My Top 10 Books of 2018 by Corinne Donnelly
Phew, 2018 is nearly over, so that means it’s that time of year again! I didn’t write nearly as many reviews as I would have wanted this year, but I did read 94 books in 2018.
In contrast to last year, I only read one Star Wars book. I call this bizarre turn of events The Last Jedi Effect. I kid, I kid! (Or do I?) I also actively went out of my way to read more books written by female authors, which I was largely successful at, and I think it shows in my list this year.
Next year I’m hoping to write more book reviews. That was my goal last year though, and look where that got me, so…
Per usual, the list below is composed of books I read this year. Not all books in my list were published in 2018. I have starred the 4 books that I have already written full reviews for, so please feel free to go check those out on the website.
And with that, here are my Top 10 Books of 2018! My top five are listed in order of preference. The rest are in no particular order.
*1. The Rook by Daniel O’Malley
Genre: Urban Fantasy (Paranormal) / Mystery / Science Fiction
What’s it about? Myfanwy (pronounced “Miffany”) Thomas wakes up with no knowledge of who she is. This alone would be shocking, except that she’s surrounded by dead bodies. Oh, and she seems to have supernatural abilities. She soon finds herself in a powerful and secretive government position, working with other people with extraordinary abilities to protect the world from danger. What could go wrong?
Key components: Secret societies, fascinating supernatural abilities, modern day England with fantastical elements, a strong female protagonist, British humor, thrilling action & intrigue, witty dialogue, a page-turning plot
My thoughts: I needed a humorous read this year, and The Rook was everything I wanted and more. Despite the fact that it’s almost 500 pages, I read it in less than a week. Myfanwy is everything I could ever ask for in a protagonist. She’s refreshingly average in appearance and personality, but as she adapts to the extraordinary situation she has been so unceremoniously tossed into, her sarcasm and wit shines through. The plot is excellent and the supporting characters are just as fascinating. Daniel O’Malley has created a vivid, secretive fantasy world based in reality. It’s also the beginning of a series (The Checquy Files), although the series is presumably not yet complete. The second book (Stiletto) is narrated by another character, but was just as enjoyable.
*2. The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller
Genre: Fantasy (Mythology) / Romance / LGBT
Summary: The Song of Achilles is a refreshing new take on the life of Achilles through the eyes of his most trusted companion, Patroclus.
Key components: Greek mythology, gods and demigods, royal courts, childhood friendship, romance, the horrors of war, what makes a lasting legacy
My thoughts: Greek mythology has always fascinated me, but there’s only so many times you can read (or watch) the story of Achilles without finding it tedious. Miller’s decision to write the book from Patroclus’s perspective made this novel stunning. Patroclus has always played second fiddle to Achilles, which is a shame, since his story is just as interesting. Patroclus and Achilles as a pair, first as friends, then as lovers, also works so incredibly well in context of Achilles’s tragic demise. To top it off, Miller writes so poetically that I often forgot I was reading a retelling. Miller’s second novel, Circe, another Greek adaptation, came out this year, and it was beautiful, but it didn’t touch me as much as her first novel. It’s still worth a read though.
3. The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
Genre: Literary Fiction (Contemporary)
Summary: The Goldfinch is a coming-of-age novel about Theo Decker, a young man raised in New York, who survives a terrorist attack that kills his mother. Following her death, Theo is tossed from home to home. Due to a variety of circumstances, as well as some deeply troubling choices, Theo finds himself still haunted by the attack decades down the line.
Key components: Bildungsroman, city life (specifically New York, Las Vegas & Amsterdam), the world of fine art, family and friendship, tragedy and loss, the criminal underworld
My thoughts: I don’t often compare novels to one another, but it’s so difficult not to find oneself thinking about Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations while reading The Goldfinch. There are too many similarities. Tartt is a fantastic writer with a real affinity for description. Despite her wordiness, it always feels like everything on the page is there for a reason. The Goldfinch is hefty at 771 pages (the longest book I read this year, by far), but I was never bored. There are three distinct sections which Tartt weaves effortlessly together, despite some rather large time jumps. Theo is also not a heroic character, in fact, he’s far from it, but the longer I spent with him, the more justified his actions became. By the end, I felt like we were one, which was a beautiful and frightening experience.
4. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Genre: Fiction (Classic)
Summary: Scout Finch, a young girl living in a small town in 1930s Alabama, spends her days going to school, playing with her brother, Jem, and her friend, Dill, and learning under the guidance of her father, Atticus, a lawyer. As three years in Scout’s life pass by, she is a witness to one of her father’s most significant trials: that of a black man accused of raping a white woman.
Key components: coming of age story, friendship and family, racism & segregation, the law, morality, social inequality
My thoughts: It’s truly a shame that I was never assigned this novel in school. I’m glad I finally read it though, and I can see why it’s a classic. Scout is a precocious young lady and I loved her sense of curiosity. Atticus is one of the most astoundingly well-written characters I have ever encountered in literature. Lee gives him so many wise and memorable quotes. I don’t think I’ve ever highlighted a book so much in my life. There is so much to learn from To Kill a Mockingbird, and I think it’s a very important book, especially in today’s fractured society.
*5. Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
Genre: Historical fiction / Science fiction (time travel)
Summary: Ursula Todd is born in 1910 to an affluent family in the English countryside. Her life seems destined for comfort and routine. And yet, when Ursula dies, her life resets. Everything suddenly restarts with fresh paths to venture and new decisions to make. But what happens when even small deviations cause much larger repercussions.
Key components: coming of age, fate vs. free will, death & rebirth, female roles in society, family and friendship, World Wars I and II, religion and spirituality
My thoughts: My favorite aspect of this book was the unpredictability of it. I like not knowing where a story is going. Ursula is born at the start of an interesting period of history, living through two world wars, but she’s a woman with limited opportunities, despite being born into an affluent family, so you would assume her life would be mundane. Luckily, her many reincarnations allow for a variety of fascinating lives and deaths. The Todd Family is also an entertaining lot with some incredibly wholesome interactions. Every reset was both exciting and devastating because you never knew how much characters would change in the next iteration. Life After Life was an incredibly unique reading experience that continued to astound me up until the end. It’s also a series, although I haven’t picked up the second book yet.
The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
Genre: Young Adult (Contemporary)
Goodreads Summary: “Sixteen-year-old Starr Carter moves between two worlds: the poor neighborhood where she lives and the fancy suburban prep school she attends. The uneasy balance between these worlds is shattered when Starr witnesses the fatal shooting of her childhood best friend Khalil at the hands of a police officer. Khalil was unarmed.
Soon afterward, his death is a national headline. Some are calling him a thug, maybe even a drug dealer and a gangbanger. Protesters are taking to the streets in Khalil’s name. Some cops and the local drug lord try to intimidate Starr and her family. What everyone wants to know is: what really went down that night? And the only person alive who can answer that is Starr.
But what Starr does—or does not—say could upend her community. It could also endanger her life.”
My thoughts: T.H.U.G. was an incredibly emotional read for me, and an extremely hard-hitting one. The subject matter is controversial, and Thomas does an excellent job of navigating the political and social aspects of such a sensitive topic. She definitely pulls out the punches, but it comes across as respectful and realistic. I was also impressed by her dialogue. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book with such genuine conversations. Nothing felt stilted, fake or preachy. Thomas writes from the soul and it shows. I have not seen the movie adaptation yet, but I’ve heard great things, so that will be remedied soon.
*The Astonishing Color of After by Emily X.R. Pan
Genre: Young Adult (Contemporary) / Fantasy
Summary: Leigh Chen Sanders considers herself first and foremost an artist, a friend to Axel and Caro, and, lastly, a daughter to an American father and a Taiwanese mother. When her mother commits suicide, Leigh travels to Taiwan where she meets her estranged grandparents and experiences a part of her heritage she has never known. On her journey, she discovers more about her mother, her family, and herself.
My thoughts: This was a beautiful and devastating debut novel about a young girl attempting to come to terms with her mother’s suicide. What impressed me the most was how much X.R. Pan was able to fit naturally into the plot. It’s not just an unflinching look into mental illness, but a glimpse into Taiwanese culture, and an excellent example of magical realism done well.
