My Twenty Favourite Books from 2018 (Part Two)

Welcome to Part Two of My Favourite Reads of 2018 (You can catch up on part One here). This is the Top Ten – the books I loved the most out of everything I read in 2018!

10 WAKE IN FRIGHT – Kenneth Cook, 1961.
Kenneth Cook’s 1961 novel WAKE IN FRIGHT is a wonderful and disturbing tale of life in the ‘cold dead heart’ of Australia. Grant, a schoolteacher from the coast, working in a remote town to pay off his tuition, is on his way home to Sydney for the Christmas break. Yet he loses all his money (which he was going to buy his tickets with) gambling and has to stay in the ‘Yabba, which – lucky for him – is “the friendliest town in the world” as the locals say. From there, the locals take care of him, and due to excess drinking and poor decision making, things spin further and further out of control. The part of this story which resonated with me most was the stark distinction between the two Australias. The Australia of the coast and the cities, where it’s all civilization and tennis skirts, and rural Australia, or “the Outback.” And, as someone who grew up in a Australian country town that just had a pub and a post office, these two seperate Australias still exist. As does the alcoholism and inability to say no when someone insists on buying you a beer.

09 THE SEVENTH DECIMATE – Stephen Donaldson, 2017.
Donaldson’s Epic Fantasy series THE CHRONICLES OF THOMAS COVENANT is a masterpiece, and his sci-fi THE GAP cycle is a breathtaking Space Opera. But THE SEVENTH DECIMATE, the first book in a new fantasy series, is underwhelming in comparison. As mentioned, this is the first book in a series. It introduces the characters, conflict, and the world they live in. And it’s really good, but just falls short of being great. Especially when another of Donaldson’s ‘set-up’ books THE REAL STORY is the best I’ve read. While I am excited for the rest of the series, this book didn’t meet my lofty expectations. Also, another negative was very few female characters. I’m kind of feeling the days of fantasy series dominated by men are over.

08 THE DRAGON KEEPER – Robin Hobb, 2009.
THE DRAGON KEEPER is the first book in Hobb’s Rain Wild chronicles. It’s a fantasy series featuring many interesting and unique point of view characters, including that of a dragon.  The dragons in this world have many points of difference, one being their life cycle.  The book starts with Sisarqua, a sea serpent, struggling up the river to their ancient cocooning grounds.  After, well frankly insufficient time in the cocoon, it hatches and the dragon Sintara emerges.  What is done really well is the dragons’ memories of its past lives, when it emerges it expects itself to be fully formed, ready to hunt, ready to fly. So she is horrified to find that she – and the other hatchlings – are stunted, weak, and incomplete.  This gives us a great, yet heartbreaking glimpse of the majesty of what she should be compared to the disappointing reality of what she is.  Normally proud and peerless in the air, on land and underwater, the hatchlings who remain misshapen and incapable of flight become a burden on the human community that supports them.  The humans re-assess their perception of dragons, and the dragons struggle to accept their dependence on humans.  And eventually it is decided that something must be done, and that something brings together all the human and dragon POV characters. I am eagerly awaiting the chance to read the rest of the series!

07 DRAGONFLIGHT – Anne McCaffrey, 1968.So, after knowing of McCaffrey’s PERN series for decades, I finally got around to reading her work. DRAGONFLIGHT is the first of the Pern books, and a great place to start. The Dragonriders and their Weyrs are undermanned and in disrepute from the Lords of Pern they protect. And the Threads – their mortal enemies – are about to fall. The Dragons of Pern have a remarkable ability – to travel instantaneously from one location to another – flying *between*. At the beginning of the novel I thought it was a bit too much, but during the novel they discover another use of this skill which tied the whole story together, it was very cleverly done. The two protagonists – Lessa and F’lar – are stubborn, smart and heroic. Are they the all-too-perfect cliche heroes who never put a foot wrong? No. They are close, but each has weaknesses and flaws.The main flaw that I had with this book is how the Dragonriders and Weyrleaders – who are in dire straits and need every resource to be able to defend Pern – never once ask the dragons if there’s anything they know of which can help. These are intelligent dragons, who communicate to each other telepathically – there has to be a heap of knowledge they would have, passed down between them over centuries. Overall though, a great book, and I am looking forward to reading more of the Pern books.

