Top 5 reads of 2018

Boiling down my favourite books of the year to a list of only five was a difficult task. While 2018 was, in many ways, an odd reading year for me (I read way less than I have in years. I was always reading something, but it took me a lot longer to finish books than it used to), I did get around to picking up several absolute stunners, so choosing the top five of a pretty spectacular bunch was not an easy thing to do.

But I love an end-of-year round up, so I struggled through.

5 To Kill a Kingdom – Alexandra Christo

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This hate-to-love adventure between a siren and heir to the crown of the sea and siren-hunter and heir to the crown of the land was thrilling, silly and a much-needed distraction during a very stressful few weeks. Expect murder, romance and pirates – all the good stuff, basically.

4 The Belles – Dhonielle Clayton

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In a world in which beauty equals power, you might believe as the only truly beautiful people in the land, the Belles would be running the show – but instead they are little more than slaves, sold to royals desperate for a slice of the beauty the Belles are born with. I ADORED this dystopic story of a group of women groomed their entire lives for royal servitude growing to realise all is very much not as it seems. Bonus points for having a Stern Man as a love interest. I love me a Stern Man and I can’t wait to watch Camellia run rings around him in book two.

3 Redefining Realness – Janet Mock

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Picking my favourite memoir of the year was a painful task, but when I got really honest with myself I found that the title could only ever belong to Janet. In her gorgeous and unique prose, Janet describes in searing detail growing up mixed race, poor and trans in Hawaii. Her story is one of survival and fighting for self-definition that opened up a world I have never experienced first-hand while also really speaking to my personal struggles.

2 An Absolutely Remarkable Thing – Hank Green

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Hank Green’s debut novel was one of my most anticipated of the year and it did not disappoint. A heart-wrenching, funny and cringe-inducing portrait of our brand-influenced, perpetually online times, it tells the tale of what happens when a person sacrifices their sense of self (and safety) for their brand. Also, robots.

1 Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine – Gail Honeyman

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This funny, bleak, brutal, heart-breaking and utterly life-affirming novel about abuse, isolation and, eventually, finding a way to re-engage with the world was the absolute highlight of my reading year. If you’ve ever felt alone in the world (so, everyone), you should read this book. Eleanor’s story proves without a shadow of a doubt that there is something better for everyone, if only you can find the strength to reach for it.

Honourable mentions (because I am a cheat)

All The Single Ladies – Rebecca Traister

Never World Wake – Marisha Pessl

No One Tells You This – Glynnis Macnicol

Love, Hate and Other Filters – Samira Ahmed

Children of Blood and Bone – Tomi Adeyemi

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Play It As It Lays

A ruthless dissection of American life in the late 1960s, Play It As It Lays captures the mood of an entire generation, the emptiness and ennui of contemporary society reflected in spare prose that both blisters and haunts the reader.

Set in a place beyond good and evil – literally in Hollywood, Las Vegas, and the barren wastes of the Mojave Desert, but figuratively in the landscape of the arid soul – Play It As It Lays remains, more than three decades after its original publication, a profoundly disturbing novel, riveting in its exploration of a woman and a society in crises and stunning in the still-startling intensity of its prose.

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After becoming totally obsessed with the Belletrist Instagram account it’s only natural that my TBR would fill with Joan Didion. I have been meaning to get into her work for years and Belletrist provided the push. After finishing the torturously short South and West I figured I should turn to her fiction.

Play It As It Lays is not an easy novel. Joan Didion manages to construct a story that is at once intense and consumed with ennui. You feel as if you should be sprawled elegantly across a chaise long while reading the spare but piercing prose, or lying still in a sweaty hotel room bed out in the desert, like Maria, its protagonist.

Didion’s writing is unflinching and unemotional – a fact that often jars given the subject matter of the novel – mental illness, suicide, abortion – but curiously pulls you forward through it, down into the depths of its protagonist’s psychological unravelling. The novel begins with Maria in a psychiatric ward, and then travels back through the events that led to her admittance there. Current and past events are split by the use of first and third person – a technique I have never seen applied as Didion uses it.

