The Listener's 100 Best Books of 2018by The Listener
Welcome to our annual list of Best Books from fiction to science and everything in-between.
All This by Chance by Vincent O’Sullivan (Victoria University Press)
A tour de force by poet-novelist O’Sullivan, centring on Auckland pharmacist Stephen Ross and his wife Eva, a Polish Jew sent to England to escape Hitler. Sweeping through six generations and across continents, it’s stylistically compelling with a sustained emotional impact.
An American Marriage by Tayari Jones (Vintage)
White-hot fiction about love, racism and injustice in Atlanta. Jones’ fourth novel is a marvel of restraint – when she occasionally unleashes, you really feel it.
Bridge of Clay by Markus Zusak (Picador)
The Book Thief author teases apart the story of a hard-scrabble family in suburban Sydney to encompass war, death, love, death, horse racing and more death in a sweeping, compelling family saga.
Census by Jesse Ball (Text)
In his novel about a widowed father who, after discovering he is dying, sets out on a final journey with his adult son, the young New York author delivers a luminous, fictional tribute to his own late brother, who had Down syndrome.
Circe by Madeline Miller (Bloomsbury)
The second novel by mythology specialist Miller twists Greek tragedy The Odyssey into a spellbinding and modernised female perspective on gods, heroes and the patriarchy with skilful lyrical wordplay.
Consent by Leo Benedictus (Faber & Faber)
The seemingly chummy stalker-narrator of Benedictus’ second book takes you along for the creepy ride as he undertakes complicated, methodical surveillance campaigns against unsuspecting women. A queasily compelling novel that demands shuddering admiration.
Crudo by Olivia Laing (Picador)
A blazingly raw and sharp work, Laing’s first novel attempts to capture the atmosphere of anxiety, confusion and shock felt in the UK at the time of the Brexit vote and its aftermath.
Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk (Text)
From the Polish International Man Booker Prize winner, this subversive, shape-shifting narrative of environmentalism and revenge has a heroine who’s both dippy and deadly.
Fishing for Māui by Isa Pearl Ritchie (Te Rā Aroha Press)
A novel that weaves together strands of family, food and mental illness with compassion, skill and an excellent instinct for storytelling.
Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi (Oneworld)
Delivered in the bicentennial year of the original, this surreal, satirical spin on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is set in wartime Baghdad featuring a mourning mother, a shady second-hand goods dealer, a hotel owner and various body parts.
House of Stone by Novuyo Rosa Tshuma (Atlantic)
Zimbabwean writer Tshuma explores her country’s traumatic history via a rootless young man, Zamani, who attaches himself to a troubled older couple whose teenage son has disappeared. A vast tapestry of violence and corruption, poetry and hope.
Less by Andrew Sean Greer (Hachette)
This year’s Pulitzer Prize winner, a Thurber-esque romantic comedy that’s funny, poignant and utterly delightful.
Love Is Blind by William Boyd (Viking)
Boyd’s 15th novel, about a Scottish piano tuner going on the run around late-19th-century Europe with a Russian opera singer, offers an enjoyably cerebral melodrama, complete with allusions to Chekhov.
Mazarine by Charlotte Grimshaw (Vintage)
Grimshaw’s absorbing ninth work of fiction spans the globe with a multilayered, character-driven mystery about an Auckland mother and writer trying to find her elusive daughter on a European OE.
Milkman by Anna Burns (Faber & Faber)
“Original” might be an overused word, but it’s exactly right for this year’s astonishing Man Booker Prize winner, with its story offering a challenging, powerful and startling take on the Irish Troubles.
My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh (Jonathan Cape)
Moshfegh’s unnamed narrator, a young, pretty Manhattanite, appears to have it all, until she quits her art-gallery job to spend a year in a narcotically induced slumber, care of her bonkers psychiatrist. One of the most mordantly funny novels of 2018.
Normal People by Sally Rooney (Allen & Unwin)
A startlingly eloquent study of the murky intricacies of emotional and sexual relationships, charting the on-off coupledom of Marianne and Connell, Galway teenagers off to university in Dublin. Rooney’s immersive novel crackles with energy and feeling.
