Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Best of 2018: Favorite 10

I lowered my book quota this year from 52 books to 36. I did it because I felt very busy writing my novel. It was a good decision, but next year I'm headed back to 52 Books Plus, as I promise in my Twitter handle, @52BooksPlus.

As it turns out, I read 41 books in 2018. The majority of these (26) were works of fiction for adults, lots of them within my own genre of contemporary women's fiction. I added another 7 middle grade or young adult novels, and then I read 6 works of nonfiction. I usually read more evenly across genres, in part so I can provide reviews in several categories.

This year I just read the books without thinking too much. So instead of my usual series of best books posts, I'm just doing this one. 10 books I loved in 2018, in alphabetical order by author. I hope you'll tell me what you think of these books and/or whether you give them a try in 2019.

Lethal White by Robert Galbraith
In this installment of the Cormoran Strike series written under a pseudonym by J.K. Rowling, our heroes investigate the maybe-murder of a child in the countryside. They follow the tip of mentally ill and deeply sincere Billy Knight, who thinks he witnessed the killing when he himself was a child. Billy leads the detectives to a group of leftist activists who aim to take down the government Minister for Sport amidst the 2012 London Olympics. Robin and Strike handle the intersecting conflicts as well as their own personal lives, which appear particularly messy one year after Robin's ill-advised wedding to Matthew Cunliffe, whom we all hate. I love these books and read them immediately upon release. I've written about the echoes of Harry Potter before.

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones
Oprah loved this book, President Obama loved this book, my friend Alison loved this book, and I also loved this book. It's the story of Roy and Celestial who embark on an imperfect, but loving marriage. Roy is falsely accused and wrongfully convicted of a violent crime, and suddenly what was once sure is now exceedingly fragile. Jones's novel works on the micro and macro levels--it's the story of Roy and Celestial, and it's also the story of mass incarceration and systemic racism.  

The Widows of Malabar Hill by Sujata Massey
I adored this historical mystery set in the 1920s and starring Perveen Mistry, Bombay's first woman solicitor. She's a winning heroine with a penchant for women's rights, and I plan to read every installment of this new series. In this first novel, Massey toggles between the predicament of the Widows, a group of Muslim women living in purdah whose husband has been murdered, and Perveen's own problematic past. The one person who can both threaten her career and her personal safety has reappeared in Bombay.

A Place for Us by Fatima Farheen Mirza
Braideigh Godfrey raved about this one, which is how I knew to pick it up. Sure enough, I lay on my bed to finish the audiobook without distraction and wept. This is a deeply moving family portrait infused with empathy, forgiveness, and hope. A story told in memories, the novel has a dreamy quality, and yet each vignette crystalizes, the characters and settings heartbreakingly real. Mirza also manages a loving depiction of estrangement, as does Tara Westover, whose book I blurb below. I'm not sure I've ever read more touching and real descriptions of losing family.

Calypso by David Sedaris.
I've admired in the past the way Sedaris merges heartbreak and humor, and I think he might be at his best in this volume of essays. He explores the deaths of his mother and sister, and also discusses silly and harebrained plans like feeding tumors to turtles and reaching new FitBit heights. Plus, there's diarrhea, and no one who's taught middle school for a total of 12 years can resist a poop joke.

Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal
Stradal's narrative strings through intersecting stories centered on Eva Thorvold and her "once-in-a-generation" palate. I finished it nine months ago, and yet I can still feel the heat of Eva's chocolate habaneros, the sting of her mother's abandonment, the sweet and earnest cast of characters who love her, support her, or come under her unassuming spell. With bonus points for the novel's Minnesota setting, this one went straight to my favorites shelf, a slim selection I reserve for those books I find to be "life-changing." (I'm putting A Place for Us there, as well, just so you know.)

The Collaborative Habit: Life Lessons for Working Together by Twyla Tharp
I read this book last January, in the final months of a five-years-long collaboration with two exceptionally gifted teachers. I learned a lot during this tenure. I wasn't always an ideal collaborator, although I think I improved year-by-year. The truth is, I can be bossy, overbearing, and hyper-critical. Twyla Tharp is not these things, and I relished her stories of both synergetic and challenging collaborations. Overall, I came away impressed by Tharp's acceptance of others and tireless professionalism. Not only does she explain how she managed these relationships, she suggests ways in which we might all do the same.

Chemistry by Weike Wang
This is the story of a Ph.D. student in crisis, torn between her boyfriend, her parents, and her own flagging sense of self. In snippets of prose and efficient, surprising scenes, Wang reveals the genesis of the struggle and catalogs a bit-by-bit resolution. I loved the book's inventivess in form and style, the story infused with facts--scientific truths and concepts that both unmoor and ground the unnamed main character. It fits with other slim, unconventional novels I've loved in the past, including Grief Is a Thing With Feathers and Goodbye, Vitamin, which I listed as favorites last year.

The Book of Essie by Meghan McClean Weir
I was 100% addicted to this book about Esther-Ann Hicks, the youngest daughter in a fundamentalist Christian family. The Hicks star in the inordinately popular Six for Hicks reality television show. When Essie, age 16, announces her pregnancy, she occupies a strange and powerful position in the family, as suddenly their veracity depends on her dual machinations and cooperations. The author employs two additional narrators, in addition to Essie, both of whom feel real and compelling and, like Essie, face seemingly impossible problems.

Educated by Tara Westover
You can't find a 2018 best-of list without this book on it, and it absolutely deserves its many raves. In this memoir, Westover recounts her growing up in rural Idaho. Her parents distrust the government and all of its programs, including education and medicine. Tara doesn't start formal schooling until age 17. The Westover family's many farm and machinery accidents are treated with oils and herbalism. Tara's dad's mental illness rules the family, and the fear and desperation she feels in her relationship with him, alongside her love and devotion for all of her family, breaks my heart. This joins The Glass Castle and the Color of Water and Just Kids on my list of favorite memoirs.  I'll soon be adding Michelle Obama's Becoming to that list too, FYI, so watch for that one on next year's list.

And that's it for reading in 2018! You can see all the books I read here. If I finished the book, I liked it a lot. 


mm said...

I need to read Educated.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the list. Finished Educared about a week ago. I loved it too. Reading Obama's book now and thoroughly enjoying her voice. Always looking for my next read. This will help.

—men in CA

Sharon P. said...

I think I am the only person in the world who didn’t like An American Marriage. I disliked all the main characters so much. None of them had redeeming qualities for me. While I understand the themes and their importance and found the writing solid, I just wanted to throw the book across the room by the time I was done.

I loved Edicated and there are a few others on your list that are on my TBR list. Always interesting to see what others loved and why.

LH said...

I read Educated. I might read some others on your list as well. They all look like FIRE!

Unknown said...

Wonderful rundown! Thank you! Have read some and excited to dive into several others!

Naomi said...

KC: I'm lifting from your selections and lovely recaps (with proper credit, of course!) for my book club. Each member of the book club proposes four options for one month of the next year's book choices. The other members vote on the four options and one of them becomes the book for that month. My month will be one of your favorites! Thank you for sharing your faves!!! xxo