Maria is a failed actress living in a failed marriage. Her daughter, Kate suffers with some undefined disorder and so lives in a hospital away from her. Maria isn’t always allowed to see Kate when she wants to, and it remains unclear whether this is because of Carter, Kate’s father or because of the hospital staff.  Maria and Carter are definitely getting a divorce, but whether or not they’ll actually break up remains in question.

Maria is unable to let Carter share in her suffering. His career is starting to take off, while hers is stalling – a fact for which she deeply resents him. They’re both cheating, though you imagine which of them is punished for it – Maria, obviously. When she falls pregnant by another man, Carter forces her into an abortion she didn’t choose. It’s a trauma that haunts her throughout the novel and one that she never discusses with anyone.

What Maria wants – the only thing she seems to care about at all, actually – is the ability to define her own life. She wants to live in the countryside with Kate and make jam. Instead she is passed between her husband and his friends, deemed by all unable to care for herself. They might be right, but that isn’t the point.

Early in their marriage, Carter and Maria made two films together. In the second, Maria plays a rape survivor fighting for justice for herself. The film was brought by a studio and distributed, but never particularly successful. Maria loved it and was so enamoured of her character’s ‘definite knack for controlling her own destiny’. The first film, called simply ‘Maria’ won awards at art festivals and is the one for which Carter first became known. ‘Maria’ is seventy four minutes of ‘Maria asleep on the couch at a party, Maria on the telephone arguing with the billing department at Bloomingdale’s, Maria cleaning some marijuana with a kitchen strainer, Maria crying on the IRT’. Maria herself can’t bear to watch it. Her self-hatred runs so deep that even a loved one’s reflection of her causes her pain. The girl in the movie, she says ‘had no knack for anything.’

Play It As It Lays is a novel consumed with meaning – or lack thereof. In the sparse prose Didion narrates the action, but doesn’t cast judgement on it. Even in Maria’s worst moments we never really turn into the pantomime audience, hissing and booing from the side lines. Even in the presence of such action from other characters in the novel, Maria herself remains untouched by it. The novel isn’t really about deciding whether Maria is good or evil, so much as just immersing yourself in her psyche. Good and evil are labels that connote a certain level of meaning, after all, and to Maria, there is no such thing. Meaninglessness to Maria is like a secret only she is in on. This theme is apparent even from the very first line:

‘What makes Iago evil? Some people ask. I never ask.’

This first line is important as it serves as a sort of mission statement for the novel, and one of the only incidences in which Didion uses a question mark. This general lack of question marks shows Maria as a woman who sincerely believes that there are no answers left to be found. She is a person without curiosity, moving through the world because time passes, but not really participating in it.

Play It As It Lays is not a book for everyone. Nobody in the book is ‘likeable’, so if that sort of thing is important to you, you’re probably not going to get into it. But for me, lately, I have found I’m less interested in reading what is comfortable. And Play It As It Lays is about as uncomfortable as it gets.

April Wrap-Up

Let’s be honest.

I was not a good blogger this month.

I reviewed:

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There but for the – Ali Smith

Tiny Beautiful Things – Cheryl Strayed

(I’m sorry)

I also wrote:

When Do You Read?

Eesh. Thank you, everyone who has stuck with me through this period of epic blog drought. I will try and do better in May.

OTHER THAN BOOKS: Some recommendations you didn’t ask for

To Read: Krsta Rodriguez on womanhood after breast cancer. Reading this is sort of like wringing your heart out like you might a wet towel, but it’s wonderful.

To Watch: I’m newly obsessed with Lilly Singh, and selectively watching my way through her back catalogue of videos. The other day I came across this one about how to get shit done and it got me all kinds of motivated.

To Listen: The Rookie podcast. It is wonderful. Go listen. Now.