Nine Perfect Strangers by Liane Moriarty (Macmillan)
From the author of Big Little Lies, a deceptively clever light-and-dark read about a healing retreat gone wrong. Perfect holiday material.
Oliver Loving by Stefan Merrill Block (Atlantic)
Can a thriller be melancholy? This one somehow is: when Oliver is terribly injured in a school shooting, he and his family spend years in stasis. The ending is a breathtaking rush.
Preservation by Jock Serong (Text)
Versatile Aussie scribe Serong turns to historical fiction to brilliantly evoke the fear, violence and racial misunderstandings of early colonial Australia in a riveting novel based on a true story.
Red Birds by Mohammed Hanif (Bloomsbury)
A downed US fighter pilot finds himself living in the desert encampment he was trying to bomb in Hanif’s deadpan comedy about the craziness of war.
Rotoroa by Amy Head (VUP)
Alcoholism in 1950s New Zealand often led to a spell in the Salvation Army drying-out facility on Rotoroa Island, eventual home to young drunk Jim Brooks, who has hit rock bottom, and Sallies officer Lorna Vardy, who bridles at the narrow life she’s been locked into. Tears may fall.
Severance by Ling Ma (Text)
Read this if the consumerism of Christmas is grossing you out: it’s a wickedly funny, zeitgeisty post-apocalyptic story about how humanity’s drive to buy stuff proves our undoing.
The End by Karl Ove Knausgård (Harvill Secker)
The sixth and final instalment of this epic series of autobiographical novels, in which, while grinding though aeons of housework and childcare, Knausgård agonises over his writing and all the trouble it’s caused him, and manages to analyse, in brilliant detail, works ranging from Joyce’s Ulysses to Hitler’s Mein Kampf.
The Friendly Ones by Philip Hensher (4th Estate)
English writer Hensher’s intricately structured novel focuses on two neighbouring families – one Bangladeshi, one Anglo-Saxon – living in Thatcher-era Sheffield. Marvellous characters, deep cultural empathy and a keen eye for the ridiculous.
The Ice Shelf by Anne Kennedy (VUP)
The Ice Shelf uses a broken relationship, a homeless fridge and a planned trip to Antarctica – all in one chaotic Wellington night – to plot an original, satirical, affectionate tale of love and literature.
The Imaginary Lives of James Pōneke by Tina Makereti (Vintage)
Makereti’s second novel, a story about a young Māori becoming a living exhibit in a Victorian London museum presented as a letter to his descendants, is an imaginatively compelling tale of colonial and cultural conflict.
The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner (Jonathan Cape)
The tale of 29-year-old Romy as she begins two consecutive life sentences in a California women’s prison for killing her stalker becomes a study in violence, class and power dynamics, all of which Kushner delivers with striking realism.
The New Ships by Kate Duignan (VUP)
Wellington lawyer Peter Collie, a highly conflicted character, struggles with the death of his wife in a jittery post-9/11 world, questioning his past as a range of issues forces him to rethink the future; witty and risky.
The Only Story by Julian Barnes (Jonathan Cape)
The one-time Booker winner’s elegantly told 13th novel turns a suburban 1960s tennis club fling into a devastating story of regret.
The Pisces by Melissa Broder (Bloomsbury)
A discomfiting, refreshingly base modern fairy tale about a lonely young woman who hooks up with a merman. Lashings of feminism, swearing and philosophy.
The Shepherd's Hut by Tim Winton (Hamish Hamilton)
In troubled teenager Jaxie Clackton, the veteran Aussie novelist created one of his most compelling and alarming characters, while the youngster’s outback survival story became both religious parable and a tense thriller.
The Water Cure by Sophie Mackintosh (Hamish Hamilton)
Three sisters are raised confined to an island, terrified of men. Mackintosh’s debut is an eerie fable that lingers in the mind and was deservedly long-listed for the Booker.
This Mortal Boy by Fiona Kidman (Vintage)
A haunting novel full of humanity from a doyenne of Kiwi lit who goes beyond the 1950s headlines of the “jukebox killer” to explore the life and death of Albert “Paddy” Black, one of the last people in New Zealand sentenced to hang.
