It's been an odd year, the prospect of Brexit has loomed large across it, more of my reading time has been spent in newspapers and finding comfort in equally angry and dismayed people on twitter. 10 years ago I was made redundant twice within 6 months at the beginning of the last recession, then more or less unemployed for a year. It had taken the best part of a decade to get near to recovering financially from the damage that did. The last couple of years have been unbelievably challenging to work in retail, uncertainty about the future has bitten into sales, a weak pound has destroyed margin - my job doesn't look secure, and frankly I'm worried about what comes next.
I knew before I started looking back at the last year that I hadn't read particularly much in 2018, though I was surprised in the end by just how little it actually amounted to, and how many of the books were short stories or similar. I finished the year reading an absolute stinker which I'll write about soon, and have started a few really good things, but as they're all half finished I can't really count them into a best of list. At least they're something positive to look forward to (because I'm clearly on the verge of getting a bit maudlin here).
I've chosen Christmas and Other Winter Feasts by Tom Parker-Bowles as my food title for this list not because it's obviously the best one I've seen this year (it's not - I think that might be Caroline Eden's 'Black Sea Dispatches', but I've not written about it yet, or it could well have been Diana Henry's 'How To Eat a Peach', or quite a few others - 2018 was a vintage year for food writing) but because it's the one that surprised and cheered me the most. To open it is to fall into a luxurious dream where all is right with the world.
Susan Crawford's The Vintage Shetland Project finally appeared after a few delays in March. I was so pleased to finally see this book completed, not least because it's author had to pause writing to deal with breast cancer. It's an incredible piece of work that does a lot to further our knowledge of the history of Knitting in Shetland, specifically putting a spotlight on some remarkable women who had more or less slipped from view. Everything about it is a triumph to be celebrated.
Baroness Orczy seems to be having a bit of a moment. The Scarlet Pimpernel got the Oxford world's classics treatment in January and Pushkin have reprinted the Old Man in the Corner, with another title due soon. I loved the Scarlet Pimpernel as a child, was delighted to see it looking so respectable (my old copy had Anthony Andrews on the front as Sir Percy, and was falling apart) and even happier to find that it basically stood up to my memories of it.
Russian folklore is also having a moment, or at least it has been in my reading, Katherine Arden's Winter of the Witch trilogy (last instalment due in about a week) and Naomi Novik's 'Spinning Silver' borrow those myths which was enough to get me to read Russian Magic Tales from Pushkin to Platnov which had been sitting on the shelf for a while. It's an excellent anthology in every way, not least because it gave me another push towards reading Teffi.
One thing that I can say for 2018 is that it's the year I finally started to appreciate a trio of writers I'd always meant to read, but never quite got to. There is an excellent bit about Baba Yaga by Teffi in Russian Magic Tales. I'd had 'Rasputin and Other a Ironies' for a while too, a gem just waiting to be enjoyed. It's really good, and I'll definitely be reading more of her this year.
Jeanette Winterson was another writer I'd meant to read for god knows how long and finally have. Turns out she's just as good as everybody says. I loved everything I read (3 books I think) but !The Daylight Gate' with its gothic hammer horror edge (although 'Weight' from the Canongate myth series is also amazing) might be my favourite.
Sylvia Townsend Warner is my other big discovery of the year. I've always been a bit on the fence about her. I think I have all the Virago editions of her books, but I didn't get very far with Lolly Willows and left it at that. Handheld's edition of Kingdoms of Elfin was a revelation, I loved everything about it. I'm now happily working my way through a Virago collection of her short stories and finding yet more to love.
Madeline Miller's 'Circe' was a lucky strike, I readvit on my phone with low expectations and again, fell in love. Circe is one of those seemingly peripheral characters in Greek mythology who pops up all over the place. Miller has put her at the Centre of her own story to great effect. I really look forward to seeing what she does next.
After a bad early experience with Somerset Maugham it took me years to read him again, when I did it was for a book club (or I'd never have bothered) since then I've been lucky with everything I've picked up. 'Up At The Villa' is short, shocking, and brilliant. It's hard to say much about it without giving spoilers, but read it and you'll see what I mean.
Malachy Tallack's The Valley at the Centre of the World is my most personal choice, it's set in Shetland and does such a good job of capturing a sense of the place, and that feels so important to me that it's hard to be objective beyond that. I don't read a lot of contemporary fiction, or even a lot about it, so it's possible that there's a big chunk of regional, rural, literature that I'm totally unaware of - but I don't think there is. I hadn't realised how much I wanted to read books that reflect the place I'm from until I got the chance to do it. What he writes feels absolutely true, I suppose the closest I'd got to this before was reading George Mackay Brown, but Tallack is from a different generation. He's less nostalgic for an idealised past, and a remarkably promising author by any standard.