I had a weird reading year. I set a Goodreads goal of 50 and surpassed it handily, reading 76+ books in 2018. Once again I totally failed at my annual Shameful Book Club, so much so that I think I’m going to retire it for next year. I enjoyed most of the books I read in 2018, really disliked a handful, and really liked quite a few. I also, in a very rare move for me, reread quite a few books this year. I reread some Shirley Jackson, Robert Galbraith, Stephen King, and JK Rowling (yes, I know she is also Galbraith but I reread both series this year). I don’t normally reread, but I was in need of comfort so I returned to some of my favorites.
I also want to make a note that at the time that I compiled this list, there were still several weeks left of 2018. I’m still reading books, and it’s possible those books would have ended up on this list, but I had to cut myself off at some point ;)
Below are the 22 books that really stood out to me this year. They are not the only books I really liked, but the ones that stuck with me the most. I tried to include trigger warnings as I remember them, but some might have slipped through my memory. (warning, this is a long post)
Vacationland by John Hodgeman: I bought the audiobook of this memoir/essay collection by comedian John Hodgeman for my fiance for his birthday. We love listening to his podcast Judge John Hodgeman on our frequent road trips and it is just so delightful to laugh and listen to his calming voice while we’re stuck making 12-hour drives in a single weekend once a month while wedding planning. I thought getting this newer release would tickle the same spot for us, and wow did it ever! It exceeded my expectations! Hilarious, thoughtful, insightful, entertaining, emotional…this book was fucking fabulous. And John Hodgeman reads it for the audiobook, so the comedic timing is just absolutely perfect. He talks about his family, their misadventures, and their close connection to the town they vacation in up in Maine. It seems boring, but John Hodgeman is so incredibly smart and such a talented storyteller that the nuances and little details are truly hook you. This is pretty much a Swiss Army Knife book. He does get a bit political near the end, so maybe don’t give it as a gift to your most conservative family members if that’s going to bother them, but I’d say it’s a wonderful gift for everyone else. I fully intend to buy it for people on my list this year, and I will most likely buy myself a paper copy to read again! The audiobook is really the best way to go, however.
1491 by Charles C. Mann: (TW colonizer’s bullshit) Growing up on Haudenosaunee territory, specifically Onondaga territory, I was lucky enough to have indigenous culture taught to me at a young age. The Iroquois Confederacy is good at outreach and education, and I have fond memories of going to the res and the museum. I also got to hear their stories and folklore often, and when the apocalypse comes for us I know I will be able to survive the aftermath solely because of the story of the Three Sisters. I’ve always been fascinated with Native America and indigenous culture, and finally this year I got around to reading 1491. The general thesis of Mann’s masterpiece is that pre-Columbus America was more populated, more advanced, and more engineered than we are taught. I loved this book so much! It was absolutely fascinating, exciting, and extremely educational. It’s a must-read for everyone, especially in you live in the Americas.
All The Single Ladies by Rebecca Traister: Rebecca Traister just released Good and Mad and I am already making grabby hands in its general direction. Traister is an incredible writer focusing on fascinating topics for women. To be clear, everyone should read her writing, but as a woman I felt so touched by this book. I read it for a book club around the same time I read Eloquent Rage (below, Traister actually references Cooper in this book) and a couple other feminist non-fiction books, and it really struck a chord for me. It is essentially an examination of women living alone and/or being single for their entire lives both by choice and not. It goes back through history to examine women alone and why/how that occurred and also take a deep dive into women living alone today. It examines how this looks different across racial groups and classes, as well as what it’s like to be a woman and make the conscious decision to live alone versus ending up alone due to external factors. What does the societal pressure look like? What happens when you’re old and don’t have family to take care of you? How does it change your relationship to others and yourself? To say this book was thought-provoking would be an understatement. I have never lived alone in all my 30 years. I was, for a brief time, an only child with a room of her own, but rather quickly in life I started sharing a room with my sister. I had roommates in undergrad, and then I did technically live alone for maybe a couple of months in my first apartment after I graduated from college. This didn’t last, however, as my boyfriend moved in with me very early on in our relationship. He and I have been living together for eight years now and are going to be getting married this coming June. This book made me stop and think what my life would have been like if I ever was able to have space that was 100% completely mine. I could do whatever I wanted with it. I could eat whatever I wanted, watch whatever I wanted, not have to sync calendars or worry about another person’s comings and goings. I do not regret my life of constant cohabitation, and I absolutely would not change my life to not include my fiance, but let’s just say I’m a bit seduced with what Traister was describing. If I outlive Mark I think I will do just fine being alone for the last few years of my life.