Transcription by Kate Atkinson (Doubleday)
Atkinson’s gift for sarcasm sparkles in her World War II espionage novel featuring a young MI5 operative infiltrating a group of British Nazi sympathisers. It’s suffused with a creeping menace as well as laughable moments.
Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver (Faber & Faber)
Kingsolver interweaves the lives of two families living in the same New Jersey house 150 years apart for an evocative, engrossing novel in which the troubles suffered by past occupants have echoes in contemporary America.
Warlight by Michael Ondaatje (Jonathan Cape)
The English Patient author takes us on another intriguing forensic search for truth, this time in the backstreets of post-war London to reveal the story of a missing mother’s war service.
Washington Black by Esi Edugyan (Serpent’s Tail)
Shortlisted for this year’s Booker, Canadian-Ghanaian writer Edugyan’s magical epic about a 19th-century Caribbean slave strays into Jules Verne territory when young Washington becomes an apprentice to a scientist with a flying machine.
What We Owe by Golnaz Hashemzadeh Bonde (Little, Brown)
Fading in a Swedish hospital 30 years after fleeing Iran, Nahid rages against life and death in this unsparing yet cleavingly tender novel.
Crime & Thrillers
Everything Is Lies by Helen Callaghan (Penguin Random House)
A fictional memoir within a fictional memoir that reveals, satisfyingly, the secrets within a family – at the centre of which is a creepy cult following a washed-up pop star.
Lullaby by Leïla Slimani (Faber & Faber)
Slimani’s perfect slender and chilling book is a morality tale: a baby dies on the first page, killed by Louise, the perfect nanny for the perfectly awful young professional couple who hired her – and showed perfect and dangerous indifference to her as a human being.
The Woman in the Window by AJ Finn (HarperCollins)
A slick, smart and claustrophobic debut novel – which makes many nods to the author’s obsession with film – about a woman with agoraphobia who believes she has seen a murder through her window.
The French Girl by Lexie Elliott (Corvus)
Ten years after a group of English university students go on holiday to France, the body of a local girl who disappeared is found, making all of them suspects. A perceptive and compelling take on how the friendships of youth echo long after.
Green Sun by Kent Anderson (Mulholland)
Told in a mesmerising and brutal series of vignettes, this riveting third book in a trilogy born 30 years ago puts poet-turned-Green Beret-turned-street cop Hanson, a “social worker with a gun”, in 1980s Oakland.
I’ll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara (Faber & Faber)
Outstanding reportage powered by prose that sings, this posthumously published true-crime tale is as much about its author’s obsessive search for the Golden State Killer as the perpetrator himself.
The Killing House by Claire McGowan (Headline)
The brilliant coda to a tremendous series sees psychologist Paula Maguire back in Northern Ireland when two bodies are unearthed on a farm, perhaps tied to her mother’s Troubles-era disappearance.
The Lost Man by Jane Harper (Pan Macmillan)
The queen of outback noir serves up a tale of quiet intensity centred on a Queensland farming dynasty torn further asunder when a brother dies in bewildering circumstances.
Money in the Morgue by Ngaio Marsh & Stella Duffy (HarperCollins)
An extraordinary literary tag-team completed 75 years after it began; a daring theft at a rural hospital in Canterbury threatens to derail Inspector Alleyn’s wartime undercover work.
The Quaker by Liam McIlvanney (HarperCollins)
An absorbing, atmospheric read that uses a fictionalised version of the real-life “Bible John” killings in late-1960s Glasgow as a launch-pad for a textured, nuanced crime novel with a vivid sense of time and place.
Scrublands by Chris Hammer (Allen & Unwin)
A sweat-inducingly authentic debut about a recovering journo in a drought-stricken NSW small town that meshes literary stylings, sociological insights and multilayered mystery into an epic tale.
The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton (Bloomsbury)
A highly original country-house murder mystery – Cluedo meets Quantum Leap – that is exquisitely written, intricately plotted and manages to not only deliver on but outdo its brilliant premise.
