So the first three of my favorite 2018 reads are books that were actually published in 2018, and the other three are books that had been on my TBR list for a while and that I finally read in 2018. I spent a long time planning for and writing this post, because I read literally hundreds of books this year. After much consideration, I’ve narrowed my list to what I consider the best of the best.
So here we go:
Top Pick/Best Fantasy: Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik
I’m a sucker for fairy tales, and I really enjoy books that combine them with more mature elements and a more modern literary style (I hesitate to say “dark fantasy”, because that term has come to be associated with more hard-core elements, and that isn’t the case here.) I read Naomi Novik’s Uprooted back in 2015, and really, really liked it. There was so much about it that really worked for me: the pastoral setting, offset by the terrifying and fascinating Wood, the mysterious and complicated wizard, the monsters, quests, and twists…I definitely enjoyed the book. However, it didn’t quite make it to my favorites list, because I felt that the protagonist was a little too much of a “special snowflake”, the magic became a little too deus ex, and the romance just annoyed me.
Spinning Silver, on the other hand, had none of those issues. (Side note: I find it interesting that there’s a distinct line between those who prefer Spinning Silver and those who prefer Uprooted. Basically, there are a lot of people who really loved some of the same elements of Uprooted that I didn’t care for, and so they were disappointed in their absence. It definitely highlights the individual tastes of different readers…but I digress).
There’s so much that I love about this book that it’s hard to decide what to focus on here. Most reviews and blurbs start with the connection to Rumpelstiltskin (as in “inspired by” or “a re-imagining of”), and that’s definitely where the book begins. Miryem, a moneylender’s daughter and the first viewpoint character, gives us a snarky, bitter-tinged interpretation of the tale that beautifully establishes her character and made me absolutely adore her. There are a few other obvious connections to the old story (and a few more if you dig a little deeper), but on the whole Novik leaves Rumpelstiltskin in the dust and goes for something so much greater.
After getting the reader hooked on Miryem’s story, Novik introduces us to Wanda, a farmer’s daughter who comes to work for Miryem and her family. Although at first I was annoyed to be moving away from Miryem, I soon became committed to Wanda, and the more I read about her the more I became engrossed in her life and challenges.
Then we have Irina, daughter of an ambitious nobleman. Her father’s hopes for his daughter and his house bring her into contact with Miryem, and change the course of her life, tying her into the greater plotline.
Each of the three protagonists is a dynamic, fascinating character, and the other characters in the book are also complex and fascinating. Novik skillfully moves characters together, apart, and together again. She shows the impact of their separate actions on each other, expertly weaving the parallel storylines into a compelling whole. I especially loved the way she explored different aspects of the same broad themes.
And at the heart of it all: The Staryk. Drawn from Slavic mythology, influenced by legends of the fae, these creatures, and their land of eternal winter, are the catalyst of the novel. In a novel full of remarkable imagery, the Staryk are the definite standouts. Novik carefully builds them into the novel, starting with brief mentions and slowly bringing them to the center, and I was fascinated and enchanted by them.
I could discuss this book forever, but let me just close with this: The book was published last summer. Since then, I have read it three times, listened to the audiobook twice, given it as a gift to three people, and recommended it to countless people. Without a doubt my 2018 favorite.
Best Young Adult/Science Fiction: Skyward by Brandon Sanderson
I love Brandon Sanderson. He’s an author whose work I preorder, eagerly await, and start reading asap. He excels at world building, so the first book in a new Sanderson series is always extra exciting, because you know you’re going to be introduced to a new, interesting, and well thought out world, as well as great characters and interesting conflicts.
His last YA trilogy, The Reckoners (Steelheart, Firefight, and Calamity), captured my imagination so completely that I still reread it once a year and recommend it to both teens and adults. So I had high hopes for Skyward, and those hopes were realized in a thoroughly enjoyable book.
Skyward presents a world at war under constant threat from a mysterious alien species, leading to most of the population living underground while pilots (the undisputed heroes of this world) take to the air to defend both surface and subterranean dwellers. Our heroine is Spensa, whose determination to become a pilot is only outweighed by the obstacles in her path. In the fashion of most YA protagonists, she has some exceptional skills going for her, but also has a lot to learn (starting with exactly how much she needs to learn). Of course, there are people out to help her, others out to get in her way, a few lucky breaks, some hard work, life lessons, and mysteries to be revealed…in other words, it’s a YA novel.
However, it’s also a Sanderson novel, which means that while there are some predictable twists and a few heavy-handed tropes, the description, plot, character development, and emotional resonance that makes Skyward stand far above the other YA novels I read this year, and also my favorite science fiction read.
Best Thriller/Horror: The Outsider by Stephen King
I’m a loyal Stephen King fan, and have read everything he’s ever written. I’m also realistic, and will freely admit that his work isn’t for everyone, and that not everything he writes is stellar…or even, in my opinion, very good (*cough* Dreamcatcher *cough* Lisey’s Story *cough*). However, his Bill Hodges trilogy (Mr. Mercedes, Finders Keepers, and End of Watch) is some of his best work, and something I repeatedly recommend. King has often used police officers and crime investigations as elements of his novels, but Mr. Mercedes was the first time he made them the absolute centerpiece, and the book is awesome.
