Favorite books of 2018

 

2018 was a pretty shit year for most things, huh? At least there were good books to distract us. I read 272 books this year, which is the most since I began logging my reading in Goodreads several years ago (and definitely makes it sound like I need some new hobbies). Here are some of my favorites:

Fiction

The Murderbot Diaries novellas by Martha Wells (All Systems Red, Artificial Condition, Exit Strategy, Rogue Protocol): I just really loved these. Super fun, quick-paced science fiction with a tortured, snarky hero. I’m really looking forward to the full-length Murderbot novel the author is working on now.

The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai: A touching and often quite sad novel of friendship that alternates between a group of friends in 1985 Chicago amidst the AIDS crisis and 30 years later, as one of them tracks down her estranged daughter in Paris.

Into the Drowning Deep by Mira Grant: Killer mermaids! Awesome diverse scientist characters! What’s not to love?

Broken Ground by Val McDermid: The fifth entry in the Karen Pirie series, and my favorite one to date. It centers on DCI Pirie, the head of a Historic Crimes Unit in Scotland. I love the mix of cold case investigation procedural, tough female detective, great character development, and atmospheric setting. I definitely recommend these if you are into any of those things.

The Trespasser by Tana French: The newest entry in the wonderful Dublin Murder Squad series, and my favorite so far. Each book in this series features a different detective as the main character, and this one is Detective Antoinette Conway, a bitchy badass with a chip on her shoulder. I love her.

Stray City by Chelsey Johnson: This novel centers on Andrea, a young woman who escapes her conservative Midwestern family for the insular lesbian community of 1990s Portland. When she finds herself pregnant after a short affair with a man, it upends her new found community. I found it to be charming and sweet, and I loved the 1990s setting.

Graphic Novels/Comics

Royal City by Jeff Lemire: As I’ve mentioned before, I am a sucker for sibling stories. And I’m a big fan of Jeff Lemire’s work, so I loved this series about a family coming to terms with past tragedy.

Hey, Kiddo by Jarrett Krosoczka: This memoir tells the author’s story of growing up as the son of an addicted mother. A beautifully done tearjerker.

Nonfiction

The Library Book by Susan Orlean: I loved everything about this one. Lots of wonderfully eccentric characters from the world of libraries and Los Angeles history. I knew nothing about the story of the library fire going in, so it was all fascinating.

Heavy: An American Memoir by Kiese Laymon: The best memoir I read this year. A powerful heart-punch of a book about the author’s childhood and his relationship with the abusive mother he idolizes.

Nomadland: Surviving America in the 21st Century by Jessica Bruder: A compelling and really rather depressing look at the way our society is totally failing older adults (and really, let’s face it, most people). It follows several people who lost out in the 2008 economic downturn who are struggling to afford the basics (shelter, health care, food) with little to no security.

Educated by Tara Westover: This one has already gotten a ton of attention, so I don’t really have much to add, except for that it was really hard to read her descriptions of physical abuse and medical neglect. Infuriating.

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara: Another one that has already been written about everywhere. Super compelling, well-written true crime. Also, it scared the bejesus out of me!

 

Adventures in (Fictional) Crime

 

Recently I set out on a quest to find crime novels that would fit my persnickety tastes, sparked by finishing the most recent entry in Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad series, The Trespasser. I have enjoyed most entries in this series, all of which feature rich character development, setting, and atmosphere. The Trespasser was my favorite by far due to the main character, Detective Antoinette Conway. If you are not familiar with this series, each book focuses on a different lead detective, although they may also end up playing smaller roles in other entries. I loved Antoinette Conway, a bristly yet sympathetic character with huge chips on her shoulders, one from being a woman in a male-dominated, sexist department and one from growing up working class in Dublin. After finishing the book, I wanted more stories like this right away but didn’t know where to start. I don’t read many series, and the only other mystery series I have read all the way through is Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie novels.

So I went looking for recommendations, both on various book sites and from friends on Facebook. Here were my guidelines:

  • A woman main character preferred, but not required, but must have at least one female character that is not a corpse (or soon to be corpse).
  • Adequate character development.
  • No cozies allowed.
  • Nothing too gruesome or anything with overly-detailed violence against women. I don’t want to spend a bunch of time in the mind of a sicko misogynistic killer stalking women with a bone saw (which was exactly why I quickly gave up on the one C.J. Box book I tried to read).
  • I want investigation of the crime to be a large component, so police procedural stories rather than psychological thrillers are best.
  • Present day or at least post-1950 time period preferred. I have liked some historical mysteries, particularly Amy Stewart’s Miss Kopp books, but they aren’t my favorites.
  • Realistic crimes, no paranormal nonsense please. I like fantasy and horror but it isn’t what I am looking for here.

I got quite a few recommendations from reader friends, so I started with those. Here they are ranked in how much I enjoyed them and how they fit what I was looking for.