Thirteen by Steve Cavanagh (Orion)
A propulsive legal thriller with a compulsive hook – a serial killer finagles himself onto the jury for a celebrity trial – that delivers character oomph and plenty of action and intrigue in and out of the courtroom.
Fear by Bob Woodward (Simon & Schuster)
Michael Wolff’s flawed Fire and Fury in January was an early contender for West Wing book of the year, but then along came Watergate reporter Woodward’s Fear with its credible description of a dysfunctional White House and alarming portrayal of the man supposedly in charge.
The Fifth Risk by Michael Lewis (Allen Lane)
The writer of Moneyball and The Big Short frighteningly dissects how the Trump Administration has failed to get to grips with running the US departments of energy, agriculture and commerce on account of its anti-government leanings and scientific ignorance.
The Road to Unfreedom by Timothy Snyder (Bodley Head)
The Yale history professor and author of On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons From the Twentieth Century delivers a compelling examination of how Vladimir Putin’s grip on power in Russia has influenced politics in Europe and in the US.
21 Lessons for the 21st Century by Yuval Noah Harari (Jonathan Cape)
The celebrated historian and author of the bestselling Sapiens and Homo Deus ponders the state of humanity in a grab-bag of essays of big ideas, ethical questions and occasionally confounding observations.
Boys Will Be Boys by Clementine Ford (Allen & Unwin)
Another blazing manifesto from the author of Fight Like a Girl, this time anatomising the heavy price of toxic masculinity for all of us.
Enlightenment Now: The Case For Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress by Steven Pinker (Viking)
In a follow-up to his 2011 best-seller The Better Angels of our Nature, Pinker unleashes yet more data-backed reasons to be cheerful about modern life as well as eloquent arguments in defence of that four-part subtitle, while taking into account the influence of a certain leader of the free world.
The myth-busting author of Nickel and Dimed and Smile or Die takes on the wellness industry.
The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt (Allen Lane)
A book that started life as a 2015 article in the Atlantic argues that the rise of “safetyism” culture at US colleges is helping create a generation seemingly allergic to dealing with ideas that make them uncomfortable.
The Incurable Romantic by Frank Tallis (Little Brown)
English clinical psychologist Tallis, who also writes crime and horror novels, offers an intriguing study in what he sees as a fine line between romantic love and mental illness with 12 fascinating and occasionally disturbing case studies of “love-sick” patients.
The House of Islam: A Global History by Ed Husain (Bloomsbury)
Islam and extremism: that’s a connection Ed Husain, once an Islamist radical himself, seeks to disrupt but never shirk in this scholarly, fascinating analysis of a rich, millennium-long religious and cultural tradition.
Why Buddhism Is True by Robert Wright (Simon & Schuster)
Journalist and sociologist Wright describes the benefits of meditation and makes the case for his belief that Buddhism is “true”, arguing that if you ignore supernatural aspects such as reincarnation, Buddhism is founded on a shrewd assessment of human impulses.
Arnhem: The Battle for the Bridges 1944 by Antony Beevor (Viking)
Long regarded a gallant failure, Operation Market Garden, the 1944 battle fought and lost by Allied airborne troops that prolonged Nazi terror on Dutch civilians, was a disaster in both its planning and execution, writes the popular military historian in this insightful account.
Dictatorland: The Men Who Stole Africa by Paul Kenyon (HarperCollins)
This examination of modern African tyranny, focusing on post-independence dictators, is a fascinating catalogue of horror and sheer looniness.
Endeavour: The Ship and the Attitude that Changed the World by Peter Moore (Chatto)
HMS Endeavour, argues Moore in his ambitious nautical biography, wasn’t just a sturdy converted collier that got Captain James Cook to New Zealand, but a vehicle carrying the Age of Enlightenment to the far reaches of the planet.
Morley’s gripping biography portrays the Machiavellian affairs of James Jesus Angleton, who led the CIA during the Vietnam War, the Kennedy assassinations and the Cuban Missile Crisis.
The Spy and the Traitor: The Greatest Espionage Story of the Cold War by Ben Macintyre (Penguin)
Macintyre’s account of 1980s KGB double agent Oleg Gordievsky is a true story that thrills like the best Fleming or le Carré fiction, but comes with the grit of good investigative journalism.
Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy 1945-1975 by Max Hastings (William Collins)
The venerated British journalist’s latest military history is an engrossing panoramic study that draws on his own reporting experience during the war and mixes personal stories of participants on both sides.
With Them Through Hell by Anna Rogers (Massey University Press)
This deeply researched and fascinatingly detailed account about the New Zealand medical staff who dealt with our 41,000 World War I wounded (and about the vets caring for horses) makes for an affecting history lesson. A perfect last post to the parade of local war centennial books.
Churchill: Walking with Destiny by Andrew Roberts (Allen Lane)
The late, great British statesman gets yet another biography but historian Roberts’ 1000-plus largely admiring pages delivers one of the most complete pictures of the man yet.
Old letters form the building blocks in Wells’ clear-eyed exploration of his Hawke’s Bay family’s generational stories, circling around his relationship with his mother, who died last year at the age of 100, and his father, who rejected Wells and his brother because they were gay. A powerful blend of social and personal histories.
Educated by Tara Westover (Hutchinson)
Westover’s extraordinary memoir calculates with unflinching power the cost of escape from her fundamentalist Mormon Idaho childhood and the value of a good education.
Gandhi: The Years that Changed the World, 1914-1948 by Ramachandra Guha (Allen Lane)
The second of Guha’s two-volume biography offers an authoritative, sympathetic but even-handed account of the Indian leader’s years after his return from South Africa to a political life that, says the writer, often resembled a series of long-running arguments.
Hudson and Halls: The Food of Love by Joanne Drayton (Otago University Press)
A celebration and investigation of the lives of Peter Hudson and David Halls, the funny, flamboyant pair who became pioneering television chefs in the late 1970s and whose show brought gay coupledom into the lounges of New Zealand.
Ma'am Darling: 99 Glimpses of Princess Margaret by Craig Brown (HarperCollins)
The British satirist’s artful experiment in biography produces a portrait of a princess – famed beauty, pocket tyrant, largely useless – that is gossipy, hilarious and ultimately quite moving.
If this is his last book, what a way to go: as generous as it is unsparing in his account of his parents’ lives; unsparing in his account of his own childhood and youth; drily funny about his wife’s family history; and, as ever, lyrical about creeks.
The compelling story of rich-lister Heatley’s seemingly charmed business life, from schoolboy property developer and mini-golf magnate to founding father of Sky television.
Oscar: A Life by Matthew Sturgis (Head of Zeus)
The first major biography of Oscar Wilde since Richard Ellman’s in 1987 delivers 900 magisterial, leisurely pages that take us through the 46 years from his Dublin baby cradle to his Paris deathbed via literary celebrity-dom and imprisonment.
Room to Dream by David Lynch and Kristine McKenna (Text)
The American director, whose name became a byword for screen surrealism, attempts to explain himself in a lengthy and entertaining memoir that alternates between discursive autobiography and his co-writer’s fact-based history.
Rosie: Scenes from a Vanished Life by Rose Tremain (Chatto & Windus)
English novelist Tremain’s memoir is a vivid, precise evocation of her privileged post-war girlhood being raised by an uncaring and cruel mother but a warm and affectionate nanny.
Sam Hunt: Off the Road by Colin Hogg (HarperCollins)
In this entertaining if melancholy sequel to his 1989 tour tale Angel Gear, Hogg revisits the now retired-from-touring Hunt to ponder the poet’s life, their friendship and growing old slightly disgracefully.
Somebody I Used to Know by Wendy Mitchell (Bloomsbury)
The “somebody” of Mitchell’s memoir is herself – her powerful, poignant book, written with journalist Anna Wharton, recalls how, at age 58, the English hospital administrator was diagnosed with early onset dementia and what its symptoms have meant to her life.
It might be too early in his career for an autobiography from the Kiwi NBA star but the memoir, which was ghosted by Madeleine Chapman, is a heart-warming thank-you note to those who backed him in his early days.