Dead Girls by Alice Bolin: (TW violence against women) Sometimes I check a book out from the library, read about 30 pages of it, and then immediately run out to my bookstore to buy myself a copy. This was one of those books. Not only did I love Bolin’s discussion of the dead girl trope in our entertainment media, but her essays about living in Los Angeles and what close female friendships are like also really captured me. I felt very connected to her experiences because I’ve had very similar if not identical ones myself. I moved to LA once upon a time and really disliked it. The ways she described living there and the weird quality it holds were exactly how I felt about it. She ended up staying much longer than I did, but she was able to stomach a lot more bullshit than I was. I realized early that it wasn’t worth the struggle, that I would never get what I wanted out of it. I regretted leaving for a long time. It took a lot of time and space for me to realize that I did the right and smart thing and that I am now so much better for it. Bolin’s collection of essays really hammered that home for me!
Eloquent Rage by Brittney Cooper: (TW mentions of real life violence and assault) This book was amazing and so important for me to read as a white woman who strives to be an intersectional feminist and ally to the Black community. I learned so much about Black woman’s experiences from this book. I grew up in a town that was like 96% white in the middle of farm land in Upstate New York. Ignorant doesn’t even begin to describe my understanding of what being Black in America is like. So much context I had been missing about the rocky (and often toxic) relationship between Black women and white women was made clear to me in reading this book, and I now understand more about how Black women feel about their relationship to Black men as well. I’m speaking in generalizations, and I think Cooper approaches this book with her own context and lens, so this is not to say this book speaks for all Black women, but it really did feel like a light bulb went off in my mind after reading it. Statements my Black girlfriends made on social media made way more sense, as did rhetoric from some intersectional feminist groups I belong to. This book is required reading for white women, and I can promise you that it will not be a comfortable read. You will be called out and you will feel yourself getting defensive. Just, let it happen. Sit with it. Think about it. Trust where Cooper is taking you, because you will be a better person for it in the end. I’m really grateful to Cooper for writing this, and I hope to continue to read more books that expand my understanding of Black women’s experiences.
Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions by Valeria Luiselli: (TW mentions of rel life violence and assault) What a gut-punch this small essay is. Both heartbreaking and necessary. I learned so much about the current refugee crisis happening in Central America right now and why all these children are fighting their way up to America, even when they know the extreme and brutal dangers that await them on the trip and once they get here. Luiselli, a Mexican immigrant herself, discusses the crisis that really intensified in 2014 through her experiences volunteering for immigration rights lawyers and organizations that are trying to help the children crossing our southern border. Volunteers like Luiselli are given a list of 40 questions that need to be asked to the children, and depending on how they answer they will either be eligible for help or not. The system is beyond broken, but while Luiselli’s essay is very hard to read, she does pepper in a bit of hope.
Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh: (TW violence) I had no idea what to expect from this book, what that’s not what I got. This book is so strange, but I don’t think I’ll stop thinking about it any time soon. I really enjoyed it! The writing is so visceral and detailed. The slow-paced narrative really lingers on small moments, little details like the feel of a fabric or the smell of someone’s hair. The writing is cyclical and unique, much like the concept of Écriture féminine. This was recently explained to me by a brilliant student who works in my library as a French school of writing theory that focuses on female writing as a form. It basically argues that standard writing is masculine and a sentence is formatted much like the male orgasm, where “women’s writing” is slow, cyclical, methodical. This fascinating novel about a rather unlikable young woman named Eileen follows her through the strange events over a few days that completely change her life forever. Moshfegh is incredibly impressive. She is able to straddle that line between entertaining and artistic perfectly. I can’t wait to read more of her work!