A Distant Echo by Val McDermid: This was the book that was closest in style to the Tana French books I loved. It was very atmospheric, good character development, intriguing crime and investigation. However, it is billed as the first of the Karen Pirie series, and she barely makes an appearance until the end, so I didn’t get a feel for her character. I will have to read the second book in the series (A Darker Domain) to get a better feel for the series. (Bonus: I learned Scottish term that perfectly describes this gloomy spring weather we are having, “dreich”.)

Garnethill by Denise Mina: This one was very dark but definitely intriguing. It is not a police procedural as such, but involves an amateur sleuth who sets out to solve her boyfriend’s murder after she and her brother both find themselves under suspicion. I enjoyed the feminist revenge aspect of this one, and will definitely read the second in the series.

Indemnity Only and Dead Lock by Sara Paretsky: These are the first two V. I. Warshawski books, and I enjoyed them. I find, however, that I just don’t enjoy private investigator books as much as do ones that involve police investigations. I did enjoy the gritty early 80’s Chicago settings, and all the tough female friends that are always ready to help Vic out. It gets pretty unbelievable at times, with Vic putting herself in ridiculously risky situations that you know she’ll get out of, but it’s fun. I’ll read more when I want a quick, fun read.

The Cold Cold Ground by Adrian McKinty: This is the first in the Detective Sean Duffy series, set in 1980s Belfast. I found the setting and the main character pretty compelling, but the mystery was just okay. I may give the second one a try someday, but it’s not high on my list.

A is for Alibi by Sue Grafton: This one was fine, but it’s another private investigator series, and I did not find it to be as compelling as V.I. Warshawski. I did like that is was more realistic, but there just wasn’t enough there to make it memorable. I doubt I will continue with this series.

Devil in a Blue Dress by Walter Mosley: He’s popular so I thought I’d give this a try, the first in the Easy Rawlins series. I enjoyed the time period and the setting, but in general I found it rather sexist and a little gross. I doubt I’d read another by him.

If you know of any other authors or series I might like, please let me know! I haven’t sought out many mystery series before, so I know there is a bunch of good stuff I have probably missed.

My favorite reads of 2017

Favorite general fiction:

The Animators by Kayla Rae Whitaker

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout (This was my year of Elizabeth Strout, because I also read and loved Olive Kitteredge and Anything is Possible)

Things to do When You’re Goth in the Country by Chavisa Woods

We Were Witches by Ariel Gore

Rabbit Cake by Annie Hartnett

Going to Meet the Man by James Baldwin

Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong

Favorite suspense/mystery fiction:

Bluebird, Bluebird by Attica Locke

Darktown by Thomas Mullen

The Marsh King’s Daughter by Karen Dionne

Favorite science fiction:

A Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers

Passing Strange by Ellen Klages

Borne by Jeff VanderMeer

Comics/Graphic novels:

Slam! Volume 1 by Pamela Ribon

Paper Girls 3 by Brian K. Vaughan

Sweet Tooth (entire series) by Jeff Lemire

Poetry:

Magic City Gospel by Ashley M. Jones

Nonfiction: 

After the Eclipse: A Mother’s Murder, a Daughter’s Search by Sarah Perry

The Bright Hour: A Memoir of Living and Dying by Nina Riggs

Priestdaddy: A Memoir by Patricia Lockwood

Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body by Roxane Gay

You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me: A Memoir by Sherman Alexie

Books I hated:

Milk and Honey by Rupi Kaur

The Rules Do Not Apply by Ariel Levy

 

Favorite books of 2016

2016 sure wasn’t good for much, but apparently it made me want to hide my face in a book even more than usual because I read 143 books this year. My favorite, and the one that I wish everyone in America would read, is Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond. The heartbreaking and enraging light it sheds on poverty in America is even more important as we head into a Donald Trump administration, where the vulnerable are going to be increasingly at risk. So, please go read it if you haven’t yet!

Here are some more of my favorites, in no particular order:

Tomboy Survival Guide by Ivan Coyote- I just think the world would be a kinder and more forgiving place if everyone read some Ivan Coyote, and this is my favorite of theirs so far.

Childhood: The Biography of a Place by Harry Crews

The Sunlight Pilgrims by Jenni Fagan

Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters

Half Wild: Stories by Robin MacArthur

Honorable mentions: Another Place You’ve Never Been by Rebecca Kauffman, Whatever Happened to Interracial Love by Kathleen Collins, How to Set a Fire and Why by Jesse Ball, Shrill by Lindy West, Ghost Songs by Regina McBride, Heat & Light by Jennifer Haigh, Commonwealth by Ann Patchett, Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire, The Sound of Gravel by Ruth Wariner.

Books I hated that everyone else seemed to love: Uprooted by Naomi Novik (which just seemed like a new version of Twilight to me, lame main character and creepy relationship dynamics) and When Breath Becomes Air (pretentious, felt overly academic and fake to me).

