One of the questions I am most asked by my friends is ‘what should I be reading?’ Today, I am happy to answer that by providing your new reading list: the best books of 2018. I am even more thrilled that it’s also my reading list, as it comes courtesy of the wondrous Helen Whitaker.
Helen is a writer, editor and interviewer. Former Entertainment Director of Glamour, she is now a hack for hire (kind of) and can be found tweeting here and on Instagram here (follow her for snappily incisive book and film reviews). She is also a good friend – not to mention the person I always ask ‘what should I be reading?’. The thing is, I always want to devour everything she recommends, so if this leaves you thinking ‘hold on, but I want to read them NOW’, I asked her what she recommends for an instant hit. Right now she is tucking into Tina Brown’s The Vanity Fair Diaries and her top buy-it-now tip is Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere.
“An ex-colleague once asked me how I find the time to read so much with a full-time job, a toddler, and a professional interest in keeping up with the latest film and TV shows. “I’m not on Instagram,” I replied. This is no longer true (what can I say, I am a very late Insta adopter) but luckily I still consider any downtime the moment to dive back into my latest book, even if I only have time for half a page. I am something of a book pusher, as W&W chiefs Natasha and Alex will attest. When I discover something I think the whole world should know about I cannot stop myself from pressing it into the hands of my friends. So happily, N & A have asked me to press my picks for the first part of 2018 (I couldn’t narrow it down; part 2 will follow in 2018) into yours. Happy reading!
Three Things about Elsie by Joanna Cannon
I adored Joanna’s 2015 debut, The Trouble with Goats and Sheep, which had 10-year-old best friends Grace and Tilly at the heart of the suburban mystery, and her second book also has female friendship as its core. This time, it’s a friendship that has endured all the way to old age. We meet octogenarian Florence who has had a fall in her sheltered accommodation flat and, as she waits for help, reflects on her past, and particularly her relationship with childhood friend Elsie. It’s not often that OAPs are the heroines of novels, and it works here so well. Joanna Cannon has a great talent for bringing warmth to oft-overlooked parts of life.
Anatomy of a Scandal by Sarah Vaughn
If you were a fan of ITV’s Liar this year, you will <love> this – not least because it’s even better (sorry Liar, but it went too ‘ITV’ for me at the end). This tautly drawn thriller is set in Westminster (incidentally author Sarah Vaughn used to be a political correspondent for The Guardian), where government minister – and close friend of the PM – James has been having an affair with parliamentary researcher Olivia. The book opens as he tells his wife, Sophie the tabloids are onto him, but then the story gets much worse: Olivia is alleging that James has raped her. The chapters alternate between three women’s points of view – Sophie, Kate (Olivia’s lawyer), and Holly – whose story is set at Oxford University in the 90s, where she studied as a scholarship student alongside Eton grads James and the PM. So many issues are raised and it’s incredibly affecting, with at the heart of it a bloody good ‘did he do it?’ crime drama.
Trying by Emily Phillips
Olivia is 30-something, married, on the right career path and holed up in the ‘burbs ready to pop out a baby. But the last part isn’t happening. And now she and her husband are slaves to scheduled sex, fertile days and slapping on a rictus grin every time one of their friends tells them they’re expecting (which is all the time). It’s a novel a lot of people will relate to, but whether you’ve struggled to conceive or not, this sharply written (the scathingly witty fashion, pop culture and Hygge observations just keep coming; you can so tell Emily is a Grazia journalist) novel about trying for a baby while remembering why you got with your partner to begin with is funny and heart-breaking at the same time.
The Cactus by Sarah Haywood
There’s been a trend for ‘difficult’ female protagonists and Sarah Haywood’s debut introduces us to another one. Which is not to say Cactus doesn’t stand out from the crowd, because set-in-her-ways Susan is difficult in her own unique way. She as her life organised the way she likes it: with no mess, no long-term partner and no one to feel beholden to. But after the death of her mother, she is forced to deal with the chaotic brother she lost touch with, a ‘geriatric’ pregnancy with a man she doesn’t want to be bound to, and an inkling she can’t shake that life might be better if she opened herself up to other people.
Feel Free by Zadie Smith
Any new writing from Zadie Smith is cause for excitement and this essay collection is no exception. Written, as she says in the foreword, during the Obama administration (so no musings through the lens of the Trump era here), it’s a wonderful compilation of her non-fiction work (including from publications such as Harper’s and The New Yorker) on everything from library closures in North London to a review of The Social Network, which is actually a meditation on the wider implications of the generation that grew up with Facebook. Each section is introduced by Smith and my personal fave is the one where she talks about being too self-conscious to write a diary, something I can completely relate to.
The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton
Imagine Agatha Christie meets Quantum Leap – no stay with me, this is a good thing.
Set in the run up to a masquerade ball at the country estate of the Hardcastle family, a man with no memory of who he really is finds himself in a different ‘host’ body, on the same day for seven days as he attempts to solve the murder of Evelyn Hardcastle. She dies without fail, every night at the end of the ball. But who is forcing him to play sleuth? And which of the other guests are going to help him and which are going to hinder his investigation? This period piece is one of the most genuinely interesting murder mysteries (and mind-bending – don’t think too hard about how the time-travel works) of the year.
The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar
Eighteenth Century merchant Jonah Hancock is grieving for the wife and child he lost in childbirth, but when one of his captains recklessly trades Jonah’s ship for a mermaid, it provides a passing distraction, catapulting him into a world where people live for the next curiosity. Meanwhile, after the death of her regular benefactor leaves her in reduced circumstances, famous London courtesan Angelica must make ends meet. When Jonah and Angelica meet at a renowned brothel, their lives and emotions collide. I can just see this both bawdy and touching period piece being picked up as a Sunday night BBC drama.
The Perfect Girlfriend by Karen Hamilton
The main character of this psych thriller is so horrendously sociopathic, but so compelling, that you might begin to question your own empathy chip (as Jennifer Aniston might refer to it). Juliette is determined to win back her pilot ex-boyfriend Nate. And if that means secretly re-retraining as a flight attendant, getting a job at his airline and then manipulating him by any means necessary, then that’s what she’ll have to do. Sure. But Juliette isn’t just a two-dimensional, destructive-for-the-sake-of-it psycho, her backstory and relationships are all delved into, which makes this a layered and compulsive read. Even if you read some of it with your fingers over your eyes.
Follow Helen on Instagram @itshelenwhitaker and on Twitter @helbobwhitaker
Main picture – Emily Henderson via Pinterest