Best Books of 2018

2018 was a crazy year for me. A move, a new job, new career path, and many more ups and downs. And through all of this, was the soundtrack to my life: audiobooks. I listened to over 50 books this year, and the good news is most were excellent! So without further ado, here’s my favorite books that I read (listened to) in 2018. Note that these are not the best books released in 2018, just whichever books I read this year that I loved.

SPOILER ALERT I have tried not to give away any big twists, shocks, or reveals. But I do discuss large-scale plot points to give fuller reviews.

Fiction

1. Beartown, Fredrik Backman

I can’t do any better than the Goodreads review of this book, so here it is:

“People say Beartown is finished. A tiny community nestled deep in the forest, it is slowly losing ground to the ever encroaching trees. But down by the lake stands an old ice rink, built generations ago by the working men who founded this town. And in that ice rink is the reason people in Beartown believe tomorrow will be better than today. Their junior ice hockey team is about to compete in the national semi-finals, and they actually have a shot at winning. All the hopes and dreams of this place now rest on the shoulders of a handful of teenage boys.

Being responsible for the hopes of an entire town is a heavy burden, and the semi-final match is the catalyst for a violent act that will leave a young girl traumatized and a town in turmoil. Accusations are made and, like ripples on a pond, they travel through all of Beartown, leaving no resident unaffected.

Beartown explores the hopes that bring a small community together, the secrets that tear it apart, and the courage it takes for an individual to go against the grain. In this story of a small forest town, Fredrik Backman has found the entire world.”

As someone who grew up in a small town that revolves around local sports, this story resonated deeply with me. Sports invaded every facet of life in my small town, but I was as far from a fan as you could get. While the other boys were discussing football stats I was watching cooking shows and theorycrafting for my World of Warcraft characters. So the idea of a book about a small town Hockey team didn’t exactly thrill me. But I went for it based on my friend’s recommendations, and it was honestly one of the best books I’ve ever read. Backman writes such believable characters that Beartown could be anywhere–I pictured Alaska. I found myself immediately invested in this junior boys Hockey team, and when we reached the above mentioned “violent act” I was filled with rage, shame, longing that we lived in a different world, and about a thousand other emotions. Beartown is a story that is both timeless and timely; if you read a single book from this list, it should be this one.

2. The Hate U Give, Angie Davis

Starr Carter is a sixteen-year-old living in a poor black neighborhood but attending a fancy white prep school in the suburbs. As Starr navigates between these worlds, she witnesses the shooting of her childhood friend Khalil by a police officer. We see how Starr copes with the trauma of Khalil’s shooting and learn that it is not the first friend Starr has lost to gun violence. As the story of Khalil’s shooting gains national fame, Starr is pulled between her two identities while she grapples with whether, and how, to go public with her story. The true nature of her friends both in her own neighborhood and her school are revealed and we witness the conflicts, struggles, and compromises within Starr’s family spurred by the shooting. The story of The Hate U Give was inspired by a true news story, and it could not be timelier. But through Angie Davis’s writing we see the event through the eyes of a young girl with feet in both camps.

3. Words of Radiance, Brandon Sanderson

This is a weird one, because there’s so many reasons not to like Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive series: The audiobooks are all 50+ hours (that’s huge), the writing is decent but nothing amazing, and the characters are not super deeply developed. But despite all of that, I devoured these 55 hours in about two weeks. Sanderson’s stories are just so much fun. His worlds and magic systems are rich and well designed and the story is so epic you won’t be able to stop reading. If you’re looking for some new-agey high literature fantasy go read something else. But if you want an epic sprawling page-turner of “underdog learns magic and saves the world” the Stormlight Archive series is your go-to.

4. Lethal White, Robert Galbraith

Lethal White is the long-awaited fourth installment in the Cormoran Strike series by Robert Galbraith–pseudonym of J. K. Rowling. I read the first three in this series back to back early this year and then waited painfully until the fourth was released in September. J. K. Rowling’s mystery series is a classic whodunit that follows military inspector turned private eye Cormoran Strike and his assistant Robin Ellicot. Rowling channels Agatha Christie with carefully crafted plots full of clues, twists, and red herrings. But what really drives the story is the very will they or wont they Ross-and-Rachel relationship between Strike and Robin. Lethal White is perhaps the most complex of Strike’s cases, and also sees the most compelling development in his relationship with Robin. Rowling’s writing is funny and her prose evocative. I find myself laughing hysterically while reading these novels and going over her sentences again and again to marvel at how well they are written. This whole series is a page-turner you could (and should) devour in a week or two. I only regret the painful wait for the next installment.

