This is not a Top Ten list.
I read a lot of books, and as I’ve gotten older, I’ve gotten more ruthless about bailing on those that don’t grab my attention fairly early on. By definition, then, all the books I finished in 2018 were books I enjoyed–which made it impossible for me to winnow them down to a simple “Best” list.
Instead, I’m highlighting the books I found most memorable, without worrying about the total number I choose. The idea is to spread the love, reading-wise, so why not give a shout-out to as many titles as possible?
Thrillers with Distinctive Settings: The Trailing Spouse, by Jo Furniss, uses Singapore as a backdrop for the story of a British expat’s slow unraveling. The city’s weather, architecture and social dynamics are all brought vividly to life. Tricky family dynamics drive the action in Amber Cowie’s Rapid Falls, and the Canadian small-town setting feels so real that the characters do, too.
Thrillers with Devious Twists: I love a good page-turner, especially when there’s a delicious twist at the end. But because I read so many suspense books, most end up somewhat interchangeable in my memory. That wasn’t the case with You, by Caroline Kepnes. The narrator, Joe, has a voice so distinctive and entertaining that I didn’t really care that he was a stalker with a troubling history. In fact, I rooted for him! (The tone of the book was captured almost perfectly by the recent TV version, despite some changes in the plot.) Behind Her Eyes, by Sarah Pinborough, was billed as one of those “amazing twist” books, so much that I kept my expectations low. But yes, there was a genuinely surprising twist–and it was bonkers. The kind of ending some people hate. But I admired the sheer craziness of it, and the rest of the book was so well written that I went along with it.
Immersive Historical Fiction: The main reason I read (and write) historical fiction is that it allows me to time travel. City of Ash, by Megan Chance, transported me to late 19th-century Seattle, an up-and-coming city where people came to reinvent themselves. I loved the evolution of the two main characters, “frenemies” who ultimately collaborate on a revenge plot. The Silent Companions, by Laura Purcell, is Gothic with a capital G. There’s a creepy British ancestral home, long-buried family secrets, a young wife who’s afraid she’s going crazy….and oh yes, weird wooden figurines that move around on their own. What set this book apart was its impeccable style: the descriptions and dialogue all sounded like something written more than a hundred years ago—and I mean that as a compliment.
Books That Made Me Feel Smart: Every year has its “important” books, the ones that win all the awards and that I end up reading years later, when they’re in paperback and no longer on the waitlist at the library. This year, I managed to be ahead of the pack with The Great Believers, by Rebecca Makkai. Rebecca is a writer who lives not too far from me, and we have some friends in common, so I bought her book soon after it came out, even though I was a little apprehensive: It’s about the AIDS crisis in 1980s Chicago and it will be good for you to read this. What I didn’t expect was for it to be so darn entertaining. Yes, parts are very sad, but it never once felt like homework. I loved spending time with these characters, and I missed them when I’d finished. While I enjoyed The Great Believers from the very beginning, I found Madeline Miller’s Circe slow to get going. But as a long-time ancient-history nerd, I pushed myself to keep reading. And it was worth it: this story of a nymph banished to an island was a mix of classical allusions, feminist critique and family drama.
Books That Made Me Laugh: I’m listing these last, but really they should be first, because it’s really hard to write funny. When political debates and social-media nonsense got me stressed out, I turned to Hottest Heads of State: The American Presidents, by J.D. and Kate Dobson. A hilarious mashup of teen-worthy swooning and legitimate research, this is a book I’ve already re-read multiple times and gave as Christmas gifts to my mom and sister. Other books that made me giggle: Dear Dwayne, With Love, by Eliza Gordon (a woman’s obsession with The Rock inspires her to make changes in her own life), and Mrs. Fletcher, by Tom Perrotta (a funny-but-real take on how different generations deal with dating and sex). After reading most of Perrotta’s books, I still wonder how he manages to capture female characters so wonderfully and truly.
Honorable Mentions: A category I’m including for books I really enjoyed but don’t have the time/energy to write full descriptions: The Death of Mrs. Westaway, Ruth Ware; City of Thieves, David Benioff; How to Be Famous, Caitlin Moran; The Hunger, Alma Katsu; The Promise Between Us, Barbara Claypoole White; Pachinko, Min Lee; The Mothers, Brit Bennett; Digging In, Loretta Nyhan; The Alice Network, Kate Quinn; The Good Liar, Catherine McKenzie; Long Black Veil, Jennifer Boylan
Did you read/love/hate any of these books? What should I add to my list for 2019?