My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite: (TW murder, child abuse) This book isn’t really a mystery, and is only barely a thriller, so I put it in the literary fiction section *shrug*. This slim novel is stunningly written, smart, funny, rich, and a fascinating look at the deep, murderous connection between two sisters who suffered severe trauma as children. Where do allegiances fall? What wouldn’t you do for your beloved sibling? In the book, Korede finds herself assisting her sister Ayoola in the disposal of a body and general clean-up that is required after stabbing a man to death. But this is not the first time, nor the second time Korede has done just this. No, this is the third time, and Korede is starting to wonder if these events were actually done in self defense as Ayoola claims. When Ayoola starts to date the love of Korede’s life, Korede has to make some tough decisions. So good!! I really enjoyed reading a book set in Lagos, Nigeria. I feel like I gained more understanding of Nigerian culture. I loved reading this book and look forward to anything Braithwaite writes in the future!
Fever Dream by Samantha Schweblin: (TW violence) Another cyclical and confusing ride, this work in translation was so thrilling and fun to talk about with my book club! Nothing is straight forward in Fever Dream. There are jumps in time, hallucinations, illness, violence, folk magic, unreliable narrators, and strange and menacing setting, and lots and lots of “whaaaat?” reactions. A woman and her small child are staying in a vacation home in the country while her husband works (sometimes? but sometimes he’s with them?) when what appears to be some kind of virus begins spreading through the town. The virus leaves children, uh, altered. It kills some. Honestly, maybe it kills them all. This is a confusing book. The main character is telling the story to what surely is a hallucination while sick at the hospital. The hallucination is trying to guide her through the events of the past few days to locate when she went wrong…when they got sick. Even though it’s a bit confusing, it’s a pure delight to read!
Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado: (TW sexual violence, assault, violence against women) I was so enchanted by this feminist masterpiece! Each short story was just as gripping as the last, and my book club could not decide which ones were our favorite. They discuss the patriarchy, assault, sexual violence, LGBTQIA+ relationships, motherhood, and womanhood in all its broad and multifaceted (and dark and twisted) ways. Machado’s writing is masterful. I really loved this collection and am excited to see the TV adaptation that’s currently underway!
The Elementals by Michael McDowell: (TW supernatural violence) I signed up for Bookriot’s new TBR service where you can pay a fee every quarter and you get tailored book recommendations based on a survey you submit and your Goodreads profile. This was the first book I read from the first list of recommendations I got back (hilariously, I already owned it, it was just buried under a stack). Michael McDowell actually wrote the screenplay for Beetlejuice, and I saw a lot of parallels…sand dunes, creepy teen girls with cameras. This book was fantastic! It might be my favorite book ever! It was like in Shirley Jackson and Stephen King wrote a book together. It had that delicious creeping dread that I adore: little hints that things are just wrong, small disturbances, bad vibes. It also has those big shock moments that kept me hooked at key points in the story. The plot follows two affluent Alabama families as they vacation in their old Victorian vacation homes on the Gulf coast as their lives go through significant changes. Family deaths, divorces, pregnancy, all normal family things. But there is something not right with the vacation homes. One is literally being swallowed up by a huge sand dune that grows more each year. No one goes in that house anymore. They stick to the two that aren’t mostly buried. But something in there keeps called to them, especially the teen daughter of one of the prodigal sons. Shit gets out of control, and I was basically screaming with horror and excitement as I read this book on the plane to and from Florida for a friend’s wedding. I don’t want to give anything away, but it’s a must read for horror fans!
The Changeling by Victor LeValle: (TW violence against children) When I got to the climax of this stunning work of horror and fantasy, I literally could not sit down. I was pacing back and forth in my kitchen, frantically flipping pages, trying to finish the book before I had to leave for work. I have never stayed up all night to finish a book (I have no control over my sleep impulse), but I came damn close with this one and a couple of others this year. I felt like this book was written for me. It takes old folklore and brings it to modern New York City, splitting the city into the world we know and a separate secret fairy land being terrorized by misogynistic monsters as old as time. At first, it seems like a straight forward tale about a horrible family tragedy, but the further you get in the book the more you’ll find yourself saying, “huh??” in increasingly higher pitches until it just explodes with exciting and terrifying adventure surrounding a father and husband who has to fight literal ancient monsters to get his family back.
White Tears by Hari Kunzru: (TW violence against Black people, slavery) This is another one of those books that falls into this year’s accidental trend of strange bends in time and cyclical story. I heard so many good things about this book so I just bought it blindly on faith and the strength of the recommendations. I’m glad I did! This is an expertly crafted horror novel that will have you feeling so dizzy and disjointed in time and place. Kunzru uses commentary on cultural appropriation, erasure, and white supremacy to weave a truly horrific tale, turning the weapons of white people on themselves. And as a fan of jazz and the blues, I can’t say that I wasn’t a little bit erm unsettled after reading this. But I definitely thought it was brilliant in its message and its entertainment factor!
Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, vol. 1 by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa: (TW violence, murder) I checked this out from the library as soon as I heard about the Netflix series being developed. I loved the original series, as most girls my age did, but as I’ve grown up and become darker and more evil I have craved something more like what this comic series delivered. I really loved the Netflix series when it finally did come out, and I equally enjoyed this comic! I was a bit surprised by how violent and dark it is, but honestly it was exactly what I wanted. I also am finding the lawsuit against the show by the Satanic Temple pretty interesting. It’s made even more interesting when you realize that the Satanic Temple is not the same as the overall Satanic religion, and Satanists are actually rather annoyed by the Satanic Temple’s actions. If I were to be a religious woman, I would completely be a Satanist, and I can see how this show would give Satanists a bad name. But the reason the show is being sued is a bit of a silly one. I’ll let you look it up yourself if you’re interested.
A Noise Downstairs by Linwood Barclay: (TW murder) More of a thriller, this was a book I picked up on a whim after listening to a Bookriot podcast that highlighted it. I am so happy I decided to pick it up! It was the twistiest, weirdest, most thrilling book I’ve read this year, and that is saying a lot because I read a ton of these thriller-type books and I read a ton of thriller and horror this year. While the other books in this horror category were some of the best books I’ve ever read (ever), this book had me on the edge of my seat, mouth open, eyes wide in shock! Loved it!
Binti by Nnedo Okorafor: (TW: violence, racism) I’ve only managed to read the first Binti volume of three, but it really captured my imagination! It’s the diverse scifi version of Harry Potter the world needed, and I will hopefully get to enjoy the rest of the series soon. Binti is part of a minority people on her planet and in the universe. They have great powers, but choose to stay on their land and not venture out into the larger interconnected society around them. Binti, and young teen, gets accepted into a prestigious magical school far away from her home planet, and she decides to defy her family and her people and make the journey so she can live out her full potential. Everything starts off pretty great! She meets awesome new friends on the ship taking them all to the school and she’s feeling very optimistic about her decisions, but then a dangerous alien species attacks their vessel in an act of retribution and everyone is slaughtered except for Binti. This is a story of survival, leadership, coming of age, and perseverance. I don’t want to give too much away, because you need to read it if you haven’t yet. It’s also super super short, and if you stack all three installments on top of one another, they would still make a super short book.
Undead Girl Gang by Lily Anderson: (TW: Suicide, murder, assault) I really wish I had this book when I was 15! It’s fun, exciting, and brutally honest about young female best-friendships. The witchiness is just a fun added bonus! Mila and Riley are best friends, but when Riley turns up dead and everyone cries suicide, Mila doesn’t bite the bait. Sure, two other popular girls had seemingly just hung themselves in what looked like a suicide pact, and sure, Riley seemed to have thrown herself into the river, but things weren’t adding up to Mila. So what does Mila do? Witchcraft, of course! She follows in Riley’s footsteps and performs a powerful spell to bring her best friend back…and it works. But it comes with two pretty obnoxious catches: the two popular girls who recently died also come back to life and now Mila and Riley have to deal with them while trying to figure out the details around Riley’s death. Turns out all three dead girls have more in common than they thought. This is such a fun mystery and a really beautiful story about friendship!
The Cheerleaders by Kara Thomas: (TW: murder, assault) This book is based on a series of suicides, tragedies, and horrific murders that happened in the area I grew up in over a decade that spread from the late ’80s to the late ’90s. It is my “hometown murder” and has had movies and specials made about it, but it still remains rather unknown. I was only eight years old when the actual cheerleader murders happened, but I remember it all so clearly. I lived one town over from where the murders occurred, and the fear that rippled through the county was palpable. I was apprehensive to pick this book up because I don’t like it when people who aren’t from the area share the story, but my curiosity got the best of me. And what do you know, it made my favorites list! I really enjoyed this book. Thomas did a good job of referencing the original tragedies while building a completely disconnected and original mystery. She could have easily crossed a line with the story but, to me at least, she stayed in safe territory. Ultimately, she wrote a really excellent and enjoyable thriller mystery. It was also fun to read her descriptions of the area and the local landmarks of the Finger Lakes region.
