best books of 2018

Best Books of 2018

This year I read 108 books plus half of two other books. My goal was 125, so I didn’t technically complete my Reading Challenge, but I feel OK about it. Here are the best books I read across different genres along with a very brief review/synopsis for each. Just so you are aware, there are some repeats of books I’ve mentioned before this year (especially in my best of the year so far post from August). If you want to check out everything I read this year, visit my Reading Challenge page on Goodreads.

Best General/Literary Fiction

Literary fiction is sort of a catch-all for things that don’t fit neatly into other categories. The literary fiction I read is usually written with attention to language and with more emphasis on character development than a fast-moving plot, though they can certainly have both.

Us Against You by Fredrik Backman. I don’t know how he does it, but Backman tackles MASSIVE issues in such a nuanced and emotionally intelligent way. This is a sequel to Beartown, so definitely read that first, but this is a deftly handled exploration about how a community responds to violence, about rape culture, the unifying and destructive power of rivalries, and the many small actions that can lead to serious consequences.

A Place for Us by Fatima Farheen Mirza. This book tells the story of an Indian-American Muslim family and their individual struggles with belonging. Parents, Leila and Rafiq have tried to instill their traditions and values in their children, but each of their three children has had to forge their own path. Leila and Rafiq have had to make difficult decisions about whether or not they can accept and embrace their children when their decisions don’t align with Leila and Rafiq’s hopes for them. The book opens at the wedding of Hadia, the family’s oldest child, who has chosen to marry for love rather than have an arranged marriage. The family are collectively holding their breath to see if the youngest sibling, Amar, will come to the wedding after being estranged from the family for three years. It’s a novel about the ways that families try (and often fail) to love each other well

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones. Celestial and Roy are still newlyweds when the unthinkable happens. Roy is arrested and convicted of a crime he did not commit. He is sentenced to 12 years in prison. In the beginning, Celestial and Roy remain fiercely devoted to one another, but as the years go by, Celestial begins to move on with her life. When Roy’s conviction is overturned and he is released early, the (still married) couple must figure out what really makes a marriage and whether or not they can still have one.

The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne. Cyril Avery is born to an unwed mother in rural Ireland and adopted by an eccentric writer and her husband who really know nothing about children. As Cyril grows, we meet a cast of richly drawn characters who impact Cyril’s life, for better or worse. This book is largely focused on the horrible treatment of gay men in Ireland (and elsewhere) in the late 20th century. Because of that, some parts are very hard to read and some of it is very sad. There is also a significant amount of sexual content in the first half of the book (just fair warning if you don’t like reading that). However, the characters are amazingly vivid, unique, and quirky, and in the end, I can’t describe this book in any way other than beautiful, deeply moving, and unforgettable.

Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows by Balli Kaur Jaswal. This book was a total surprise for me. Erotic stories don’t do much for me (I just can’t take “sexy” descriptions seriously), but the erotic stories in this book are just a device to talk about so much more. A group of Punjabi widows sign up for a writing class. Their teacher, a young British/Punjabi woman, thinks she will be helping these women to write the stories of their lives, but she is unprepared for the stories they truly want to tell. This is a book about a tight knit immigrant community, about female friendships, and about women who have lived their whole lives without power or agency finding ways to gain those things while still holding onto the traditions and values of their community.

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee.  The book tells the story of a Korean family who have immigrated to Japan during the Japanese occupation of Korea and their experience living in Japan over the course of a few generations through the wars and beyond. The way that Korean immigrants were looked down on and denied full entry into society even generations after immigrating had some uncomfortable parallels to things going on in my own country right now. Pachinko is a popular gambling game in Japan (kind of the equivalent of a slot machine) and several characters in the book are involved in the Pachinko business which is where the title comes from.

Best Thriller

I read 15 books that fit in this genre this year, and not a single one of them rocked my world. If I had to pick one to recommend I would say either The Wife Between Us by Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen (the story of a young woman preparing to marry a too-good-to-be-true man while being stalked by his ex-wife. Or is it?) or The Woman in the Window by A.J. Finn (Anna Fox swears she saw a woman get stabbed in the house across the street, but no one can find any evidence. Also, Anna is on a lot of medication and drinks way too much. So there’s that).