5. A Face Like Glass, Frances Hardinge

Deep below the above ground world lies Caverna, a city where master artisans create “true delicacies”: wines that can erase memories, perfumes that can make you fall in love, and spices that can prolong life or sharpen senses. Caverna is ruled by the Grand Steward and populated by a spider-web of noble craftsmen who are as skilled at plotting and scheming as they are at crafting their true delicacies. One type of craftsman is particularly important in Caverna, the facesmiths, for the people of Caverna have lost the ability to naturally control their faces as you or I do, and instead they must be taught different expressions by facesmiths. Into this world tumbles Neverfell, a young girl whose face flows like water and reveals exactly what she feels at each moment. With her terrifyingly honest face, Neverfell gets caught up in the schemes and plots of the nobles, but not to be labelled a pawn, Neverfell has plans of her own.

Hardinge executes whimsical and spunky prose that lifts the story up and lets it fly. The world of Caverna into which Neverfell falls is rich, soaring, and fantastical, much like Alice’s Wonderland. But the story goes beyond fantasy and explores ideas of societal ethics and morality, like the caste system that drives Caverna where the slave-like Drudges are only taught “happy” faces, so they cannot show their displeasure with their treatment. This book makes the list because it was one of the most original fantasy novels I’ve ever read. These days it’s very difficult to write truly original fantasy, and although I’m sure Hardinge gets inspiration from other writers and ideas, the world she’s crafted in A Face Like Glass is unlike any I’ve ever seen or imagined, and it’s one you’ll want to visit again and again.

Nonfiction

1. Furiously Happy, Jenny Lawson

Wow, this book was just… wow. Humorist and blogger Jenny Lawson writes about living with depression, anxiety, and a half dozen other mental illnesses, and her resolution to be “furiously happy”. Written in a blog-post style, this book is hilarious. The only advertisement you should need for this book: you can find out what a “dead racoon rodeo” is. Lawson’s descriptions of life with mental illness are raw and honest. I was touched and saddened by her descriptions of depression, something my father struggles with, and imposter syndrome, something I think we all suffer from. But her writing is not sad or depressing; it’s joyful, it’s, well… furiously happy! Reading this book helped me better understand mental illness, comforted me, and left me feeling warm, fuzzy, and with a stomach ache (from so much laughing). To quote Stephen Colbert: “I laughed, I cried, I lost 10 pounds!”

2. American Wolf, Nate Blakeslee

American Wolf is a story of freedom, conflict, family, love, and the wild beauty of nature. In telling the story of the Yellowstone Wolf Reintroduction Project, Blakeslee introduces us to charismatic alpha female “O-Six” (named after the year of her birth). An uncommonly powerful fighter, a fiercely protective mother, and a strong but merciful leader, we quickly realize there is something special about O-Six. We hear O-Six’s story through the eyes of master naturalist Rick McIntyre, who has watched her since birth, and recorded many of the stories in American Wolf.

As O-Six leads her pack against rival wolves within the beautiful Lamar Valley, further threats are brewing outside of Yellowstone: ranchers clash with wolves over livestock deaths, hunters bemoan competition with wolves for elk, and politicians wield wolf protection as a bargaining chip. As Blakeslee describes the history, science, and politics behind wolf reintroduction, the larger narrative of conflict in the American West over land management and the balance between conservationists and traditionalists emerges. In this multigenerational saga, we learn much about wolves, their history, and their lightning-rod status in the American West. But what stands out most in this story is love: the love between wolves and their pack, the love between the dedicated wolf-watchers and their subjects, the love between conservationists and the raw beauty of the wild, and the love between a people and their traditions.

3. Educated, Tara Westover

I’m pretty sure this book has been mentioned in every “best of” list for 2018, and it’s certainly been reviewed and summarized and praised enough that I can skip that here. Suffice to say I agree with all the praise and hype this book has received, it’s amazing, go read it.

Honorable mentions

There were soooo many incredible books I listened to this year, but I have to draw the line somewhere. Here’s books I would love to put on this list if I had more room/time:

Calypso, David Sedaris
The Great Alone, Kristin Hannah
A Man Called Ove, Fredrik Backman
The Lost City of the Monkey God, Douglas Preston
The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs, Stephen Brusatte
Get Well Soon, Jennifer Wright
The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander
The Martian, Andy Weir
Ready Player One, Ernst Cline
What if?, Randall Munroe
Killers of the Flower Moon, David Grann
The Devil in the White City, Erik Larson

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