good in life including tapas, martinis and a gorgeous rooftop garden. This is a terrific pick for if you are entertaining and you want to give your guests a little taste of Melbourne… Start mixing those cocktails now. I guarantee it will take the winter chills away.
Bronte Coates, digital content coordinator
Two books made me snort with laughter this year. You Think It, I’ll Say It is Curtis Sittenfeld’s debut story collection and it’s such a pleasure to read. Her stories are smart, funny and all-too-relatable. I also really loved Andrew Sean Greer’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Less. Funny books often get criticised for not being serious enough, but I actually think it’s a very hard skill to master. It’s especially difficult to write a book that is lighthearted, while still containing emotional depth – and that is what Greer has achieves. Reading Less while in bed is a pretty perfect Sunday.
I’m a latecomer to Celeste Ng but in January, I was utterly absorbed by her 2017 novel, Little Fires Everywhere, and I still haven’t forgotten it. This is an immersive, smart and heartfelt domestic drama that will appeal to fans of Jaclyn Moriarty, and it included some of the best passages about motherhood I’ve ever read. Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties is an exhilarating fiction debut that blends fairy tales, science fiction, queer theory, pop culture and horror to craft something entirely unique.
This year I also devoured Dervla McTiernan’s crime debut, The Rúin, which was a brilliant character-driven procedural set in Ireland. I have recommended this book to almost everyone I know and I won’t be surprised to see it one award lists next year. My standout romance read of 2018 is Jasmine Guillory’s The Wedding Date, which is deliciously cosy – and a great pick for people who may not have read romance before but are interested in exploring the genre.
And comic artist Tommi Parrish thrills as usual with their incredible graphic novel, The Lie And How We Told It. This book is a work of art in its own right.
Looking to young adult novels, I adored Mackenzi Lee’s The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue which is an absolute romp. Two roguish young gentlemen – enjoyably sensible sister in tow – set off on a Grand Tour of Europe that leads to pirates, kidnappings, lost treasure. I’m so excited for Lee’s follow-up which is due out later this year – The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy.
Three other standouts for me in youth literature were Far from the Tree (a generous and moving story about family), Amelia Westlake (a feminist rom-com that tackles feminism, privilege and power), and Between Us (a heartbreaking novel that takes readers into Australian detention centres).
My favourite children’s novel (so far) is Mat Larkin’s offbeat and wild debut, The Orchard Underground. This book was part mystery tale, part thrilling adventure and wholly entertaining. I am a little bit obsessed with picture books and so don’t have space to do justice to all my favourites here. You can find a summary of my top picks for the first three months of the year here, and I’ll be sharing my picks for April through to June soon.
Ellen Cregan, marketing & events coordinator
I’ve read some terrific Australian fiction this year. One of my favourites is The Fireflies of Autumn by Moreno Giovannoni. This fable-like book is such a delight to read. It brings together tales of war, love, migration and grudges from multiple generations in the Tuscan town of San Ginese. There is also an overarching sense of timeless magic to these beautifully written stories, and each has the feeling of a myth coloured by being passed down through the generations.
I’m also a big fan of Pink Mountain on Locust Island by Jamie Marina Lau. This is an excellent piece of experimental fiction that I totally devoured. Lau’s writing is surprising, evocative and I can’t get enough of it. This is a genre-bending book that incorporates elements of noir, stream-of-consciousness and a bunch of other things. I’ve never read anything else quite like it.
And look out for Laura Elizabeth Woollett’s third book, Beautiful Revolutionary, in August. This novel follows two young newlyweds as they fall under the spell of Jim Jones, leader of the infamous People’s Temple cult. This book is ominous, extremely well researched, and gives great insight into the way regular people can become swept up in cults. It’s one of the best books I’ve read recently.
Looking to non-fiction – Eggshell Skull by Bri Lee is a standout. This is a difficult read, but an important one. Lee’s account of going through the Queensland court system as a complainant in a historic sexual abuse case is eye-opening. I was so frustrated each time her case was put off for small administrative reasons, and horrified by anecdotes that reveal the arbitrary hurdles many women face while attempting to bring their abusers to justice. This isn’t a book you can binge on, but it’s one I think everyone should read nonetheless.
I also devoured Feel Free, the new essay collection from Zadie Smith. One of the best writers putting work out today, her collection is just perfect – the ideal mix of informative and academic-leaning writing with personal anecdotes and brilliant prose. Smith is such an empathetic and articulate author and her non-fiction is just as wonderful as her fiction.
And the prize for creepiest books I’ve read in 2018 (so far) goes to I’ll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara. I tore through this true crime in a single sitting, and it’s haunted me since then. McNamara’s account of the terrifying crimes of the Golden State Killer is definitely obsessive, but this is what makes it so compulsively readable – her research methods are incredible. This book was pieced together after McNamara’s death in 2016, and there is a slightly raw feeling to it. One of the most fascinating parts of the books is actually the final section, in which McNamara’s editors give an overview of her research methodology and ideas for what she wanted the finished book to look like.
The case of the Golden State Killer is no longer a cold case – a suspect was arrested just before McNamara’s book came out, almost 30 years after these crimes were committed. I can’t stop thinking (and talking) about this book, and am waiting for everyone I know to read it so we can have lengthy discussions on the topic.