06 SERAPHINA – Rachael Hartman, 2013.Hartman’s debut novel SERAPHINA is a wonderful story of politics, dragons and romance. I would almost say perfect. Seraphina is the Goreddi court’s music mistress, and has many secrets. Secrets that would mean the death of her and her father if anyone found out. The kingdom of Goredd is about to celebrate the anniversary of the peace treaty between them and the dragons, but there are many, like the Sons of St Ogdo, who would see and end to the peace, and to make matters worse, Prince Rufus has been killed – and some suspect a wild dragon roaming the country, in violation of the treaty. Normally I dislike shapeshifting dragons, but it didn’t bother me in this story, possibly because the protagonist herself wasn’t a shapeshifter. On the whole, the way dragons are portrayed in SERAPHINA is wonderful, and this book should stand alongside Le Guin’s EARTHSEA and Hobb’s DRAGON KEEPER as a reference for how to write about dragons. One thing that I loved about this book was the dialects and accents Hartman gave to her human characters. The way the languages / dialects were done really elevated the book, as well as the constant musical themes and references. But there are flaws. It’s never explained where Gorredd and the other kingdoms are in relation to each other, or in relation to where the dragons come from. Do they share one continent? Do they have their own islands? Are they from different planets? On the whole though, it’s a wonderful book, and I strongly recommend it to anyone interested in Dragons.

05 BEGINNINGS – Australian Speculative Fiction Anthology by Various authors, 2018.
This is an anthology that features one of my own stories, but it was the only collection of short stories that I read last year, and I really enjoyed it. Firstly, what I love about this collection is the diversity. Each story is unique and takes you on a very different journey. This exposes the reader to different genres than they might normally read, for example I’ve never been a fan of the supernatural genre, but two of my favourite stories are about witches – THE MORRIGAN by Maddie Jensen and DEALT IN SIN by Sasha Hanton. Between stories set amongst the stars are tales set in our own backyard. Stephen Herczeg’s BUS TRIP is about a student taking the bus home from Canberra to Adelaide for the Christmas holidays. Belinda Brady’s BREAK gives me the familiar imagery of Melbourne’s Royal Arcade, and Rebecca Dale’s BUGLES BRED & BUGLES BORN centres around the unbelievable events at one of Sydney’s Westfield shopping centres. BUGLES BRED & BUGLES BORN is one of the most unique stories in the anthology, and honestly I don’t know how to define or describe it, but the ending sends shivers up my spine it’s that good. Amongst a collection so diverse, it should be hard to pick a favourite. But THE INHERITANCE EXPERIMENT by Kel E. Fox is an absolute standout. It’s the story of an Austrian girl, stolen from her family home and subjected to horrible experiments, before being flung into the carnage of World War One. It’s a compelling story, and – like every good short story should – it leaves the reader wanting more. In conclusion, this is a thoroughly enjoyable collection of diverse short stories. There’s something in there for everyone, and many of the stories are so good they’re worth re-reading.

04 EVE OF ERIDU – Alanah Andrews, 2018.
EVE OF ERIDU is about a girl called Eve, who lives in Eridu. Eve has lived her whole life committed to suppressing her emotions, just like everyone else in Eridu. She’s been the perfect student, constantly at the top of the leaderboard, everything is as going as well as it can in her post-apocalyptic world. Until her brother – like her an exceptional student at the top of his leaderboard – fails the harvest. Instead of being assigned a role in the new world, he is culled. And Eve has to be content with that. To be content is to be free, says the Book of Eridu, which all citizens do their utmost to follow. After all it has been proven that emotions – love, greed, jealousy, anger and hate – had caused the wars of history and resulted in the destruction of the world. Andrews has crafted this dystopian post-apocalyptic society superbly, and it is sure to send chills down your spine. One of the remarkable components of this story is the Grid, which is in effect a digital afterlife, where the essences of Eridu’s citizens are transferred to when they are culled or die. Eve is a compelling character, confronted with a staggering challenge and a mystery that might shake her to the core. The one criticism that I have is that it was too short, I would have enjoyed more exploration of the changing relationships Eve had with fellow students, her guardians and the overseers of Eridu. But I say that about almost every book I read – I always want more! Ultimately it’s an excellent story about a teen struggling to fit in, struggling to be the person everyone expects her to be.

