Welcome to my annual top books of [insert year here] post! As usual, most (possibly all?) of these books were not actually published in 2018, but I am way behind on my reading list (as usual) and I’m a sucker for paperbacks. On to the list!
Orphan Island by Laurel Snyder
There aren’t many books that I continue thinking about for days or weeks or months after I’ve finished them, but I read Orphan Island in January and I’m still thinking about it. The concept is intriguing, the world building is masterful, the prose is beautiful that I want to simultaneously start writing immediately and give up writing forever. Normally, I’m not a fan of not knowing all the answers at the end of a novel – as in, I will read the Goodreads synopsis of the sequel if the first book ends on a cliffhanger (and then not read the sequel in protest) – but Orphan Island teaches readers that not knowing everything can be its own kind of resolution. And if that’s not a fucking crucial thing for young readers to understand, I don’t know what is.
Okay for Now by Gary Schmidt
If I had read this book as a ten-year-old, I would have been devastated. Or perhaps some of the more difficult themes might have eluded me at such a young age. Because this is not a light read. In Okay For Now, Schmidt writes about poverty, domestic violence, disability, alcoholism, the Vietnam war – and not in a subtle, “let’s tiptoe around the issues because they’re kids” kind of way. The book tackles these topics head-on with the poignance, honesty, and the relentless hopefulness of a young protagonist. It truly is the voice of young Doug that really shines throughout this book. He’s both intelligent and illiterate, charming and occasionally cruel. But it’s these seeming contradictions in his character that make him a narrator that you root for and one that you desperately hope, despite the insurmountable odds stacked against him, will grow up to experience a better life than the one he’s living in this story.
Scythe by Neal Shusterman
I almost didn’t finish Scythe. After the first thirty pages, I was ready to put the book down because repetitive, emotionally exhausting depictions of death are really not my vibe. But I’m so glad I stuck with this story because the last two thirds of the book are magnificent. I’m always intrigued by the possibility for dystopian fiction to tackle issues of morality in innovative ways (Feed, Uglies, etc.), but Scythe particularly impressed me in this regard. Furthermore, all of the character work in Scythe is spot-on. Writing multiple points of view is tricky, but Shusterman creates two, fully-developed characters who think and speak in distinctive ways. (And remember that thing I said earlier about immediately reading a synopsis for the sequel because I’m too impatient/busy to read the entirety of every series? That definitely happened here.)
Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli
As many of you know, I wrote my Master’s thesis on YA Chick Lit. And the two questions I got asked the most were 1) Isn’t the phrase “chick lit” offensive? and 2) What’s the male equivalent? The answer to the first question is yes, obviously yes, but Chick Lit puts more books by women and for women are on the shelves, so I don’t care that much. The answer to the second question is perfectly embodied by Simon. Chick Lit refers to a novel’s genre, not the gender of its characters, and Becky Albertalli’s writing checks all the boxes. This novel is funny, heartwarming, engaging, and focuses on the shifting relationships within a friend group and family unit. Even better, it does all of those things so, so well. (Though I 100% like the movie’s title, Love, Simon, better. It’s just a better representation of the story, you know?)
Genuine Fraud by E Lockhart
I love books that are smart. And no, I’m not talking about books where the author thinks they’re so much smarter and cooler than they actually are, but the writing itself is gimmicky and overly self-indulgent (like some other books I read in 2018…). I’m talking about books that are genuinely smart, well-researched, innovative, and brilliantly executed from start to finish. Like Genuine Fraud. The story is told backwards in time, allowing the action-filled narrative to be about motivations and consequences rather than the typical “and then this happened!” thriller. The characters are detestable in the best possible way and the rotating backdrop interacts beautifully with the shifting tone of the novel. No, it doesn’t function structurally like Lockhart’s other psychological thriller, We Were Liars (which apparently the grumpy masses of Gooodreads expected), but why would you want an author to write the same book twice? Experimentation is good, people.