 

Best Memoir

Everything Happens for a Reason and other Lies I’ve Loved by Kate Bowler. Kate Bowler is a professor at Duke Divinity School who has devoted her professional career to studying the prosperity gospel. At 35, she is diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer. As she navigates the grief and pain of illness and facing her own mortality, she finds herself drawn to the reassurances offered by the health and wealth doctrines of the prosperity gospel and comes to an understanding of why people cling to these beliefs even when they seem so obviously false.

Educated by Tara Westover. Growing up in a fundamentalist, survivalist family, Tara Westover had no access to formal education.  At 17 she became determined to do things differently. Having never been to school, she taught herself enough to gain entrance to Brigham Young University where she learned for the first time not only math, science, and literature, but about the history of her own country and of world events (like the Holocaust) which she had never even heard of. Exposure to the world of learning sparked a hunger in her for all that she did not know and went on to study at Harvard and at Cambridge. As she gains knowledge and understanding about the world and her own upbringing, she is driven to try to forge a way back to her family, so many of whom are still living in a toxic environment.

I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes With Death by Maggie O’Farrell. Irish novelist O’Farrell explores the fragility and beauty of life through seventeen stories of her own encounters with death.

The Girl Who Smiled Beads byClementine Wamariya and Elizabeth Weil. This is the story of one girl surviving the Rwandan genocide. This was one of the most poignant memoirs I have ever read, not only because the author survived something horrific, but because it focuses equally on the aftermath. It explores what it was like to be stateless as a refugee, but also what it was like to be safe and settled and still feel the need to put on a particular identity, to tell the kind of heroic story of survival that people want to hear.

Born a Crime by Trevor Noah. Noah which uses his characteristic humor to share compelling stories of growing up as a biracial child (and therefore a child conceived illegally) under apartheid in South Africa.

Call the Midwife by Jennifer Worth. If you like the BBC show, you will love the books which strike the same note, but do have some different stories and observations about Worth’s time working alongside a group of nuns as a midwife in some of London’s poorest communities during the 1950’s.

Best Nonfiction

I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness by Austin Channing Brown. This is such an important book that I am still digesting. When I first finished it, I wished Brown would have given me some more action points. Like “How can I fix the damage I have done by being white.” But over time I started to realize that was part of the point. am not the fixer. I am not the one to swoop in and help black people. A huge part of my role in racial reconciliation is to acknowledge my privilege and my biases and to simply listen.

Tell Me More by Kelly Corrigan. 12 beautiful essays about how to live and to love in the truest and most authentic ways possible.

Best Beach Read

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The Perfect Couple by Elin Hilderbrand. Big, juicy rich white people problems book set on Nantucket. Enough said.

Best Fantasy

The Poppy War by R. F. Kuang. Rin is a poor, dark-skinned war orphan with no prospects, but after receiving the highest score in the Empire on the entrance exam for the empire’s top Academies, she earns a spot at Sinegard, the most elite military academy. There she learns the art of war and discovers her own unique gift in shamanism, widely believed to be a dead art. When war breaks out, Rin learns the true cost of her gift and what it might take to save her people. I will say, there is a lot of descriptive violence and brutality on the page in this book, but it’s fantastic.

La Belle Savage (The Book of Dust #1) by Philip Pullman. This gives great back story if you are a fan of His Dark Materials. Otherwise, this is not the one to start with.

Best Mystery

The Witch Elm by Tana French. I am a huge fan of Tana French although I was disappointed with her last book. The Trespasser. This is her first mystery outside of the Dublin Murder Squad series and I really enjoyed it. Toby is a carefree guy for whom everything has always come easily. After suffering a head injury, he moves to the countryside to recuperate in the old family home where his broken mind and body frustrate him. When a human skeleton is discovered on the property, Toby struggles to answer the detectives questions, whether because of the holes in his memory or because of secrets he never knew to begin with.