Book sale finds, Part 1: Our Dogs

Our Dogs

I buy a lot of old books from the library book sale and from other sources. My favorites are books about books, or outdated science, but I’m pretty much a sucker for anything odd or beautiful. I can’t remember when exactly I stumbled upon Our Dogs by John Brown (copyright 1909), but it is quite a charmer.
IMG_7037According to WorldCat this book is held at around 30 libraries and was intended for juvenile audience, which is surprising, but I guess it was a different era… It basically reads like an eccentric (and possibly drunk) old man pontificating at length about every dog his family has owned, and it is equally hilarious and touching.

One of my favorite entries is the last one, about a dog named Dick: “Still lives, and long may he live! As he was never born, possibly he will never die; be it so, he will miss us when we are gone… Every family should have a dog, it is like having a perpetual baby. It is the plaything and crony of the whole house. It keeps them all young. All unite upon Dick.”

 

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The best book I read in January: The Sound of Gravel

Sound of GravelThe Sound of Gravel is an incredibly gripping, heartbreaking memoir by Ruth Wariner about her life growing up in a polygamous Mormon cult. It’s a terrifying story of deprivation and abuse, and the harm that extreme religious beliefs so often inflict, especially upon women and children. Ruth’s story is more than that, though. Throughout it all, her deep love for her family shines through vividly. Her growing ability to see through the religious bullshit that ruined her mother’s life, and her bravery to do something about it when she most needed to, make for an inspiring read.

Once I started this one I could barely put it down, although I was tempted to throw it against the wall a few times out of sheer rage!

Bookish 2015

I always enjoy looking back over the past year of reading and seeing what stood out. I read 123 books in 2015, and contrary to my usual reading patterns, many of them were non-fiction. Memoirs seemed to make a particular impression on me this year, with many of my favorites falling into that category. Here are some of my favorites, by genre and in no particular order:

Fiction

Life After Life and A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson: I finally got around to these, and Life After Life blew me away. I loved it so much I could have kept reading for another 500 pages. I loved A God in Ruins, too, but it wasn’t the magical experience for me that Life After Life had been.

Girl at War by Sara Nović: A powerful story of a young girl fighting for survival during the civil war in Yugoslavia.

Church of Marvels by Leslie Parry: A really fun piece of historical fiction set in turn of the century New York City, featuring sideshows, lost sisters, and asylums.

Dryland by Sarah Jaffe: A introspective, atmosphere coming-of-age story about a young woman on the swim team in early 90s Portland. A strange, quiet book that I found totally absorbing.

Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stadal: This one was a really fun read. A sprawling, funny look at family and food in Minnesota.

Non-Fiction

M Train by Patti Smith: A meandering, mesmerizing look at various places and people that have made an impact on Patti in her life. I never thought I would be so enthralled by a book that talked so much about drinking coffee and eating brown toast!

Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl by Carrie Brownstein: I was really impressed by this memoir by the Sleater-Kinney singer/guitarist. SK is one of my favorite bands of all time, and her book is an insightful look at finding community through music.

What Comes Next and How to Like It by Abigail Thomas: A beautifully written memoir about lifelong friendships and how they change later in life, among many other things. By the author of A Three Dog Life, which I also read and enjoyed this year.

Hammer Head: the Making of a Carpenter by Nina MacLaughlin: A memoir of a woman who quit her soul-sucking journalism job to become an apprentice carpenter. I have an enduring fantasy of doing something similar, so of course I was into this one!

How to Be a Heroine: or, What I’ve Learned from Reading Too Much by Samantha Ellis: I love “bibliomemoirs” and this one was so much fun that I even wrote about it for the local paper (http://www.news-gazette.com/arts-entertainment/local/2015-02-15/powerful-influences.html).

The Taste of Country Cooking by Edna Lewis: One of the few older books I read this year, this one came out in 1976. It is a classic of the Southern food revival movement, and it was fascinating. It has recipes but also stories of the author’s childhood growing up on a farm in the South. Just lovely.

Dogland: a Journey to the Heart of America’s Dog Problem by Jacki Skole: One of the best books I have read about the homeless pet problem in this country. Heartbreaking but not without hope and helpful suggestions for making a difference.

H is for Hawk by Helen MacDonald: Everyone has read about this one already, so suffice to say I loved it as much as everyone else.

Bad Kid: Growing Up Goth and Gay in Texas by David Crabb: A hilarious look at growing up as an outsider in the 80s and 90s. I could relate to so many of his musical loves, from the early George Michael years to the later Depeche Mode, Erasure, and Pet Shop Boys. I might be a gay 80s boy at heart.

Comics and Graphic Novels 

Bitch Planet, Vol. 1: Extraordinary Machine by Kelly Sue DeConnick: I can’t wait to read more of this one!

Paper Girls #1 and #2 by Brian K. Vaughan: My sister got me the first issue for Christmas and now I am hooked.

Descender Vol. 1: Tin Stars by Jeff Lemire: This is the best sci-fi comic series I have read in awhile, I loved the art and the storytelling.

Lumberjanes, Vol. 1 and 2 by Noelle Stevenson: Geared toward a young crowd, but it is really fun and charming.

Saga, Vol. 5 by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples: This series continues to be totally entertaining.