I remember being told back when I started writing for publication that almost everyone who writes to a high standard reads a lot, too. I’m not sure I quite believed it at the time, but I’ve found myself more and more drawn to well-written tomes over the years, so much so that this particular blog post has just about become an annual tradition (here’s 2017, and 2016). Who knows if any of it’s actually rubbed off!

In keeping with ‘tradition’, this is nothing to do with books that were released in 2018 (they are just ones I read this year), and doesn’t pretend, obviously, to have any learned/ broad perspective (how could it have). I read roughly 50 books in 2018, which has become an oddly consistent number since I started doing this. Of everything I picked up, these are the ones that grabbed me the most…

Marching Powder by Rusty Young (link)

Thomas McFadden was a long-time and seemingly quite effective drug smuggler who ultimately got tracked down and arrested in Bolivia, where he was sent to the notorious San Pedro jail. In this book, a young journalist who was able to buy his way in and out of the jail to talk to McFadden, uncovers the surreal side of his life.

McFadden became a tour guide, showing travelers around the jail. He learned that the prison was the primary source of the drugs he was once famous for buying, with production taking place in areas that the guards couldn’t get near. He bought prison ‘property’, and his own safety, and even found a way to get out of the jail for the night, meet a new girlfriend, and then have her move in with him in San Pedro. Obviously, I have no idea if San Pedro is still like this (the book was published in 2011), but the insight here is breathtaking. The kind of book I had to stop reading to tell people about what was going on: brilliant.

The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris (view)

On finding love in a hopeless place. This is the story of a multilingual Slovak Jew who ended up in the notorious Second World War prison camp, where his language skills and a bit of good luck landed him the job of Tätowierer, the man who tattoos those famous and dehumanizing numbers on new arrivals. There’s an element of mild Nazi-collaboration to Lale Sokolov’s story, but a greater sense that in amongst the sickening world he’s come to occupy, he’s just doing what he has to in order to survive.

For all it’s hard-hitting glances at the prison camp itself, though, it’s the delicate love story that’s what this book is really about. It’s wonderfully delivered, to the point that the grim surroundings almost seem to fade into the background for a while. The ending is powerful, too.

Death of the Artist – Karrie Fransman (link)

I’m not much of a comic book fan generally (I only read two all year, and the second was by the same author, as I was so taken with this one), but this really spoke to me. The concept is simple but effective: friends who were hugely into art at university meet again years later to try and shake off the life factors that have dulled their passion in the meantime, and draw over the course of a week in the Peak District. 

They all tell the story of the weekend, which is on some level just a load of hedonism, but with some deeper angles, and also reflect on their own lives. It’s done in five very distinct artistic styles, and all bound together, creating a surprisingly complete narrative. I’ve found my own days of writing (art – not really, but nevertheless…) have drifted from writing what I want to writing for publication over the years. The latter is great, but there are days when I really miss the sheer mad creativity of the early days. So I get it. And I loved this. It’s also a beautiful book, as well as a beautiful story.

Chapter and Verse (Chorus Verse) by Tony Wright (link)

I was almost reluctant to include this self-released music book by the wonderful Tony Wright, as (disclaimer) I both know and have a huge amount of respect for the man, though I don’t see him often enough to really call him a friend. A former member of instrumental rock group And So I Watch You From Afar (for me, he was the key member), Wright transformed himself into a kind of solo emotional folk-punk troubadour, and has traveled the world on his own in recent years getting up to endless mischief.

I won’t pretend I wasn’t hoping for a little bit of the story behind his ASIWYFA departure (it’s touched on, but only lightly). What I got instead was an insight into the effortless, self-deprecating charm of the man on the road, slightly nervously working his way around three American cities (for the heart of the book), and landing – almost by accident, but really through understated hard work – a support slot with Gogol Bordello, but also encountering the effective indifference of the mammoth American scene to his experience and quality. I spoke about dream chasing and sacrifices a little on the previous book: Tony seems to make no sacrifices, and lives his life accordingly. For those of us who will never live a life like this, it’s a wonderful, touching glance behind the veil. 

Vox by Christina Dalcher (link)

I like a quite political book, but even I had a suspicion reading the blurb of this highly recommended dystopian thriller that it might be a fairly obvious cash in on the current common brand of feminist post-Handmaid’s Tale shtick (don’t worry, feminists, I’m on your side, I just like my books to be surprising). This is, to be honest, precisely that, but it’s also a wonderfully imaginative post-uber-Conservative revolution take on a world gone sorely wrong, particularly for women.

The lead character is an interesting mix between the cliched strong, independent woman and a fairly poor judge of character (her husband’s, in particular), and the meandering but ultimately steak-knife-sharp weave of the plot line was enough to convince me the recommendations weren’t only for the fashionable topic. An easy read, but a very, very enjoyable one.

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