Sally Rooney’s Normal People is the critics’ choice for book of the year, with eight publications including it in their end-of-year reviews. Collated through The Bookseller’s reviews curation and aggregation service Books in the Media, ten publications (the Sunday Times, the Times, the Guardian, the Observer, the Daily Mail, the Telegraph, the Financial Times, the Evening Standard, the New York Times and the Spectator) made 1,006 recommendations in their books of the year round-ups, crowning 729 separate titles. Rooney’s book, which was announced as the Waterstones Book of the Year last week, was named the Times’ Novel of the Year, as well as appearing in the round-ups of seven other publications.
It caps off a stunning year of acclaim for Rooney, who was crowned the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year at the end of 2017. While Waterstones said Normal People “confirms [Rooney] as the guiding light to our modern experience”, critics have been just as effusive in their praise throughout the year. James Marriott of the Times described her as “this year’s literary star”, adding: “Her genius for capturing people with all their self-conceits and occasional virtues puts her in a fine tradition of sharp social observation stretching back to Jane Austen.” Normal People currently has a 4.46 weighted average score (out of five) based on reviews aggregated through The Bookseller’s reviews aggregate website Books in the Media, and has been among the site’s most reviewed titles since it launched.
Other fiction attracting plaudits included Man Booker Prize-winner Anna Burns’ Milkman, Lisa Halliday’s Asymmetry and Sarah Moss’ Ghost Wall, all of which were picked five times. Milkman has divided critics since its win—it has attracted comments such as “difficult”, and “a tough read”—yet with six five-star reviews and a 4.42 average on Books in the Media, others are clearly enamoured. Given its 2,292% uplift in paperback sales since the ceremony, book buyers are clearly among them.
Man Booker-Prize winner Anna Burns and Sally Rooney (credit: Jonny I Davies)
Halliday’s Asymmetry, pronounced “striking” by the Guardian and “scorchingly intelligent” by the New York Times, is the most-picked debut fiction title in the top 20, with a 4.56 weighted average score. Her Granta stablemate Moss also attracted five picks for Ghost Wall, which the Sunday Times’ Peter Kemp said “recalls the early fiction of D H Lawrence”. Both titles have seen an uplift in sales since the newspapers’ books of the year rounds-up were published: Ghost Wall jumped by 119% in volume terms, and Asymmetry leapt by 124%.
Among the reviewers’ favourite non-fiction titles, three history titles received six books of the year nods apiece. Oliver Hilmes’ Berlin 1936: Sixteen Days in August, Andrew Roberts’ Churchill: Walking with Destiny and Diarmuid MacCulloch’s Thomas Cromwell: A Life are joint-second in the top 20, below Normal People. Joined by Julian Jackson’s Charles de Gaulle biography A Certain Idea of France in joint third—which has a near-perfect Books in the Media rating of 4.93—three Allen Lane titles hit the top 20. The only book in the chart to so far score a clean sweep of five-star ratings through Books in the Media is the Beastie Boys Book, which received four picks of the year, Michelle Obama’s Becoming, the current UK number one, was the most- picked memoir of 2018, with five nods, and she was the only non-white author in the top 20. Of the 160 books with two picks or more, just 11% were written by BAME authors, and 37.5% were by women.
Though Donald Trump authored no books in 2018, his presence loomed large over the books of the year round-ups—with the Times even running a selection titled “Donald Trump’s America”. Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury, the book that led to the President tweeting about himself as “a very stable genius” in January, received five picks, with Bob Woodward’s more sober Fear: Trump in the White House on four picks. Michael Lewis’ The Fifth Risk also attracted attention, leading the Observer to comment that it is “somehow appropriate that all the Trump books have titles containing F-words”.
There were no kids’ titles in the most-picked top 20, and of the 729 books picked, only 7% were for kids—despite children’s books accounting for a third of the entire market’s volume last year. However, Alex T Smith’s How Winston Delivered Christmas was a firm favourite—with the Sunday Times praising its “humour and elegance”—alongside Katherine Rundell and Kristjana S Williams’ Into the Jungle and Hilary McKay’s The Skylarks’ War, which has so far scored a clean sweep of five-star reviews on Books in the Media.
Reviews compiled by Lauren Fairgrieve and Ciara Mongey.