Sunday, November 25, 2018

Favorite Reads of 2018

The lovely thing about doing a "favorite reads of 20__" post is that you're only expected to post once per year. Though I could see this slipping to "favorite reads of the past decade," given enough time.

[Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash]

If you're going book-shopping for loved ones and don't want to give them just the latest bestseller, this list is for you because (1) I never seem to have read the latest bestsellers; and (2) you never know if your recipients have already read the latest bestsellers.

I do apologize that I don't have any YA this year. I did read some YA, but they were all ones you've heard of (or else I didn't like them). But a couple of the books would be appropriate for teenage readers, if only because you aren't assaulted by constant sex scenes. I also apologize for odd formatting and font changes in this post. Odd things happen when you cut and paste in Blogger, things that aren't worth fussing about and fixing.


Kindred by Octavia E. Butler mysteriously gets classified sometimes as sci-fi because Butler went on to write typically sci-fi sci-fi, but this is really fiction with some time travel. And, because it takes place in both the 1970s and pre-Civil-War, it's more like historical fiction. The African-American protagonist is connected mystically in time to one of her white(!), slave-owning(!) forbears and keeps getting sucked back to his time, with heavy consequences to herself.

If you or your loved one prefer dress-up historical fiction, with Colin-Firth-like gentlemen and nice costumes, this is not the book to buy. But if you like an unputdownable story with complex characters and gray situations and a heavy dose of reality, don't miss this one.

And now for something completely different. A girl's beloved uncle dies of AIDS, back when no one was certain how AIDS was contracted, and plenty of fear and stigma was attached. She deals with grief, love, sibling warfare, distant parents, and that painful transition to wisdom. I loved this book. Some readers were freaked out by the absent parents, but, being a latch-key kid myself, let's just say it was way easier to have an exciting life back when all the adults weren't helicoptering around.

Okay, I know I said I wouldn't include bestsellers, and this one was a bestseller, but it wasn't like every book club in America took this one on. Madeline Miller loves her Homer. The Song of Achilles made me attempt (unsuccessfully) to read The Iliad, and now her Circe made me at least consider for half an hour re-reading The Odyssey. A beautiful, lyrical read.


Confession: not my favorite genre. But I did really enjoy this one this year:

This meta-mystery was brilliant and fun. In the frame story, an editor gets the latest manuscript from the agency's star mystery writer and spends the weekend reading it. Along with her, we get sucked into an Agatha-Christie-esque story about a couple murders in a country village and the many suspects who all had motives. Just when you've forgotten the frame story, back it comes, and thereafter the frame and the novel-within-a-novel begin to dovetail. I was totally sucked in and enjoyed every minute.

I was sorry to discover that this same author had written spy novels for middle-grade boys because, if I suggested them now to my 17YO, he would just roll his eyes, but I bet he would have loved them years ago.


Supposing you're looking for something lighter. These were fun.

Super fun read about a childhood arranged marriage gone sideways and a Bollywood-director younger brother who dispatches himself to clean up the mess. It was half-madcap, half-somewhat-serious (some child abuse and abandonment), with a dash of immigrant loneliness and a couple sex scenes, one kinda cheesy. I really enjoyed the freshness of the opening setting in India and its contrast with Yspilanti, Michigan, of all places. And the Bollywood stuff was pure froth. The definition of a beach read.

Then there was this one from Eva Ibbotson, which sometimes gets classified as YA because, I suppose, the one sex scene isn't full of technical detail. (Am I the only one who likes the subtlety of a fade-out, rather than the author going to the thesaurus for new ways to say "his manhood" and such?) Anywho, this one is set before and during WWII, and involves a British naturalist professor rescuing an Austrian somewhat-Jewish girl through a marriage of convenience. The romance is there, but so is a host of wonderful and sometimes hilarious supporting characters. Eva Ibbotson is always good for a few snorts of laughter and plenty of smiles as you read. And I encouraged my fifteen-year-old daughter to read it, since we'd both loved Ibbotson's middle-grade Journey to the River Sea.


For those who love history of science and/or history of technology, this is a fascinating one by Simon Winchester:
I originally read it to see if my son would like it. He never got around to reading it, but I loved it. How did the perfecting of precision change the world? Winchester traces the history of precision engineering from the rise of the industrial age to the present, from the inside of a cannon to outer space. You'll want a Seiko watch and a Rolls-Royce after you read this book.

