Rounding off our favourite books of 2018 (see our graphic novel and non-fiction picks here), our top fiction picks from all the funny, supernatural, mysterious, and sometimes shocking stories that captivated us this year.
Sodom Road Exit by Amber Dawn
(Arsenal Pulp Press, 9781551527161, p/b, £15.99)
Sodom Road Exit is the absolute best thing I have read this year. For years, in fact. I wrote about it on this blog in July so you can read a longer, more swoony review here, but to sum it up, it’s a supernatural queer erotic thriller set in the shadows of a demolished theme park. It’s an exploration of horror. It’s a love story between a university drop-out and a small-town stripper. It’s about mothers and daughters, poverty, feminism, abuse, addiction. And it’s about sex, sometimes with humans and sometimes with ghosts. It’s frightening and sad-making in places. It’s also funny and smart and sexy. I loved it, and I’m certain you will too!
Little Fish by Casey Plett
(Arsenal Pulp Press, 9781551527208, p/b, £14.99)
Also published by Arsenal Pulp Press, Little Fish is one of those novels that your brain keeps coming back to after you’ve read it, probably because author Casey Plettt did such an incredible job of putting you right there in the freezing Winnipeg setting alongside her characters. The story focuses on Wendy, a transwoman from a Mennonite family who finds out her grandfather may also have been trans. That’s part of the book, Wendy’s search for answers. But it’s also about trans lives, and the vital relationship between a close-knit group looking towards the future – and what that means for them. It’s bleak and beautiful, intelligent and razor-sharp, and the characters are so complex, messy, witty and awesome that it’s easy to forget they are not real people.
Disoriental by Negar Djavadi
(Europa Editions, 9781609454517, p/b, £12.99)
Disoriental begins and ends in a fertility clinic in Paris, where Kimia Sadr, a 25-year-old Iranian punk fan, is waiting to find out if she and her partner can start a family. While there, the interminable waiting has Kimia thinking about her family history, which leads to a colourful, kaleidoscopic, and troubled portrait of Iran. Kimia recounts her flamboyant ancestors and her many uncles. She introduces her parents, Darius and Sara, both radical opponents of the Islamic revolution. And in events based on Djavadi’s own life, she recalls, in patchy detail, the horror of fleeing the regime to live in exile in Paris. There is so much to this book that it’s hard to sum it up in a paragraph. It’s about history, and it’s about beginnings. It’s about sexuality, memory, trauma, and displacement. If you want something weighty, intricate and beautifully written to read over Christmas, this is probably it.
The Waterfront Journals by David Wojnarowicz
(Peninsula Press, 9781999922313, p/b, £9.99)
It feels a bit like cheating to include this in a fiction post because it’s hard to know where the line between fiction and reality begins and ends. But of course this is David Wojnarowicz, and these short, leap-off-the-page monologues feel so incredibly real that you might as well be listening to them over a pint, perched at the end of a bar somewhere. Each character is undoubtedly based on a person Wojnarowicz met during his travels. Each is living on the fringes of society – sex workers, addicts, queers, drunks, and homeless men and women. Read together, they paint a portrait of America that is grisly and hard-edged but ultimately resilient. Topped off with a poignant afterword by Olivia Laing, who writes beautifully about Wojnarowicz and other victims of the AIDS epidemic, this is an emotional, humorous, and lively read from start to finish.
A Winter’s Promise by Christelle Dabos
(Europa Editions, 9781609454838, h/b, £14.99)
A runaway sensation in France, A Winter’s Promise is the first instalment in Christelle Dabos’s The Mirror Visitor quartet, and has already left me spellbound. Set in a world ruptured into floating islands known as ‘arks’, each a microcosm of magic and wonder to itself, the story centres on the character of Ophelia, an intelligent and headstrong young woman with a magical talent to move through mirrors (and more besides) and betrothed to a man she has no interest in at all. What follows is a story that captures the whimsy, adventure, and mature moral voice of the likes of Harry Potter or His Dark Materials, but with an ingenious worldbuilding and intricate plotting all its own.
