It’s exquisitely difficult for this book lover to narrow down her favorite books out of the 104 I read in 2018. I certainly don’t feel myself qualified to call any book “The Best.” Instead, here are the ten books I’ve talked most about this year, the ones I’ve raved about to anyone who will listen. These are the books that swept me away, the ones I keep thinking about months later.
The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey
This was published back in 2012 and was a finalist for the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction but for some reason, I never picked up until this year. I adored it. Set in the harsh, unforgiving Alaskan frontier of the 1920’s, we follow new arrivals Jack and Mabel as they drift apart under the punishing task of setting up a homestead together. One night, they build a child together out of snow, and the next morning that snow child appears as a young, magical little girl who changes their lives. I could not put this one down. Jack and Mabel’s marriage is beautifully rendered in all its love and difficulties. The exquisite language, gorgeous setting, and compassionate characterizations made this fairy tale retelling something I will always cherish.
The Child Finder by Rene Denfeld
I went into this book with high expectations based on friends’ recommendations, and it did not disappoint. This is a story about a missing girl and the woman hired to find her. The setting—the lonely, snowy wilds of Oregon’s wilderness—lends a rich, haunting atmosphere and Denfeld’s spare but vivid prose captures it perfectly. While the story centers on solving a crime, and the author’s experience as a private investigator gives a realistic touch, the writing and unique structure makes it feel magical, almost literary. I most admired the way the author structured the story leading up to the climax, and I found myself breathlessly turning pages until the end.
The Alice Network by Kate Quinn
This book hit ALL the right notes for me. Told in dual timelines, we follow a young woman post-WWII looking for her missing cousin interspersed with the story of a female spy recruited to the real-life Alice Network in France during WWI. This epic historical fiction features two strong-willed heroines, two attractive Scottish love interests, one of the creepiest villains I have ever encountered, strong and complex female friendship, action, suspense, intrigue, and swoony romance. I listened to this as an audiobook and the narration is pitch-perfect, with American, English, French, German, and Scottish accents performed beautifully. Loved it.
Every Note Played by Lisa Genova
In my medical practice I interface regularly with individuals with ALS. It’s an ugly, unfair disease and I wondered how Genova would approach it without being saccharine or depressing. She made the brave decision to focus on two very flawed, very human characters, which made all the difference. Richard is a world-famous classical pianist but a terrible husband and father. Karina, his ex-wife, is a lonely, failed jazz pianist. When Richard is diagnosed with ALS, he has nowhere to go so Karina offers to take him in. Through Richard, the reader gets a front seat to the humiliation and degradation of the disease process. Paralysis, spasticity, loss of career, moving to a wheelchair, feeding tube placement, augmentative communication, and more. Through Karina, we see the burden on the caregiver, the exhaustion and uncertainty, frustration and irritation. This isn’t solely about a devastating disease, however. It’s about family and forgiveness, about letting go and moving on. About decisions and preparing for death, sometimes with fear, but often with grace. I am a better physician and a better human being for reading this book.
I Shall Be Near to You by Erin Lindsay McCabe
Have you ever stumbled on a gem of a book and it cracked your heart wide open for eternity? Published in 2014, I read this because my friend chose it for our book club, and I will always be grateful. Based on the experiences of the more than two hundred women who disguised themselves and fought in the Civil War, this novel follows Rosetta, a (fictional) young woman who enlists in the Union Army to be with her new husband, Jeremiah. Rosetta and Jeremiah will always have my heart. They’re both so young, so brave. Rosetta is feisty and hard-headed, and Jeremiah knows exactly who she is and loves her for it. Perfectly told in Rosetta’s voice, we experience the horrors of the Civil War battlefields as if we are right there with Rosetta. I could smell it the gunshot, hear the screams of the horses, and feel her love for Jeremiah. It made me cry so hard I couldn’t speak for an hour. LOVED IT.