Harry Potter by JK Rowling (all of them): Yup. I had not read the entire Harry Potter series until this year. For some reason (school, probably), I never got around to order of the Phoenix, The Half-Blood Prince, or the Deathly Hallows. I set a goal to reread the entire series this year and was lucky enough to team up with a bunch of my librarian friends who were also doing a reread for a fun Harry Potter book club! This was such a joy and pleasure, I cannot even begin to tell you. I know a lot of people wold love to be able to go back a reread HP for the first time again, and I can confirm that it is as stunning when you’re 30 as when you were 12. It was cool to have read the first half of the series and get to experience those books again for the first time since they were published, but once I got to uncharted territory I was seriously floored. I’m so happy I got to read them now for the first time because it was really a magical experience and that reminded me that my heart wasn’t cold and dead, but I can’t help but think about how intense it would have been to read them back when they were being published and I was in my teens. Being able to get together with my friends and discuss the Wizarding World — its connections to current politics, its weird connections and plot holes, its problematic elements as well as its beauty — has truly been a privilege. I look forward to rereading them again!
As I Descended by Robin Talley: (TW: suicide, murder) I have no idea how I heard of this book. It just popped up on my Goodreads one day and I made an impulsive move to check the audiobook out on my Libby app. It is seriously so good, especially if you are a fan of Libba Bray’s Gemma Doyle series but wanted it to be a bit darker. It centers around a group of friends at a stuffy boarding school who unlock an old, paranormal evil that they cannot control and shit.gets.wild. I had so much fun listening to this one, and I was so pleased that a random book pick turned out so well! Bonus for all you Shakespeare nerds, I believe this is a retelling of Macbeth??
SciFi and Fantasy
The Long Way to a Small Dark Planet by Becky Chambers: I read a lot of science fiction this year with my instituting the #SummerofSciFi. The point was to read more of this genre since I don’t usually get to. I feel like I got a nice buffet of scifi experiences, not all of them great or even good (definitely not into the Three Body Problem, no thank you), but this quirky space adventure was exactly what I was looking for! This book is about a found family of intergalactic misfits who are on a tricky mission that gets trickier as the plot unfolds, but in the process they learn more about each other and experience all different kinds of love and loss. This book was funny, exciting, touching, and very well done. I absolutely recommend it for folks who want to dip a toe in science fiction but don’t know where to start. It’s the first in a series, so I’m hoping I will be able to read the rest of the series soon!
Circe by Madeline Miller: (TW: violence against women, assault) Reading this book felt like I was on a long, beautiful walk. I have never read the Odyssey so I am not 100% familiar with how Circe is depicted in that story, but this book is such a wonderful portrait of a complicated figure. As a kid I was very interested in Greek mythology, and this book really brought a lot of that nostalgia rushing back. I loved reading about the complicated world of the gods and goddesses. I loved the depictions of the monsters and various magical realms. But honestly, my favorite parts were when Circe was in solitude on her island, learning and working her magic among the natural world. I also didn’t hate it when she made it a game to fuck up sailors’ days. Sometimes men should just be turned into pigs, ya know? I haven’t read Miller’s The Song of Achilles, but I will certainly be picking it up soon. Pretty much everyone I know who has read Circe AND The Song of Achilles says they loved Circe but still preferred The Song of Achilles, so yeah I’ma need that. If you like mythology, family sagas, feminist fantasy, and witchery, you will totally love this book!
So what now? How will I approach 2019? I completely failed at 2 out of 4 bookish goals I set for myself in 2018. My #NoNewBooks2018 was broken by March, and my Shameful Book Club goal is basically a little joke I have with myself now. I did manage to read all of Harry Potter and make my Goodreads goal, but I think I’d like to enter 2019 with less goals in general. I think that I’m going to try out reading as freely and spontaneously as I want! Maybe I’ll write about it here, maybe I won’t. Maybe I’ll take 2019 to regroup, explore, and think about how I want to use this blog in the future. I’ve had it for a long time and I’ve always been horrible at keeping up with it, so some reevaluation probably wouldn’t be a bad thing.
Anyway, what were your favorite reads this year? What are you most looking forward to on your 2019 TBR list?