The Secret History by Donna Tartt
Genre: Literary Fiction / Mystery
Goodreads Summary: “Under the influence of their charismatic classics professor, a group of clever, eccentric misfits at an elite New England college discover a way of thinking and living that is a world away from the humdrum existence of their contemporaries. But when they go beyond the boundaries of normal morality they slip gradually from obsession to corruption and betrayal, and at last – inexorably – into evil.”
My thoughts: Two Donna Tartt novels in one list? Heavens me! And yes, she’s just that good of a writer. One of my weaknesses, probably as a result of growing up with the Harry Potter books, is that I adore novels that take place in a school-like setting. I’ve read so many of them that it often takes quite a bit of nuance for me to still be entertained and surprised by them. The Secret History did not disappoint. All of the characters are truly atrocious people, but their interactions are so delicious that the book was extremely difficult to put down.
Neverworld Wake by Marisha Pessl
Genre: Young Adult / Science Fiction / Mystery
Goodreads Summary: “Once upon a time, back at Darrow-Harker School, Beatrice Hartley and her six best friends were the cool kids, the beautiful ones. Then the shocking death of Jim—their creative genius and Beatrice’s boyfriend—changed everything.
One year after graduation, Beatrice is returning to Wincroft—the seaside estate where they spent so many nights sharing secrets, crushes, plans to change the world—hoping she’ll get to the bottom of the dark questions gnawing at her about Jim’s death. But as the night plays out in a haze of stilted jokes and unfathomable silence, Beatrice senses she’s never going to know what really happened.
Then a mysterious man knocks on the door. Blithely, he announces the impossible: time for them has become stuck, snagged on a splinter that can only be removed if the former friends make the harshest of decisions. Now Beatrice has one last shot at answers… and at life.
And so begins the Neverworld Wake.”
My thoughts: Neverworld Wake was so trippy, but I loved it! It’s hard to discuss this one without giving too much away, but if you are looking for a fun mystery, this will certainly fit the bill. The characters in this book also possess a great group dynamic, and there are quite a few entertaining pop culture references to make you laugh.
In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin by Erik Larson
Genre: Nonfiction / History
Goodreads Summary: “The time is 1933, the place, Berlin, when William E. Dodd becomes America’s first ambassador to Hitler’s Germany in a year that proved to be a turning point in history.
A mild-mannered professor from Chicago, Dodd brings along his wife, son, and flamboyant daughter, Martha. At first Martha is entranced by the parties and pomp, and the handsome young men of the Third Reich with their infectious enthusiasm for restoring Germany to a position of world prominence. Enamored of the New Germany, she has one affair after another, including with the surprisingly honorable first chief of the Gestapo, Rudolf Diels. But as evidence of Jewish persecution mounts, confirmed by chilling first-person testimony, her father telegraphs his concerns to a largely indifferent State Department back home. Dodd watches with alarm as Jews are attacked, the press is censored, and drafts of frightening new laws begin to circulate. As that first year unfolds and the shadows deepen, the Dodds experience days full of excitement, intrigue, romance and ultimately, horror, when a climactic spasm of violence and murder reveals Hitler’s true character and ruthless ambition.
Suffused with the tense atmosphere of the period, and with unforgettable portraits of the bizarre Goring and the expectedly charming—yet wholly sinister—Goebbels, In the Garden of Beasts lends a stunning, eyewitness perspective on events as they unfold in real time, revealing an era of surprising nuance and complexity. The result is a dazzling, addictively readable work that speaks volumes about why the world did not recognize the grave threat posed by Hitler until Berlin, and Europe, were awash in blood and terror.”
My thoughts: I joined the Erik Larson fan club last year, and I have to say, this may be my favorite book of his yet. If you’re interested in the history leading up to World War II, it’s a must-read. It’s fascinating to view all of the red flags that led to the rise of Nazism, and it’s astonishing how no-one could predict how evil Hitler and his followers were and the death and destruction they would cause.
Thanks for sticking with me through (another) rough year. Here’s to 2019!