I have procrastinated this list for weeks. My reading is all out of its normal routine. Usually I start reading the next year’s galleys in late summer or early fall but this year I felt like I hadn’t caught up with 2018 so I kept reading those and then I put all of it on pause for a whole month while I went on a horror binge and then when I came back I had even more of 2018 to catch up on and long story short, eventually I just had to decide to make this list so that it actually came out IN 2018. I may get a straggler that I wish had been on the list, but that happens literally every year and it just can’t be helped.
This list is utterly subjective, it is about my personal experiences with these books. There are so many books that aren’t on it that I adored this year, but I look for a special extra something. I also look for staying power, how long do I continue to think about the book, talk about the book, recommend the book as time passes. The books at the top of my list may not necessarily be better than the ones that don’t make the list at all, it’s just that when I read it I had an experience and that elevates it into the realm of the memorable. But this year’s list is full of all kinds of books so I’m sure there’s something here for everyone. (The top of my list is a bit snooty, but most of it is pretty darn commercial.)
I also had a tricky time this year ranking the books on my list. My top 3 have been my top 3 for quite some time but I couldn’t decide which two to add to round it out to a top 5. And instead of a top 10 I ended up with 11, instead of 20 I have 19. Just gonna roll with it. After all, it isn’t like I’ve updated this blog in LITERALLY MONTHS. All links are Amazon affiliate links that help keep the blog running. (Yes, the blog still has expenses, shocking I know.)
My apologies. If you’d like to keep up with my reading more regularly, you can find me on Goodreads.
Without further ado, my weird listing of 18 beautiful books that made my year better.
My Absolute Favorites
Usually my top 5 is 5 novels, or 4 novels and 1 memoir. This year there is nary a novel in sight. Who even am I? What can I say, these are the books that I simply cannot get over, that I still think about on a daily basis, that said something urgent and brilliant to me. In alphabetical order by author.
How to Write an Autobiographical Novel by Alexander Chee. Yup, I am starting off my list with a book of essays (warning: it’s not even the only book of essays on here, it’s a crazy year). Okay, I admit, this book has me squarely in its sights. It is calling me out. It is targeting me personally. So yes, I do happen to be chipping slowly away at a work of fiction that somewhat resembles my own story. And that does color my experience. But these lists are always subjective and at least I’m owning it. The thing is, I have seen this book work its way through the writers I know and love and it has taken every single one of them on their own journey and we are all better for it. Chee is not only a writer so good it pains you to know you will never be this good, his essays are also overflowing with empathy so you can’t even be mad at him about it. For anyone it’s a beautiful collection of writing. For writers it’s practically required reading, especially if you, like me, will never have the time or money to get formal training. This book is a $15 MFA. Buy it, underline it, treasure it.
Florida by Lauren Groff. I have read three novels by Lauren Groff and each time I like her a little more, but each time I also wonder a little bit if maybe she’s just not for me. Maybe it’s just one of those things, like when you go on a date with a perfectly nice person but there’s no chemistry. Fates and Furies even made it to my Best of 2015 list, thanks to its smart structural feats, though it was in the 11-20 tier. I had no plans to read Florida. I didn’t think a story collection from Groff would be something I’d enjoy. I thought it would be a little too smart in that way I always feel like she is but I’m not. But clearly I was wrong because it is my favorite fiction of the entire year. I adored these stories. And I adored what the collection did as a whole. It was just what I like, where you can see the ways in which the stories overlap each other or rub up against each other, but each of them is its own world. I don’t know that I’ve ever done a story collection on audio before, but I did this time and I was just addicted to it. It has so much to say about women and the constant threats of menace and anxiety and this moment in time.
Heavy: An American Memoir by Kiese Laymon. Like the other two, this was such a clear “Best” that it wasn’t even a question. I have the deepest love and respect for a memoir that makes me rethink what a memoir can do and what it’s there for. (I suspect this is because I am a person who is fascinated by the narratives we create around our own lives.) And Heavy was one of those books. It’s written directly by Laymon to his mother, and much of the book addresses their complex relationship, full of hurt but also fierce love. And it considers how race impacted their world in both the biggest ways and the smallest, how his mother’s desire for him to be safe and whole led her to cause him mental and physical pain. But this isn’t just a book about family trauma, it’s about a lot more than that, including weight, body image, and addictions. It’s written in prose that seems so simple and straightforward but carries so much in it.
Semiosis by Sue Burke. One of the backlist titles I particularly enjoyed this year was a book called Children of Time and I found myself desperately wanting to read something just like it when a smart mutual suggested this book. It was even better than I’d hoped, a book that checked all my boxes. It’s a science-fiction novel about a colony of idealists going off to a new planet with very specific plans for the kind of society they want to form. As you can guess, it doesn’t exactly go according to plan. Not only do you get all the human interplay and drama that I love, you also get lots of fun botany! (Good science-fiction can make any science fun, even plant science which I usually find to be a complete snooze fest. But alien plants are AMAZE.) It also jumps through a large section of time, letting you see both small changes within chapters and large ones between them. So satisfying and a book I wish more people would read.
Emergency Contact by Mary H. K. Choi. The only Young Adult book on my list this year, there’s usually one that sneaks in and I was surprised that it was this one but very pleased. I loved so many things about this book. I loved Penny, who is not just “a prickly YA protagonist” in that way that they aren’t really all that prickly just kind of scowly, Penny is actually prickly and sulky and kind of hates everyone and I loved her. Yes, she wears all black and she has the specific bands she’s into blah blah blah, she has a very specific set of anxieties and you really get to see them in everything about her. There is a guy, because of course, and Penny connects with him over text. The book explores the very now-phenomenon of how you can get to know a person over text in a way that you can’t always replicate in real life. Sam, her love interest, may be kind of a manic pixie dream guy, but while he is clearly a good person he makes lots of terrible romantic decisions. I loved watching these two weirdos get to know each other.