The Cost of Living by Deborah Levy (Hamish Hamilton)
This may be a short and swift memoir but it’s generous with its wisdom and insight. Riffing on Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, Levy writes beautifully about the dualities of being a writer and a woman and the mother-daughter relationship.
Tiger Woods by Jeff Benedict and Armen Keteyian (Simon & Schuster)
This exhaustive deep-dive into the champion golfer’s troubled life might have felt like a career obituary when it arrived early in the year. Even with his return to form, this will remain the definitive biography of the world’s first billion-dollar sportsman.
Art & Literature
Bookworm: A Memoir of Childhood Reading by Lucy Mangan (Square Peg)
English journalist Mangan’s biblio-memoir isn’t the first personal account of childhood bookishness but it’s a funny, enchanting one, especially when she’s reflecting on her years of Enid Blyton addiction.
Theo Schoon, a Biography by Damian Skinner (Massey University Press)
Art historian Skinner plots Schoon’s life journey from Java and the Netherlands to New Zealand, Australia and back again in profiling this intolerable, enigmatic but influential multimedia artist.
In Galleries of Māoriland: Artists, Collectors and the Māori World, 1880-1910 by Roger Blackley (Auckland University Press)
The author challenges the post-colonial criticism of portrait painters Charles Goldie and Gottfried Lindauer to reveal an artistic and cultural milieu in which Māori were not passive subjects but active players and negotiators.
Mr Lear: A Life of Art and Nonsense by Jenny Uglow (Faber & Faber)
There was an old man called Lear, who was exceedingly … Uglow’s excellent biography of Edward Lear exposes the solitary, peripatetic life of a multitalented naturalist, landscape artist, travel writer and creator of nonsense verse.
An extraordinary, scholarly and richly illustrated work that traces Samoan tattooing from its pre-European beginnings and ponders the contemporary state of the ancient art.
Science and Nature
Europe: A Natural History by Tim Flannery (Text Publishing)
Leading Australian ecologist Flannery twiddles the dials of his figurative time machine and whizzes us back 100 million years to before the formation of Europe as a distinct continent, then advances through epochs of geological and climatic upheavals and the ensuing transformation of its flora and fauna. A masterclass in science writing.
Pollan’s intriguing and masterful study of mind-altering drugs mixes science history with a treatise on possible therapeutic use, along with accounts of his own experiences with LSD, psilocybin and DMT.
Origin Story by David Christian (Allen Lane)
Australian “Big History” advocate Christian’s accessible – short but compelling – account of our 13-billion-year-old universe comes with a reminder that our place in it is very temporary and quite possibly a miracle.
She Has Her Mother's Laugh by Carl Zimmer (Picador)
The hefty but engaging work by science writer Zimmer delivers a history of heredity through the ages and what it means in an age of surrogacy and gene editing, along with a personal exploration into his own genetic make-up.
The Feather Thief by Kirk Wallace Johnson (Hutchinson)
The bizarre tale of American flautist Edwin Rist, who stole nearly 300 rare bird skins from the British Natural History Museum, leads into Johnson’s investigation of an international network of fly-tying feather fetishists.
The Order of Time by Carlo Rovelli (Allen Lane)
Heavier going than his previous best-selling Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, this work by Italian theoretical physicist Rovelli offers a confounding philosophical investigation of time and explains with clarity and elegance why what your watch says is merely an illusion.
The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs: The Untold Story of a Lost World by Steve Brusatte (Macmillan)
Edinburgh University palaeontologist Brusatte’s infectiously enthusiastic book is a memoir of his bone-digging travels, an expert-led tour of the Mesozoic era and a reminder that there is still plenty we can learn from dino-science.
Victoria University professor of entomology Lester’s book on one of our most feared insects might be a witty, fascinating history of the common wasp but it has a sting in its tale – shouldn’t we be eradicating this danger to native forests?
What's Your Type? The Strange History of Myers-Briggs and the Birth of Personality Testing by Merve Emre (William Collins)
Oxford English professor Emre captivates with her delving into the strange lives of the American mother and daughter who, in the 1940s, unqualified in psychology, created the personality test still popular with HR departments.
This article was first published in the November 24, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.
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