Best of 2018: A Recommended Reading List

I read 84 books in 2018 — a few of them, rereads — and there were so many that I immensely enjoyed. Pachinko was my first read of the year, and it was a 5-star title. I started the Inspector Gamache series by Louise Penny and thoroughly delighted in the first three novels (I’m really dragging them out, here — don’t want the series to end!). Beartown stirred me, deep. But a handful of titles stand out — they’re exceptionally well-written, their plots moved me in meaningful ways, the characters were especially memorable . . . I know I’ll revisit these books again someday. And in the meantime, I’ll be thrusting them into the hands of any willing listener I can find.

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In no particular order, here’s the seven books that I read in 2018 and I hold most dear:

  1. Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt. I salivated over this novel in January — such a deeply moving and heartwarming and heartbreaking story — and you can read my full review here. It’s been 12 months, and I’m still thinking about June and her uncle Finn.
  2. The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker. Rumor has it a second book will be coming out in 2020, and I’m here for itThe Golem and the Jinni is a fascinating, engrossing fantasy story with roots in Syrian culture and folklore. Chava and Ahmad were some of the most well-drawn characters I read this year, and I couldn’t put this one down.
  3. Outlander by Diana Gabaldon. This series is controversial, but it’s largely popular for a good reason: Gabaldon can write a drama, friends. I came to this hefty tome in March with a couple of friends I met on bookstagram — Betsy (@booksgloriousbooks) and Taylor (@shihtzus.and.book.reviews) — and it was honestly probably my first foray into adult romance. I don’t typically enjoy the genre, but Clare and Jamie’s story was just so enthralling, and the books is so much more than a love story. I just finished the third book this month and while I’ve enjoyed all of the books in the series thus far, Outlander remains my favorite. And, if I’m being honest, this one’s always going to hold a special place in my heart because it’s the book that sparked a long-distance friendship of epic proportions.
  4. Foe by Iain Reid. This was my first Reid novel and y’all, it BLEW. MY. MIND. His books are short and quick reads, with brief chapters and compelling storylines. I tore through this one in less than 24 hours — it was THAT good. Foe is a mind-bending and provocative read that contemplates human relationships, and humanity itself. If you’re in the mood for something fast and bendy, this is it.
  5. Bitter Orange by Claire Fuller. I’ve gushed about this one so much on bookstagram, it almost feels excessive to talk about it more. Here’s my full review, and here’s a link to buy the book.
  6. An Unexplained Death by Mikita Brottman. This work of nonfiction was absolutely fascinating. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: An Unexplained Death is so much more than a work of true crime. Brottman touches on some deeply unsettling aspects of human nature, including our obsession with the macabre and our deepest needs to both tether ourselves to and isolate ourselves from the victims of crimes. This obsessive account of Brottman’s own unofficial investigation into the disappearance and death of Rey Rivera is a solid — and overlooked — gem of 2018.
  7. The Line That Held Us by David Joy. I’m pretty wishy-washy about picking a number one or “favorite” book, typically, but Joy’s gritty work of Appalachian noir is it. If you’re holding a gun to my head and telling me to choose, I choose you, The Line That Held Us. This novel is dark. It’s vividly drawn. It’s evocative and atmospheric and full of absolutely brilliant characters. Joy somehow manages to weave together this tragedy that is chock-full of emotion and desire and fear and the result is breathtaking. I cherished every word of this novel, then rushed out to buy his other works. You would be wise to do the same!

For a look at my reading year in review, head to this link. But before you go, tell me about your favorite reads of 2018! Did you read any of the titles that made my list? Leave me a comment and let me know what you thought of these works — or what books I need to add to my TBR for 2019!

Happy reading, friends, and Happy New Year!

Recommended Reading: 3 Wintry Reads That Live Up to the Hype

Hey there, bookworms. Are you on a quest for some fantasy titles for this wintry season? Look no further! I’ve been feverishly reading some hyped backlist titles and these three are perfect for those chilly winter days spent snuggled on the couch. Check it out!