Lethal White by Robert Galbraith. I’ve read and loved all of the Cormoran Strike mysteries, but I will admit this was the first one that felt a bit too long for me. Nevertheless, I enjoyed trying to piece together the mystery and loved spending more time with Cormoran and Robin.

Best Audiobooks

My Plain JaneThe second book in the Lady Janies series, this is a retelling of Jane Eyre where Jane Eyre is a real person who inspired her friend Charlotte Bronte and also, she can see dead people. As much fun as My Lady Jane.

Yes, My Accent is Real by Kunal Nayyar. Best known for his role as Raj Kuthrapali on The Big Bang Theory, Nayyar tells funny, heartwarming stories about his childhood, immigrating to America, trying to make it as an actor and comedian, and how a guy like him ended up with a wife like former Miss India, Neha Kapur.

Garlic and Sapphires by Ruth Reichl. New York Times food critic tells stories of literally dressing up in different disguises and assuming new identities in order to review top restaurants undetected. This is great on audio.

CalypsoNothing is funnier than David Sedaris reading David Sedaris. His delivery really sells it.

What did you love reading this year?

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Best Reads of 2018 (So Far)

This past weekend we experienced the most crazy, wonderful blessing – one of our good friends from college, whom we have not seen since our wedding eight years ago, showed up in Hong Kong with her husband and baby. They had already planned this trip before we announced our move, so when we realized we were going to be in the same place at the same time, we all kind of freaked out. I mean, mostly Mary Claire and I freaked out. But I think the boys were excited too. Just in a more tough, manly ways.

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We had an absolute blast with Mary Claire, Benjamin, and Banning and are secretly hoping they just drop everything and move here so that we can hang out all the time. While we were together, Mary Claire mentioned that she’d read several of the books I’ve recommended over the years, and she kind of called me out for not posting any book recommendations in such a long time. So…long introduction to say…for all of you who have had absolutely nothing to read these long months where I haven’t written about books, the dry spell is over. You’re welcome. 😉 Here’s the best of what I’ve read so far this year.

Note: I realized that most of my favorite books so far this year have been recent releases that deal with sad or difficult circumstances. To be fair, they all have some measure of hope to offset the sadness, but if you don’t like books where people deal with hard things, you might not like these.

The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne

33253215This book, man. It is not for the faint of heart. This book tells the life story of Cyril Avery from birth to death. Cyril Avery is born to an unwed mother in rural Ireland and adopted by an eccentric writer and her husband who really know nothing about children. As Cyril grows, we meet a cast of richly drawn characters who impact Cyril’s life, for better or worse. This book is largely focused on the horrible treatment of gay men in Ireland (and elsewhere) in the late 20th century. Because of that, some parts are very hard to read and some of it is very sad. There is also a significant amount of sexual content in the first half of the book (just fair warning if you don’t like reading that). However, the characters are amazingly vivid, unique, and quirky, and in the end, I can’t describe this book in any way other than beautiful, deeply moving, and unforgettable. The book ends on a sweet note which might strike some readers as too convenient, but I felt set up for it from early on and found it satisfying the that it ended in a place of peace.

The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah.

34912895Hannah showed up on everyone’s radar after The Nightingale in 2015. Her newest book takes place in Alaska in the 1970’s where Vietnam veteran Ernt Allbright takes his wife and his 13-year-old daughter Leni to live off the grid. The family think this will be their salvation, but in the long, dark winters, Ernt is haunted by the ghosts of the past and becomes increasingly paranoid and irrational. Leni realizes that she must fight for survival for herself and for her mother in the great Alaskan wild, There is something mesmerizing about the wild, rugged beauty of a mostly unsettled land. The story itself is very reminiscent of The Glass Castle although fictional, so there is definitely a trigger warning for domestic violence. The only thing I didn’t love about this book was the ending which felt a little abrupt and too neat compared to the rest of the book. However, if you are someone who needs it to end on a hopeful note, you will probably like this.

Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong.