03 WHAT THE WOODS KEEP – Katya De Becerra, 2018.
This story focuses on Hayden, an eighteen year old girl whose life had only just started approaching normal after the loss of her mother ten years ago. On her eighteenth birthday the lawyer managing the estate of her mother calls her, there’s something that her mother wanted her to have – the family home in Promise, right new the woods where her mother disappeared. Not only that, but a handwritten card with a creepy message. It turns out there a secrets her parents kept from her, questions that can only be answered about her family, and about herself, by returning to Promise. But WHAT THE WOODS KEEP is about more than revealing a family’s secrets, but about accepting yourself, accepting change, about reconciling the known and the unknowable, the mysteries of the universe. The mysterious, eerie build-up is superb, and the last ten chapters are an intoxicating, unpredictable thrill-ride, and up ’til the end you won’t know how it ends. There’s a lot that I love about this book. I love how dark and creepy it is, I love that it’s about the friendship between Hayden and Delphine. I love the scientific angle the MC takes to rationalise unexplainable phenomena, to explain the complexities of life, it’s all really cleverly done and engaging. I also really loved the German / European mythology, with the Nibelungenlied a recurring theme. I’ve long thought that one of the marks of a good book is how long it stays with you after you’ve read it. And this book does that, I’m still thinking about the book and the questions it has left me with; about time travel, about Hayden’s mother, about what has been left in the woods, but – most pressingly – if there might be a sequel!

02 AND THE ASS SAW THE ANGEL – Nick Cave, 2003.
This is an astounding work. AND THE ASS SAW THE ANGEL tells a unique, grisly, grimy tale of a mute scum-of-the-earth hill-folk boy, Euchrid Eucrow and his persecution at the hands of the townsfolk and his family, set against the backdrop of a secluded religious township’s struggle to survive. The language is strong, dark, compelling, and the descriptions of the characters and the violence is phenomenally good. With perhaps one exception. There is one act of violence which is climactic to the story, yet the descriptions provided are minimal compared the the gruesome descriptions prior. This is a book that will not appeal to all. It is complex, mysterious, unique, and disturbingly grotesque. I loved it.

01 TOOTH AND CLAW – Jo Walton, 2004.
I picked this up not knowing what to expect. I’d never heard of the author before. A Pride and Prejudice style story with dragons? I didn’t think I’d like it, I didn’t think it would work. But holy hell, I freaking loved it. Best book I’ve read this year (against some standout competition) and a new author on my list of favourites. The book begins with the death of Bon Agornin, a Dignified dragon. Being on the lower ranks of wealth and respectability, there was a standing agreement for his wealth, his gold and body, to be divided so that the youngest of his family has the larger share. But Illustrious Daverak – richer in wealth and power than any of the Respected Agornins – takes much more than what was agreed, starting a chain of events which tears apart the family. There is romance, there is politics, there are proposals, deaths, and matters of law, matters of faith, and of what it means to be a respectable dragon. It’s really well written, really engaging, rather touching, but also witty, charming, and just the right combination of silliness and taking itself too seriously.

There you have it, my favourite books that I read in 2018. Special mention to Alanah Andrew’s EVE OF ERIDU for being the best independent book, and Katya de Becerra’s WHAT THE WOODS KEEP for being my favourite book of 2018 that was published in 2018! My list of books from 2017 was dominated by books more than 20 years old, mostly written my men. 2018 was different, with only seven books more than 20 years old, and about a fifty-fifty split between books written by men and women. So I feel like I’m making progress. Let me know what you think of my list, and what your favourite reads from 2018 are!

– Originally published May 2019

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