It could be seen as a sad commentary on my life that my last post on this blog was over a year ago and all about my favorite 2017 books. However, I prefer to frame my dereliction as a testament to how busy I’ve been. I have moved across the country, finished writing one book and started another, traveled a bit, and knit far more than I ever would have predicted when I started on that hobby a year ago.
My reading took me in both familiar and new directions this year. I continue with my lifelong loves of general and historical fiction, and this year (influenced by my YA author daughter) started reading much more young adult literature. I’ve also started listening to books more, and one great reading adventure for me this year was listening to the full Harry Potter series that I’d never gotten to before.
But on to the books. This year I present my favorite dozen books in four categories: general fiction, historical fiction, young adult, and nonfiction.
My favorite of the year in this category was An American Marriage by Tayari Jones. It’s an honest and compelling portrait of a contemporary marriage undergoing brutal stress when the husband is wrongfully jailed. It is unflinching and beautifully written and takes seriously the task of excavating the wrenching outcomes of the situation.
I read Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward after reading her more recent Sing, Unburied, Sing. They were both amazing, but I decided (almost with a coin flip) on Salvage the Bones for this list. It is a raw and gritty portrait of a motherless family in the days before Katrina. It is poetic and powerful; one of those books that you often stop reading just to stare at the words on the page in wonder that a writer managed to put them together.
The Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer is a sprawling book about feminism. It puts the complexities of the movement into very personal terms and is great at portraying the stakes that many felt (and still feel) as they struggle for women’s rights. And it’s written by Meg Wolitzer, one of my favorite authors, so that’s always a plus!
I just finished Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie a week or so ago and it is still bouncing around my brain. It’s a modern retelling of Antigone, a beautifully-rendered story about love, family, and devotion in the midst of our complicated political and cultural world.
Varina by Charles Frazier gets my “favorite” nod in this category. By the author of Cold Mountain, this book is story of Varina Davis (wife of Jefferson Davis), presented across several timelines. The writing is lyrical and searing, revealing complicated truths of history – both national and personal – that echo 150 years later.
Geraldine Brooks is probably my favorite author of historical fiction, and this year I read one that I missed earlier, The Secret Chord. This book recounts the life of King David (in all his seriously flawed majesty) and those who surrounded him. It’s a fascinating retelling of familiar biblical stories and (as is always the case with Geraldine Brooks), beautifully written.
Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein is “officially” a YA book, but I decided to put it in this category rather than the next. This is historical fiction set in France and England during WWII. It is meticulously plotted with two consecutive narratives, a craft choice that was fascinating to my writing self. My reading self also loved it: a fresh and intimate look at world events we think we already know about.
Young Adult Literature
My favorite YA read this year was Far From the Tree by Robin Benway. It’s the story of three biological siblings who are raised separately and find each other as teenagers. The book deals with “heavy” subjects – teen pregnancy, alcoholism, the foster system – but the writing is never ponderous or preachy.
I read several books by E Lockhart this year. I considered Genuine Fraud for this list (it was great) but decided on her earlier book, We Were Liars. This is a twisty novel, incredibly clever and gripping to read. It captures the atmosphere of island summers with dysfunctional family, and the plot turns can give you whiplash.
Little and Lion by Brandy Colbert is about a girl home from boarding school (Little), her brother (Lion), and their family and friends. It explores themes of sexuality, mental illness, and intersectionality with the complexity these topics deserve. I also loved its vivid evocation of a teenager’s Los Angeles.
I didn’t read a lot of nonfiction this year (apart from my own book research), but I’ll do a few quick mentions. First, for those who love essays, I highly recommend the most recent book by David Sedaris, Calypso. It was, for me, more poignant than many of his other books, perhaps because we are about the same age and he ruminates on issues of aging and family that hit close to home. This one should definitely be listened to – there’s nothing like hearing Sedaris read his own work. And, though I more often get my political commentary from periodicals and podcasts, I did read Jon Meacham’s The Soul of America and would highly recommend it. What we need in these times is context and this book makes the case that though what we may be living through now is unprecedented in some respects, there’s a lot to be learned from our shared history.
And that’s it for 2018 — on to an exciting next year of reading!