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A short and sweet account of an adult child (Ruth) stepping in to care for her father as he slips into dementia.  I read it in almost one sitting and I loved it. In spite of being quite short, I felt like it delved into the issues inherent in being an adult child taking care of a parent as the parent loses agency. It also dealt with the complexities of dementia without being overly sappy, sad, or sentimental.

 

 

 

Educated: A Memoir by Tara Westover.

35133922This memoir has exploded onto the scene and (deservingly) gained a lot of attention. Growing up in a fundamentalist, survivalist family (again somewhat a la The Glass Castle) , Tara Westover had no access to formal education. Taught that western medicine was evil, she learned to use herbs and natural remedies for everything from childbirth to severe burns. Violence and control were part of every day life, but they were all that Tara knew. At 17 she became determined to do things differently. Having never been to school, she taught herself enough to gain entrance to Brigham Young University where she learned for the first time not only math, science, and literature, but about the history of her own country and of world events (like the Holocaust) which she had never even heard of. Exposure to the world of learning sparked a hunger in her for all that she did not know and went on to study at Harvard and at Cambridge. As she gains knowledge and understanding about the world and her own upbringing, she is driven to try to forge a way back to her family, so many of whom are still living in a toxic environment.

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones.

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Celestial and Roy are still newlyweds when the unthinkable happens. Roy is arrested and convicted of a crime he did not commit. He is sentenced to 12 years in prison. In the beginning, Celestial and Roy remain fiercely devoted to one another, but as the years go by, Celestial begins to move on with her life. When Roy’s conviction is overturned and he is released early, the (still married) couple must figure out what really makes a marriage and whether or not they can still have one.

 

 

 

Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved by Kate Bowler.

35133923Kate Bowler is a professor at Duke Divinity School who has devoted her professional career to studying the prosperity gospel. At 35, she has is just hitting her stride in her career and has finally become a mother after years of trying. Then she is diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer. As she navigates the grief and pain of illness and facing her own mortality, she finds herself drawn to the reassurances offered by the health and wealth doctrines of the prosperity gospel and comes to an understanding of why people cling to these beliefs even when they seem so obviously false. As someone who grew up in an environment I would call “prosperity gospel adjacent,” I was moved by this memoir of wrestling with the harsh reality of death within this specific context. Bowler’s writing is funny and witty and heart-wrenching all at once and this book will stay with me for a long time.

Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise by Ruth Reichl.

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Ruth Reichl is a renowned food writer and was a long-time critic for the New York Times. This memoir recounts her time as a food critic and her various experiences eating her way through New York City. The most entertaining parts are how she created actual characters with backstories and disguises in order to visit these restaurants without being recognized as the New York Times food critic and receiving special treatment. Parts of this are laugh-out-loud funny, and Reichl’s skills as a master storyteller are on show here. Such a fun read.

A Place for Us by Fatima Farheen Mirza.

36840397I don’t have the words. Part of what moved me so much about this book is that it was so emotionally resonant to my own family history, even though I grew up as a very conservative Christian rather than Muslim. I particularly enjoy/connect to stories that show how different family members experienced the same event in different ways. This book tells the story of an Indian-American Muslim family and their individual struggles with belonging. Parents, Leila and Rafiq have tried to instill their traditions and values in their children, but each of their three children has had to forge their own path. Leila and Rafiq have had to make difficult decisions about whether or not they can accept and embrace their children when their decisions don’t align with Leila and Rafiq’s hopes for them. The book opens at the wedding of Hadia, the family’s oldest child, who has chosen to marry for love rather than have an arranged marriage. The family are collectively holding their breath to see if the youngest sibling, Amar, will come to the wedding after being estranged from the family for three years. It’s a novel about the ways that families try (and often fail) to love each other well, and in that way, I think it is something we can all relate to. I think this book is a great choice for anyone who loved Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You.

Honorable Mentions go to: The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane by Lisa See, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara, Heartless by Marissa Meyer, Tell Me More by Kelly Corrigan, I Am, I Am, I Am by Maggie O’Farrell, and Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jessmyn Ward

You can always follow me on Goodreads for updates on what I am currently reading. Let me know if you have read or end up reading any of these!