Little and Lion by Brandy Colbert
I don’t cry very often when reading books. In fact, it’s only happened a handful of times: Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants – When Bailey died. (Also, I was 10 when I read that one.) The Knife of Never Letting Go – That horrible Manchee scene. Where’d You Go, Bernadette – See below. And now, Little and Lion. However, with Colbert’s second book, it wasn’t a single devastating moment, but rather, the overwhelming emotional honesty that permeated every moment of this narrative. The cast of characters is massive (and wonderfully diverse), yet each one of them feels like a genuine person with genuine problems and genuine flaws. There are a lot of complex topics in this book – mixed race families, mental illness, bisexuality – but it never strays into “issue book” territory (not that there’s anything wrong with issue books), because all these components are woven together into one messy, intersectional, and refreshingly honest story. Also, it’s the best depiction of Los Angeles that I’ve ever read in a book. Seriously, everything Brandy Colbert does is basically perfect.
Skim by Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki
This One Summer by Jillian and Mariko Tamaki made my Top Books of 2017 list, and I picked up Skim because I was eager to read their other collaboration. While nothing will ever top This One Summer in my eyes, I was so, so, so impressed by Skim. When done well, graphic novels are wonderful examples of the whole “show, don’t tell” adage (because they have a separate medium specifically for “showing”), and the Tamaki cousins are masters at this. Ideas are never explicitly discussed, emotions are never identified. Rather, Skim focuses on narrative and leaves much space for the reader to fidn themselves in the story. Also, I cannot get over how thoughtful Jillian Tamaki’s illustrations are. You know when you break a handful spaghetti in half and it mostly splits evenly, but there are a few tiny bits that burst in the middle? Yeah, she captured those tiny bits of pasta in a single panel. If that’s not attention to detail, I don’t know what is.
Spinning by Tillie Walden
I picked up Spinning because I’m a sucker for stories about young children participating in glitzy, high-pressure, performance competitions. (Dance Moms and Toddlers and Tiaras are my jam.) But Spinning isn’t really an ice skating book. Technically, there’s some ice skating in there, but this memoir so much more than that. It’s a story about struggling to understand sexuality. It’s a story about depression and a dysfunctional family. It’s a story about coming of age in a misogynistic world. Spinning exemplifies why the graphic novel form is so effective for memoirs because the story isn’t tied to a linear framework. Instead, much like life, the narrative is chaotic, jumping from one theme to the next, abandoning one story thread in favor of another. It’s messy and confusing, but in a deliberate, extremely well-crafted way. If that makes sense.
Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple
I didn’t know epistolary novels were popular outside of YA literature, but I’m so glad they are because Where’d You Go Bernadette is magnificent. It’s an eclectic mix of characters and documents, but together they form a quirky, engaging narrative voice and the eventual reveal of why those particular documents were included feels so well-earned. And while this book was pitched as a dramedy, I found myself getting emotional much more frequently than I laughed out loud. As someone with pretty severe anxiety and OCD who frequently worries about being perceived as “crazy,” the dissonance between Bernadette’s behavior and how everyone around her understood her behavior resonated deeply with me. (As in, I had to put down the book because I was sobbing so much.) So personally, I felt much more of the “dram-“ than the “-edy” but it was a fun and thought-provoking read nonetheless.
Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng
I said these books weren’t listed in any particular order, but that’s a bit of a lie. Because this last one is my absolute favorite book I read this year and possibly my favorite book of all time. Celeste Ng is a master of her craft and Little Fires Everywhere is basically flawless, in my humble opinion. (Keep in mind that I sat next to Celeste Ng at a conference, so I must be brilliant by association.) That also means this is a difficult book to summarize in a short blurb because everything is a stand-out. The characters are fascinating. The voice is exquisite. The story is brilliantly plotted. And the prose is worthy of every writing award ever. So go read it. There’s no chance that I’m over-hyping this book. It’s that good.
If you made it to the end of this post, congratulations! Also, I apologize – I can be a bit long-winded when it comes to discussing books I love. Let me know in the comments if you have any reading suggestions for me for 2019. Happy New Year!