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  1. The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden. I finally read this Russian folklore-esque tale a few weeks ago and I freaking loved it. Settled in a northern img_8153 egion of medieval Russia, the story follows young Vasilisa, a strange and perhaps magical girl, as she struggles to take the reins of her own life — despite her resentful stepmother’s attempts to stifle her. Meanwhile, Vasya’s village is plagued by an increasing sense of fear and foreboding about the winter to come. When a new priest arrives, determined to drive out the demons (and the pastoral people’s torn devotion between the modern church and ancient pagan customs), Vasya is (mostly) alone in her struggle to combat the unseen forces that will devastate her people. This work of fantasy is so vivid and rich in its composition, I couldn’t put it down — and now I’m keeping my fingers and toes crossed that I get the second book in the trilogy for Christmas!
  2. The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey. I raved about this fairytale-based novel last Christmas — and I’m strongly tempted to read it again this winter. The story begins with a middle-aged couple who has resettled in the Alaskan territory, determined to forget the disappointments of a childless life amid extended family back East. Mabel and Jack grow increasingly distant with each passing day, each facing their own disappointments about marriage without children; but when they build a snowgirl on a whim during the first snow of the img_8151 laskan winter, they seem to find a bit of joy again. Later, when a mysterious child begins to appear in the snowy forest, Mabel is intent on rescuing the girl — and becoming the mother she’s always longed to be.
  3. The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker. In an absolutely poetic work of majesty, Wecker weaves together the narrative of Chava the Golem — a clay being brought to life — and Ahmad the Jinni — a fire-spirit trapped in human form. While much of the novel takes place in 1890s New York City, the story crosses centuries and continents in the winding telling of the Jinni’s storied past. The novel begins by bringing both characters “to life” in the overwhelmingly vibrant city, near one another but without any img_8152knowledge that the other exists. When fate crosses their paths, the magical beings forge a friendship that is everything their human relationships cannot be: honest, open, without hidden sections of self. But the Golem and the Jinni are dangerous creatures, and always at risk of being discovered — so when several elements combine to create a disastrous situation, the two must make a devastating decision that may forever end their relationship. I was utterly captivated by the beautiful and exotic worlds Wecker built in this fantasy with its roots in Syrian legends and culture. Truth be told, I never wanted it to end — and I’m now eagerly anticipating the slated-2020 release of the second book in this series.

These three titles absolutely live up to the hype they’ve received online — I marveled at each of the works, all three of them richly composed out of ancient folklore and fairytales with more complexity than the standard Disney lot (no princesses falling for charming blondes, here!). Heroes and villains retain elements of both good and bad, desires are achingly raw and relatable, and the writing itself in each of the novels is commendable.

Have you read any of these works? If so, what’d you think? Tell me in the comments below!

 

Review: What We Were Promised

Last week, a highly-anticipated novel made its debut: What We Were Promised, by Lucy Tan. Little, Brown sent me a copy in exchange for an honest review — thanks, publisher friends! — and I decided to dive right in almost immediately after I opened the package.

What We Were Promised is a family saga, of sorts, and chock-full of d-r-a-m-a. Tan crafts a story around the Zhen family: Wei and Lina grew up in China before moving to America to pursue lofty dreams of higher education and corporate success. After twenty-some years, the couple has returned to their motherland, a couple decades older and joined this time by their teenage daughter, Karen. During their years abroad, they accrued wealth and success, and Wei was offered the opportunity to oversee his budding company’s newly-opened Shanghai-branch. They move into an elite hotel community at Lanson Suites, where their laundry, cooking, and cleaning are all accomplished by staff members and Lina doesn’t have to lift a finger to do more than shop for extravagant clothes and accessories. Karen spends most of the year in America at an elite boarding school, but summers with her parents in a land that is completely foreign to her.

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The family lives together, but each person seems to occupy a separate sphere of existence, interacting superficially at mealtimes (when Wei makes it home in time) and during rare moments of collective free time. At first glance, I chalked the characters up as superficial; but after deeper reflections on Wei and Lina’s complicated early relationship, I began to see the characters as complex — albeit often shallow — and savored the unwinding of their histories and present lives.

Woven into the narrative of the Zhen family’s daily life, in poignant juxtaposition, is the telling of Sunny’s experiences as first the family’s maid, and later, their ayi (nanny). Sunny is an anomaly: she’s in her late twenties/early thirties (her age is a bit ambiguous) and although she was married once before, she lives a simple, work-driven life as a single woman — childless, no less — in a society that seems to value women more when they are homemakers and wives and mothers. Sunny’s observations bring another dimension to What We Were Promised, offering readers a juicy (and often, maddening) outsider evaluation of the Zhen household.

While this book didn’t quite shake me as much as I expected it to, I did find a great deal to appreciate in Tan’s work. Her themes of cultural displacement + collective identity gave WWWP a dimension I didn’t think I’d find at the onset of the novel. The family dynamic (or quiet dysfunction, if you will), combined with the bitter taste of rotting dreams, created an atmosphere of regret and desire that made this book a compelling read.

Overall: 4 stars. Read this one if you’re a fan of family dramas and stories that span cultures. What We Were Promised is in the vein of The Leavers (think longing to belong and unfulfilling life choices), Winter Garden (think tension, unresolved pasts, and sibling rivalry/competition/contempt), and

Read Next: For Lovers of History

At least once a week, I get a text from a friend saying something along the lines of Hey, what’s up? I need a book list — stat! These requests come in from new mamas needing to unwind, busy teachers looking for an escape from reality, out-of-practice readers looking to rekindle their bookish flame but not sure where to start.

I absolutely relish these calls to action, certain that I can find something among the titles on my shelves to capture their interest. And here’s the thing: I can never choose just one title to share with them. It’s almost a burden, loving books so much . . . 😉

One of my favorite genres to recommend from: historical fiction & nonfiction. To be quite honest, I didn’t retain much from my high school/college history classes and I’m quite certain that 85% of what I know about past events comes from my obsessive reading of historical nonfiction and fiction. (Also a major reason I advocate so highly for frequent reading, as a teacher.)