So what does that have to do with The Outsider? Although the aforementioned trilogy finished with End of Watch, it becomes apparent early in The Outsider that King wasn’t finished with investigation as a central element, and later the reader discovers that he also wasn’t finished with the Bill Hodges universe. There are some pretty significant crossovers. You don’t have to read the original trilogy first, but there are some spoilers in The Outsider. (Also, while this is a great book, I don’t think it’s quite as good as the first two Hodges books, which are among my all-time favorites.)
Ok, let me get back on track. The Outsider begins with an unlikely suspect being arrested for a horrific crime (and be forewarned: King isn’t squeamish when it comes to the details). The early stages of the plot is developed through a linear present narrative interspersed with transcripts of earlier witness interviews, evidence reports, etc. It’s very well written and really effective, because the reader becomes invested in the characters while learning about the crime and investigation. By the time the pace of events starts to accelerate (and certain things start raising serious questions for the characters), the book has become totally immersive.
In a lot of ways, The Outsider is a mosaic of many of King’s strengths: character development, strong prose, engaging dialogue, mystery, and the supernatural. It was a book I literally could not force myself to stop reading.
Best Literary Fiction: The Kite Runner by Kahled Hosseini
I know, I know…I was seriously behind on this one. I actually bought this when it was first published way back in 2003, but there was a lot going on in my life and I kept putting it off. Then I somehow lost my copy, so it slipped my mind. Since then, once or twice a year I’ve remembered that I really want to read it, but I would remember while I was stuck in traffic, or at dinner with a friend, or in some other circumstance that meant I couldn’t get it right away. Then, of course, I would forget. A few months ago I had another of those random “I need to read The Kite Runner” moments, and this time I took advantage of my Kindle and bought it immediately.
I read this book in a single evening, and then ordered everything else Hosseini has written. The book follows Amir, the protagonist, from his childhood in Afghanistan, to his adult life in the United States, and finally back to Afghanistan (for reasons I can’t possibly share without spoilers). More than anything, I think this book is about relationships: family, friendship, and romance all leave an indelible mark on Amir, and contribute to his evolution as a character. A selfish and tragic decision he makes early in the novel forms a lot of the plot’s backbone, and Hosseini handles this with great skill, because the reader is still able to sympathize with Amir and hope that he can someday find peace and make some kind of restitution.
The Kite Runner is a fascinating, beautifully written examination of culture, relationships, betrayal and redemption. Hosseini doesn’t pull any punches, and some scenes are difficult to read, but the moments of cruelty and brutality are necessary to the story and are offset by those of joy and resolution.
I can’t believe I waited so long.
Best Memoir: Born With Teeth by Kate Mulgrew
When Kate Mulgrew, best known as Captain Janeway on Star Trek: Voyager, published her memoir back in 2016, I knew I wanted to read it (largely because I’m a Star Trek fan). When it got rave reviews, I knew I wanted to read it even more. This is another instance of me getting distracted, but at least this time it didn’t take me fifteen years to get around to it.
I ended up buying this book three times in four days. First, I got the Kindle edition so I could read it. Second, I ordered a paperback to give to my sister. Finally, I bought the Audible edition so I could hear Mulgrew’s reading of her own story. So obviously, I think it’s a winner.
Not only has Mulgrew had a very interesting life, but she’s also an extremely gifted writer. An issue I sometimes have with memoirs is that they can feel unfocused and meandering, as the authors tell on a linear story without giving enough consideration to themes and narrative structure. That was not the case with Born With Teeth. It was excellently paced, exceptionally balanced, and absolutely riveting. Mulgrew is direct and unapologetic about her choices, mistakes, and successes, and her reflective and evocative prose makes this a must read.
Best Nonfiction: The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg
This was yet another book I kept meaning to get around to, and finally did. It only took six years, but let’s ignore that. The Power of Habit is another book I sat down and read from cover to cover in one sitting, because it was just so interesting. It gave some great insight, backed up with research that was easily understood by the not-so-scientifically-minded (that would be me) on our behavior and how to change it. It caused me to really examine the habits I have, and consider the negative ones I’d like to break and the positive ones I’d like to add. Putting some of the ideas from this book into practice has made a noticeable difference in several aspects of my life.
The part of the book that really fascinated me were the case studies. Having taken some classes in organizational leadership, I was enthralled by the stories of how some of the book’s principles have been demonstrated in various arenas, and the surprising impact they’ve had. Also, I’m now a little afraid of Target.
I’ve loaned this book to friends, coworkers, and my boss, and all of them have responded favorable. Reading it was a morning well spent.
Which of these books have you read? Which ones do you want to read? What should I read next? Let’s talk about books!!!