The Good Daughter by Karin Slaughter
I’m kind of a wimp when it comes to gore. But I’d heard so many rave reviews about this book that I decided to suck it up and press forward—and I’m so glad I did. What begins as a crime novel about a school shooting quickly becomes so much more, exploring sisterhood, forgiveness, family dynamics, past trauma, brain injury, marriage, and so much more. Karin Slaughter writes amazing characters that I can’t stop thinking about. She also writes extremely gritty, dark, and disturbing stuff. This was another audiobook for me, and the narration was very well done.
The Last Child by John Hart
I discovered John Hart last year when I read his 2017 novel, Redemption Road (go out and get that right now if you haven’t read it!). I knew I needed more of his work in my life, so I picked up The Last Child, published way back in 2009. It’s about young boy searching for his sister who went missing a year ago, and the detective who can’t seem to let this case go. Hart’s use of language and setting and his expertly woven characters and plot elevate this crime novel to feeling almost literary. Interestingly, this was another audiobook for me, and I took my dog on one of the longest walks of her life to finish this one.
Educated by Tara Westover
This memoir is showing up on a lot of “Best of 2018” lists this year, for good reason. I found myself riveted, unable to step away from this story that shocked, enthralled, and inspired me. But while Westover describes several jaw-dropping events from her childhood (and I mean “jaw-dropping” quite literally), I found most powerful her gradual realization that her family’s way of experiencing and interpreting the world is not The Way. We all must go through a similar shift of perspective with our own family/faith/culture of origin, and that’s what takes this memoir beyond a sensational tale of abuse and neglect to a universal story of becoming oneself. As a lifelong Mormon, Westover’s story made me consider what it is about insular religious communities that seems to breed fanatics like the author’s parents. But despite her family’s warped view of the religion I know and love, I strongly related to the author’s struggle to reconcile her sense of self, her body, and her role as a woman within her family’s faith. The last third of Educated feels raw and a little unformed, probably because Westover is still processing her painful separation from her family. I hope she continues to write; I would love to read more from her.
Josh and Hazel’s Guide to Not Dating by Christina Lauren
I enjoy a sprinkle of romance novels in my reading diet; like dessert in my actual diet, both are essential to my emotional well-being. Josh and Hazel were my favorite couple of 2018. Spunky, silly Hazel has looked up to Josh since college days. When they run into each other a decade later, Hazel is determined that they are going to be best friends. Not only that, they are going to help each other find their perfect matches. After a whole slew of bad double dates, the inevitable happens and they start to wonder if what they are looking for might be right in front of them. Hazel is hilarious and larger-than-life, with such a tender heart. Josh is sweet and thoughtful, a wonderful antidote to the Alpha Males we typically see in romance. Their love story develops gradually, with enough sizzle and plenty of sweetness to keep the reader turning pages. I’d rate the steam level as moderate-high and on par with something like The Hating Game. It was a LOT of fun and I inhaled it in one day.
A Place For Us by Fatima Farheez Mirza
My personal Book of the Year, and I couldn’t be happier that my gushing about this book has resulted in so many friends picking it up. The story is told in four parts. Part 1 introduces us to a Muslim Indian-American family at the oldest sister’s wedding. The brother has been estranged from the family for several years, but we don’t know why. Part 2 takes us through the past, meandering through a non-linear timeline and several points of view as the reasons for the tension in this family slowly become clear. At the beginning of this section, I admit to getting confused a few times. Keep going! This is pure character-driven literary fiction, and it’s worth it. Part 3 returns us to the night of the wedding, only now we understand the family dynamics and empathize with each beautifully flawed member. And part 4? Well, it’s special. I’ll only say that I burst into tears when I realized who was narrating. The writing is gorgeous, with so many quiet moments beautifully illuminated. The treatment of culture, family, religion, race, and loyalty is breathtaking and compassionate. Although I come from a very different background, I felt like this could be the story of my family. Truly, it is the story of all of us.
And that’s it! What were your favorite reads of 2018? Here’s to many more in 2019.