For history buffs, give this one a go:
I really enjoyed and learned from this fascinating and global and surprisingly amusing history of the physical walls we humans have built over the millenia, right up to the present time. First there were nomads and barbarians to keep out, lest they rape and pillage repeatedly, as they were wont to do. (The Mongols get a long treatment, deservedly. ) Then there were ideological walls between political systems. And now we build them worldwide to keep out folks we don't want. They may not rape and pillage anymore, but they do often drain the social services or increase threats of terrorism in some countries. I had no idea of all the walls that have gone up along borders all around the world! Clinton, the Bushes, Obama, and Trump were actually late to the wall-building party, with the American border wall, though they've ALL built and maintained it.

And then there was this well-written, page-turning read about deep-sea divers who visit shipwrecks and one day get the coordinates of a WWII German U-boat that no seems able to account for. Not only were the diving perils thrilling, but also the gradual solving of the mystery and piecing together of history. It even contains a satisfying bromance!

(If you want to avoid spoilers, don't look at the photos until the end because they give away almost every plot twist.)


Two clear winners this year:

A truly excellent book. Well-told, well-researched, comprehensive, and satisfying. I've read several books about the Indianapolis (all of them wonderful, really) and its sinking by torpedo at the end of the war, after which the survivors drifted in the ocean for four days before anyone happened upon them. But I'd forgotten or never known that the ship and crew had just finished delivering The Bombs that brought about the Japanese surrender, and I didn't know either about the nice occupatio of how the man who captained a navy sub, named for the Indianapolis, helped bring about the exoneration of Captain McVay. The ending passages, about the shipwreck's discovery, were perfect.

And, if shipwreck isn't your thing, I also loved

This was a good one for mountaineering-disaster fans. It was great to read one that talked about the ethnic groups in Nepal, Tibet, and Pakistan, and the impact of all those comparatively wealthy western climbers who feel the need to climb the world's tallest mountains.


If you love books that you worry/hope you'll never finish, and you've already read Doris Kearns Goodwin's and David McCullough's history books, Lin-Manuel Miranda wasn't the only one who loves Ron Chernow biographies. The latest, about Ulysses S. Grant, is no exception to Chernow's thorough excellence.

Through Appomattox this was hard for this Civil-War buff to put down, and even after the end of the war I learned tons about Grant's presidencies and Reconstruction, having had no idea of his battle against the KKK and the southern Democrats who murdered and terrorized blacks to keep them from the polls. Grant certainly deserves this revival of interest in him for his work toward peace and civil rights.

If your loved one prefers lighter fare and sunbonnets, how about

A well-researched must-read for LIW fans, which is just about every girl on earth. When the author covers the years also covered in the books, there isn't a lot to learn, but the books are so beloved that you hardly mind. Actually, for hardcore fans, a LOT is familiar, except for discovering Rose was even more of a hot mess than you'd ever imagined. I wish there were some illustrations, but these are quibbles. Though I've only ever visited Plum Creek, Walnut Grove, and the outside of one of Rose's places in SF, I was happy to learn LIW eventually got to see and go other places I've been. The family ends sadly, and saddest of all is how LIW didn't see Ma before she died or even at all, the decades (!) after Pa died.


Just one for ya, but it sure was thrilling, if you like biology.

A lot has changed since I took AP Biology in 1985-6! Back then it was classic Darwin and prokaryotes and eukaryotes, and the reason some bacteria were antibiotic-resistant was because they were descended from the few survivors with some random mutation that gave them resistance. ALL WRONG. ALL CHANGED.

This book was absolutely fascinating (if you like history of science) and biology and thinking about how we come to be where we are, biologically speaking. If you've never heard of molecular phylogeny or horizontal gene transfer, as I hadn't, the book provides clear and compelling explanations. I did ask my 17YO son if he'd been taught these things last year in his own AP Bio class, and I'm happy to report he was. Knowledge marches onward, though author Quammen is very clear that science is a messy, egotistical business, as are all endeavors involving human beings.

And there you have it. The best of 2018 in a nutshell. Hope you find something in this list for your own to-read pile or for someone else!


  1. Thanks, Christina! I LOVE your book reviews, and can't wait to read Grant. I'm also excited to know about "The Magpie Murders" because my boys devoured the Anthony Horowitz novels years ago. This will be a perfect present. Hope you and your family are well! Amy Arnold

  2. Amy!!! So nice to hear from you, and glad we can still connect through books. Lucky you, having known about the Anthony Horowitz novels. Another friend just recommended the TV show FOYLE'S WAR, for which he also did some writing!

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  4. (Argh - tried to delete to get a non-anon version! Sorry for the mess!) I love the list - looks like a great mix of geeky and cheeky.

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