I firmly believe in the power of the holiday reading binge. The days following Christmas can be a fabulous time to squeeze in a few good reads before the new year. One year I’d love to visit Iceland, where this post-holiday reading time even has its own word: jólabókaflóð. Icelanders traditionally give a large number of books for Christmas, and then take the time to binge read. Sounds heavenly.
My holiday reading time shrinks a bit each year, as my parents get older and demand more attention during my visit. But I’ve been known to forgo sleep after they’ve gone to bed to squeeze in a few pages. I’ve also taken to listening to audio books at bedtime. I plug my earbuds into my phone and listen for an hour or so until I start dozing.
This December, I’m trying to finish the Alexandre Dumas classic, The Three Musketeers. It’s long, and I’ve been at it for months in fits and starts, but I’m hoping to finish in the next couple of days. I’ve also got some great audio books on loan from the library, including Mackenzi Lee’s The Gentlemen’s Guide to Vice and Virtue, which I’ve had on my TBR list for ages.
All in all, it’s been a great year for reading. The busier I get with work, the fewer books with covers I seem able to read, but it’s quality, not quantity. Or so I tell myself. Though I’m not quite through with my holiday reading binge, I thought I’d share some favorites from 2018. These are in no particular order.
Favorite Reads of the Year:
The Lady Astronaut series by Mary Robinette Kowal (The Calculating Stars and The Fated Sky). – A wonderful alternate history that puts women smack in the middle of the space race.
The Hanging Girl by Eileen Cook. – A young adult mystery about a teenager using her psychic ability to help the police locate a missing girl.
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. – Because I am always trying to catch up with the fun bestsellers I missed when they originally dropped. An epistolary novel about a young woman who travels to Guernsey from London in the wake of World War II, in search of a subject for her latest novel.
The Wicked Deep by Shea Earnshaw. – A young adult novel about a small Oregon town where three young women were drowned as witches two hundred years ago, and future generations have been forced to pay for the deed.
2017’s best books, for me, are based on the titles I read this year. Release dates, unlike reading dates, may vary (though I think most of these are actually new). I always feel it’s cheating a bit, to discuss the year’s reads in December, since the year isn’t over. December books get short shrift. But I acknowledge there’s no way to squeeze these lists into the final few days of the year. People want book recs early enough to do their holiday shopping, and by the last week of December, holiday celebrations take over.
Every year I wish for more time to read published books. But as anyone with a publishing-related job will tell you, reading time is at a premium. 2017 proved harder than most years. Politics and other concerns meant I spent more free time reading the news and less reading novels. When I did pull out a book for my own enjoyment, I had a difficult time focusing.
It probably surprises no one that the books making the biggest impression on me this year were difficult books. I don’t mean long or complicated books, but books that challenge perceptions and thought processes. Books designed to keep your brain churning long past the last page. Even the less serious books below have a darkish bend. Regardless, I recommend them all. And please do share your favorite 2017 reads in the comments!
2017’s Best Books: The Ones that Hit My Heart
The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas likely doesn’t need a whole lot of discussion, given how much has already been said about it. It deserves all the praise. Thomas tells the story of a black teenage girl, Starr Carter, who witnesses the unprovoked shooting of her unarmed friend Khalil by a police officer. In the aftermath, Starr finds herself caught between her poor black neighborhood and the elite prep school she attends, as friends from both social circles pass judgment and spread rumors about the circumstances of the shooting. Thomas’s writing is both honest and heartfelt, and the story, ripped from the headlines as it was, timely in a way you wish it wasn’t. If you haven’t read this one, you should.
All the Ugly and Wonderful Things by Bryn Greenwood follows the story of Wavy, the young daughter of a drug dealer, from childhood into young adulthood. It’s the sort of book that’s tough going simply because it takes time to develop any sympathy for the protagonist. You know you should feel sorry for Wavy, but she’s unlikeable for a good portion of the book. Only once you understand the treatment that caused her behavior do you begin to feel for her. Greenwood’s vivid writing makes the story fascinating, however. You keep going in the same way as you watch a car accident unfold. You can’t help but be hypnotized by this world.
Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body by Roxane Gay is the honest, straightforward account of Gay’s nearly life-long battle with her weight, the brutal rape she suffered as a young girl that forever altered how she felt in her skin, and all the ways in which she has slowly worked through (and continues to work through) the reality of what all that has meant to her. As Gay says right upfront, this is not a weight-loss book. She does not speak of her successes losing weight, but rather what it means in our society to be a very large woman. It is the story of a woman honing her abilities as a writer, of a person defining her sexuality and working to take back what was stolen from her as a child. Despite the difficult subject, Gay’s story rings with determination and hope.
2017’s Best Books: On the Lighter Side
The Language of Thorns: Midnight Tales and Dangerous Magic by Leigh Bardugo collects six short fables written to fit into the world of Bardugo’s Grisha books. They stand alone beautifully, however. Fans of fairy tales or Russian and Eastern European fables will love these clever stories. Each finds its foundation in some well-loved fairy tale, but Bardugo makes them her own. In some cases, I was nearly halfway through before I identified a story’s origins. They are both modern and old fashioned, current and nostalgic. Additionally, the hardbound version of this book is gorgeous, with illustrations and colored text. Makes a beautiful gift.
If We Were Villains by M.L. Rio is a literary mystery of sorts that features Oliver Marks, a young man who has just finished serving a ten-year prison term for a murder he might or might not have committed. Marks recounts the events of his final year studying Shakespeare at an elite arts college. He and his classmates had become somewhat typecast after years of performing the Bard’s works. When one of their number turns up dead, the remaining students must determine how much they are like the roles they traditionally play. Rio studied Shakespeare and theater and this book shines with her familiarity with both the texts and the world these actors inhabit. Great read for Shakespeare fans and theater geeks alike, with an ending that will keep you questioning.