Breach by W. L. Goodwater
(Ace, 9780451491039, p/b, £13.99)
A brilliant piece of historical fantasy fiction, Goodwater reimagines the Cold War as not just a clash between spies and soldiers, but magicians as well, where the Berlin Wall is made from arcane energy. Only now there’s a breach, and as the massive magical construct separating the East and Western powers of Berlin threatens to collapse, agents from both sides are dispatched to investigate. Goodwater has built a world here where the magic is so seamlessly integrated that it appears real, and expertly takes on the task of delivering a novel that is at once a gripping spy thriller, enthralling fantasy adventure, and an insightful deep-dive into the politics of the Cold War and 70s Berlin.
Trick by Domenico Starnone
(Europa Editions, 9781609454449, p/b, £11.99)
What happens when you leave a cantankerous septuagenarian alone to babysit his four-year-old grandson? Domenico Starnone answers this question with the characteristic skill of one of Italy’s most standout authors, expertly capturing the curmudgeonly attitude of one disillusioned old man, and the vitality and curiosity of a rambunctious post-toddler. Set in the city of Naples and narrated by the grandfather, a famous illustrator in his twilight years, Trick is at its heart a witty domestic drama packed with minor calamities, about two people who couldn’t be further apart. But it is also a moving portrait of the vulnerability of age and the mind of a struggling artist, seated in a rich Neapolitan setting.
In This Skull Hotel Where I Never Sleep edited by Rob Doyle
(Broken Dimanche Press, 9783943196627, p/b, £10)
Fiction masquerading as non-fiction is the best. Can a writer who never really existed disappear? First introduced to readers in Rob Doyle’s This Is The Ritual (Lilliput Press/Bloomsbury, 2016), Killian Turner is an inscrutable figure of Irish letters who ‘disappeared under mysterious circumstances in West Berlin in 1985.’ A superb evocation of gritty West Berlin in the early 1980s undercuts a fascinating faux-biography of a writer I wish (so bad) was real. But maybe he was… or maybe it doesn’t actually matter whether he was or not because we still get this mind-bending and brilliant little book. Comprised of essays on Turner by friends and admirers; fragments of Turner’s own writing and marginalia; photos, and details of a (real) art installation (which recreated Turner’s room in the state it was left in when he vanished), Skull Hotel is a slim but intense and miraculous book. One which I am very glad exists.
The Stone Tide by Gareth E. Rees
(Influx Press, 9781910312070, p/b, £9.99)
I actually read an early copy of this book over a year ago and it really blew me away then and continues to do so. Incredibly written and suffused with arcane references, this novel is an extraordinary example of psychogeographic fiction as well as a profound meditation on grief, history and the imagination. When Gareth and his wife buy a decrepit Victorian house in Hastings and relocate their family, they think they are leaving the chaos and stress of London behind them. But the house stubbornly refuses to yield to them, taking its toll on their relationship and on Gareth’s ability to work. Long-buried guilt over his best friend’s death and his own growing obsession with occult forces combine with local legends – including Aleister Crowley, John Logie Baird, author Robert Tressel and the Piltdown Man hoaxer Charles Dawson – and self-made myths of humongous eels and possessed seagulls, as his sanity crumbles.
The Experimentalist by Nick Salaman
(Dome Press, 9781999855925, p/b, £9.99)
Telling the story of Marie, an orphan raised in a remote Scottish manor house by two aloof aunts, all she knows about her parents are overheard whispers. Was her father a Nazi? A disgraced playboy? Both? Or something even worse? As Marie grows up, outlandishly bad things seem to happen around her, and she comes to believe that her blood is tainted with a curse. A gloriously improbable series of events sees Marie fall in love, run away to London, become a casino ‘hostess’, work as watchmaker’s assistant, held captive, and convalesce in California before running away again. The truth about her father haunts her as she coasts from one set of circumstances to another, but it is only in California that she is finally allowed a glimpse of the full picture. This book has a brilliant sense of slow-brewing menace and foreboding – it is a remarkable, darkly comic and compulsive novel.