Washington Black by Esi Edugyan. A historical adventure novel! Another surprise on my list, since historical novels and adventure novels are usually not so much my thing. But Edugyan pulls off a particularly impressive feat: she tells a story with a slave protagonist that tackles complex, modern issues on race. This book feels so modern while also letting you play around across several continents, including major plot points with octopi and dirigibles. A real stunner.
Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi. Perhaps the most complex and interesting novel I read this year, Emezi’s autobiographical tale explores gender through the Igbo concept of the ogbanje, a trickster spirit. Emezi takes this and looks at it her own way, fusing gender identity, mental health, and myth to create her character of Ada, who is the central body but not the central character of the book. As she grows, the different selves within her struggle for power over her, and as she experiences trauma and pain, her selves allow her to cope and shift to get through it. It’s a fascinating story and I’m excited to see what’s next from Emezi.
A Place for Us by Fatima Farheen Mirza. I love stories about family and religion and the clashes the two together can cause, so this book was squarely in my wheelhouse. It also has multiple points of view, a structure that jumps through time, and has significant character shifts. This book was made for me in a lab, I swear. The drama here may be small, it may be just one family, but it feels epic, Shakespearean even. One Muslim family revolves around Amar, the only son, who is estranged from the rest of the family when we meet him at the beginning of the book. We trace the story backwards and forwards, to see where the rift came from and how it impacts all the characters in different ways. I love how Mirza loves all her characters, how she respects their beliefs or lack thereof, how tenderly she depicts them all. I cried so hard at the end of this book.
Circe by Madeline Miller. So many people got on board with this book that I succumbed to it solely through peer pressure. I don’t do a lot of fairy tale or myth retellings, I hadn’t read Miller’s previous book about Achilles. It seemed like it might be stuffy. But oh this book was great, even if your memory of Greek myths is very fuzzy, there’s a lot of joy here. (Although technically I think I love The Song of Achilles, which I read right after Circe, just a little bit more. It’s so gay and wonderful!) The feminist retelling is turning into its own genre, but Miller is so subtle and smart that it never feels like work, it’s just a hell of a pageturner.
There There by Tommy Orange. I spent many months desperately hoping that this book would be a Big Thing and I was so pleased when it actually was. If there was one work of literary fiction that got the most buzz this year, it was this one and rightly so. This book is a set of connected stories about the Native (he uses the word “Indian) community in Oakland. Some are deeply connected to their Indian identity, others barely at all. There is no one way to be Native in the modern world and Orange gives us a tapestry of lives and families. It took me a little while to really get moving in this world, but once I had the momentum I couldn’t stop.
Red Clocks by Leni Zumas. It was a big year for feminist dystopias but this was the one that really got me. It’s set in the very near future and follows several women after the US has outlawed abortion and IVF, giving full personhood to embryos. The best near-future books are ones where you see exactly how this world came to be and it feels eerily close to real life, and Zumas passes with flying colors. It’s both mesmerizing and terrifying. All the women in this book have lives centered around female reproduction in some way, and seeing everything from pregnancy to abortion to parenting in this world lets you see just how massive the consequences of the smallest restrictions on women’s reproductive freedom are. Also it’s just a riveting novel with impeccably drawn characters that I got totally addicted to and I’m a sucker for a vagina-cover.
Memorable and Worthwhile
Give Me Your Hand by Megan Abbott. Megan Abbott is the most reliable thriller writer out there, every new book is a joy. This one is one of her best. As always, it’s centered around women’s experiences, this time with two former best friends who end up in the same research lab.
Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup by John Carreyrou. The most unputdownable book of the year. The most bizarre and ridiculous stories of the year. I have some nitpicks with Carreyrou but I can’t deny that this book is so readable that it feels like it wasn’t even written, just piped directly into your brain.
All You Can Ever Know: A Memoir by Nicole Chung. A beautiful, moving memoir about transracial adoption that will speak to you deeply about family and identity whether or not you’re an adoptee.
The Witch Elm by Tana French. If you know me you know how much I love Tana French and her first standalone is the slowest of burns, but it sure burns. I listened to it obsessively while stuck inside during a hurricane and I couldn’t get enough of it.
Force of Nature by Jane Harper. One of the most enjoyable mysteries of the year, about a corporate retreat gone awry and I won’t give you anything else so you can read it cold.
This Will Be My Undoing: Living at the Intersection of Black, Female, and Feminist in (White) America by Morgan Jerkins. The second (!!) book of essays on this list, if you’re a white person in particular I think there’s a lot to get out of this book that doesn’t center your experience and isn’t written for you. Also if you assume books of essays are boring and dull, think again.
An American Marriage by Tayari Jones. Discovering Tayari Jones this year was a real treat, she writes novels with complex relationships and characters who are never simple. I also highly recommend her previous novel, Silver Sparrow, which I think may be my favorite.
Sunburn by Laura Lippman. If James M. Cain was alive and a woman, this is the kind of book she would write. A twisty neo-noir thriller about a woman with a hidden past that leans into noir tropes and turns them on their head.
This list is already rather long or I’d throw in some honorable mentions because there were that many great books this year.
What were your favorite 2018 reads?