To the point, though — here’s a list of some of my favorite historical reads, in both the fiction and nonfiction categories.

  1. Pachinko by Min Jin Lee. Fiction. This multigenerational tome centers on the often-grueling circumstances of Sunja’s family: poor Koreans living in the shadow of Japanese racism post-WWII. Actually, the novel starts much earlier, at the start of the 1900s, with Sunja’s father’s birth; so readers gain a very insightful look at the relationship between Koreans and Japanese as well as both cultures. The writing is stark and though lengthy, the novel demands to be read diligently and without pause (when possible). Read more about it here.
  2. Seabiscuit: An American Legend by Laura Hillenbrand. Nonfiction. Quite possibly my favorite work of nonfiction, ever, Seabiscuit is an endearing and emotional tale of one of the nation’s most formidable racehorses — and an absolutely thrilling comeback story. The story opens in the early 1900s and follows the lives of Seabiscuit’s owner, jockey, and trainer before introducing the legend himself. In the tumultuous and dramatic times of the Great Depression and World War II, Seabiscuit became an American hero and a symbol of the working class. Hillenbrand’s novel offers a fascinating portrait of this era, as well as a heartwarming and rousing emotional read. (Bonus: the film adaptation is also fantastic.)
  3. The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd. Fiction. A searing tale of two young girls bound together by slavery — one, slave; the other, master — well into their adult years, The Invention of Wings is more than an engrossing narrative. It’s an uncomfortable, disturbing account of a piece of American history based on the very real lives of the Grimke sisters — born into a prominent Southern family of slaveowners, the pair were decidedly abolitionist in an unprecedented way for women of the time.
  4. October Sky by Homer Hickam. Nonfiction – Memoir. I originally discovered this gem in high school, some time after having watched the film adaptation. Originally titled Rocket Boys, this piece of NF is at once charming, laugh-inducing, gut-wrenching, and hopeful. Nestled in coal mining country in West Virginia, October Sky is the true story of Homer Hickam’s quest to be more than a miner and break free of the predetermined path set forth for boys in his town. Inspired by Sputnik‘s race across the sky, Hickam dreams of building his own rockets to send to the stars. His dad’s not happy about it, his mom can’t offer much in the way of open support, and he and his friends are the laughingstock of the drab community; but Hickam persists in his pursuit of outer space and the resulting narrative is an absolutely magnificent tale of perseverance and the heartbreaking nature of dreams.
  5. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. Fiction. This World War II-era novel is a bestseller for a reason: the gripping coming-of-age tale is absolutely stunning in its own haunted way. With an omniscient narrator (Death himself), the novel kicks off in Nazi-occupied Germany at the end of the 1930s. Liesel Meminger, given to strangers by her mother who cannot care for her any longer, comes to live on Himmel Street with the Hubermanns — a jovial man and his crabby wife who come to love Liesel like a daughter. I’m a huge fan of coming-of-age stories and the beautiful narration in this novel — coupled with the dramatic backdrop of a menacing time period — makes this an unputdownable read.
  6. ‘Tis by Frank McCourt. Nonfiction – Memoir. I didn’t know how much I loved memoirs until I read this gut-busting (and often tearjerking) tale of an Irish immigrant’s arrival in the “promised land” that America has been to so many over the decades. Frank McCourt arrived in America in 1949, fulfilling a dream of his and at once leaving behind the dismal poverty that had marked his life in Ireland (only to find more troubles in the land he’d so long dreamed of making his new home). I was fascinated by the tidbits of history and laughed out loud at the naive observations of the young Catholic boy in the big city of New York.
  7. The Reader by Bernhard Schlink. Fiction. Set in post-WWII Germany, this brief novel (200 pages in my rather small edition) is utterly captivating. “When young Michael berg falls ill on his way home from school, he is rescued by Hanna, a woman twice his age. In time she becomes his lover, enthralling him with her passion, but puzzling him with her odd silences. Then she disappears. Michael next sees Hanna when she is on trial for a heinous crime, refusing to defend herself. As he watches, he begins to realize that Hanna may be guarding a secret she considers more shameful than murder.”
  8. The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson. Nonfiction. This thrilling account of America’s first serial killer, H. H. Holmes, is closely woven into the history of the planning, design, and spectacle of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. As a work of narrative nonfiction, I found this novel relatively easy to read and only dry in a few places. The telling alternates a bit between Holmes’ arrival in Chicago (and his subsequent planning stages) and the World’s Fair architects and planning committees, offering readers more than just a glimpse at a serial killer’s timeline. I was fascinated to read about the birth of several modern-day amenities such as shredded wheat, sliced bread, and Juicy Fruit gum.

What are some of your favorite historical reads, both fiction and nonfiction? Tell me in the comments section below!