The Cage by Lloyd Jones
(Text, 9781911231202, p/b, £10.99)
Told in simply stark but impactfully eviscerating prose, this is a modern fable about humanity and how awful it can be. When two men, fleeing from some undisclosed horror, arrive at a small-town hotel at first they are taken care of by the locals – sheltered, clothed, fed and healed. They are asked what has happened to them but cannot say, and this inability to tell the townspeople of the atrocity from which they’ve escaped causes concern that quickly escalates to all-out suspicion, fear, and prejudice. Not knowing what to do with the men, the hotel directors imprison them in the eponymous cage, where they are fed by hand and gawped at by locals and tourists who come to see the spectacle. This book is as dark and shocking as it is superbly written; outrageous in its monstrosity and yet totally believable.
What Was Lost by Jean Levy
(Dome Press, 9781999855963, p/b, £8.99)
Sarah, found near-death on a beach in Devon, has forgotten all of her adult memories. What Was Lost follows her journey to rebuilding her life without them, unknowingly a part of a medical experiment. She meets a kind man who seems strangely familiar, strangely friendly, as if he knows more about her than he’s letting on… It’s clear that things are being hidden from Sarah, and we follow her fight to regain her memories, live her life, and discover the truth of what happened to her. What Was Lost is a compelling psychological thriller with a likeable main character and an engaging plot all the way through, from the quick glimpse of Sarah at hospital in the short first chapter to the conclusion I won’t spoil. The fact that it’s set in London and that Sarah’s previous career was in publishing means I’m probably biased towards it from the start, but this was definitely one of my most enjoyable reads of 2018.
Severance by Ling Ma
(Text Publishing, 9781925773279, p/b, £10.99)
Severance tells the story of Candace in several timelines, alternating chapter by chapter and in flashbacks and flash-forwards, including her past working at a publisher managing the production of Bibles, and her present after a plague known as Shen Fever has swept New York. This is different from your usual zombie plague, however – victims are compelled to go about their daily routines unendingly, until they work themselves to death. It’s a dystopian deadpan comedy, but it’s also frighteningly real. As a criticism of consumer culture this book is shockingly, understatedly effective, Candace’s dry-as-a-bone narration perfectly conveying how draining her pre-apocalypse life, and even her post-apocalypse one, is. This is interwoven with themes of immigration, parents’ expectations, and identity. Severance is Ling Ma’s debut, and cements her place as an important voice in contemporary fiction.
Horse Crazy by Gary Indiana
(Seven Stories, 9781609808617, p/b, £11.99)
Love is hell. At least, it is in Gary Indiana’s debut novel, which follows a thirty-five-year-old writer as he falls irredeemably in love with the immensely charming, probably still heroin addicted, and almost certifiably insane Gregory Burgess. Amidst the AIDS epidemic of 1980s Lower East Side New York, the narrator wanders in a dreamlike state – vacillating between ardently waiting for Gregory to call, and being plagued by doubt over the quality of their relationship. Originally published by Grove Press in 1989, Seven Stories reissued Horse Crazy alongside another Indiana novel Gone Tomorrow this year, and I am oh-so-grateful to them for it. As the great Christmas oracle says, there is nothing worse than the total agony of being in love, and Gary Indiana captures that perfectly.
Jonny Appleseed by Joshua Whitehead
(Arsenal Pulp Press, 9781551527253, p/b, £13.99)
I’ve written about Joshua Whitehead’s Jonny Appleseed on this blog already, so I will just take this opportunity to say that my earlier praise still stands. The book is lyrical, bruising and bruised, forming a fragmentary picture of indigiqueer life in Manitoba. Its Scotiabank Giller Prize longlisting was well-deserved.
In This Skull Hotel Where I Never Sleep edited by Rob Doyle
(Broken Dimanche Press, 9783943196627, p/b, £10)
I am obsessed with Skull Hotel. Obsessed. The collage of voices Rob Doyle employs to tell the story of Killian Turner is so captivating, and done with such conviction, that both myself and Rachel went and looked everyone up to double check whether they were assumed personas or not. We’re still not sure. In This Skull Hotel Where I Never Sleep is atmospheric, poetic and brilliant; I’m not going to say ‘good things come in small packages’, but… y’know. They do. Besides, I can never pass up fiction with strange formatting.