Saturday, December 1, 2018

The Best of 2018!



Jaidlyn Reading a Book by Karen Whitworth


It's been a great year to be reading, both in the quality of books I've read this year and as an escape from the real world. Reading buoyed me through the loss of my beloved kitty, Pushkin, and more recently, through all the venom and bile of the midterm elections. With Goodreads saying that I've read 205 books so far this year, rare has been the occasion when you wouldn't find me with a book in hand or an audiobook playing while driving, folding laundry, or cooking.

With the holidays coming, if you're looking for a good book to gift someone with, or one to request someone gift to you, I've got a list of the twenty best books and novellas I've read in 2018. Since I have quite a few (23% according to that poll in the sidebar!) readers who listen to books on audio (CD or Digital), if I listened to and loved the audiobook, I'll tell you! (Please note that for some I only read the book in paper or pixel so my not commenting on an audiobook, if available, certainly doesn't mean I didn't like it!) And hold your horses... Before you think that I'm leaving out some of the serial gems I've mentioned this year, I've read or reread some entire series this year and those will appear in a separate section below, along with a few additional recommendations from 2018 books I reviewed as ARCs back in late 2017 (there are a couple of gems!) or recent books that are outstanding.

First, let's look at standalone fiction (or first books in new series)....

Marzie's 20 Best of 2018


An American MarriageAn American Marriage by Tayari Jones

What I loved: One of the most acclaimed books of the year, An American Marriage is an unflinching look at injustice in America and about how fragile the strongest-seeming bonds can become in the face of that injustice. Whether you agree or disagree with the choices of the central characters, you feel for them, for their lost hopes, and the betrayals visited upon them by loved ones and society.




Anger Is a Gift

What I loved: Mark Oshiro's first novel was a surprise, not because it is so good (if you know Mark from his review writing, you knew this would be good) but for the depth, seriousness, and lack of fantasy in this story. Perfect for readers who loved The Hate U Give, this is a YA compelling read and a high school discussion book. We hear every week about some black man who was shot and killed. But we don't know what becomes of their families. Oshiro gives us a vision of the trauma of this terrible aspect of American life.



As Bright as HeavenAs Bright as Heaven by Susan Meissner

What I loved: An excellent novel of historical fiction about the great influenza epidemic of 1918, which impacted the port city of Philadelphia heavily. Meticulously researched, Meissner gives us the story of the Bright family and their neighbors. A coming of age story that captures the terrible worldwide loss of life from the Spanish Flu, which spread like a wildfire at the end of the First World War. This was a lovely audiobook.


The Astonishing Color of After

The Astonishing Color of After by Emily X.R. Pan

What I loved: A YA novel with elements of magical realism, Pan tackles love and loss, mental health and biracial cultural strain in this moving novel. Like YInMn blue, Leigh's story doesn't fade. Unforgettable. An outstanding audiobook.




Bringing Me BackBringing Me Back by Beth Vrabel

What I loved: Another strong Middle Grade novel by Beth Vrabel. Noah is a wounded and emotionally guarded young man who has had some significant life setbacks. I love this book's ability to both promote empathy and compassion while letting kids know that they can turn their lives around. So many young people think there is no coming back from their mistakes. This book is a resounding message about second chances.


CirceCirce by Madeline Miller

What I loved: A luminous retelling of the mythos of Circe, Miller upends the evil witch persona by painting Circe as a lonely and neglected figure, made vengeful by abuses great and small. The audiobook, narrated by Perdita Weeks, was so lush that I didn't want it to end.



A Conspiracy of TruthsA Conspiracy of Truths by Alexandra Rowland

What I loved: A novel about the absurdity of politics, bureaucracy and oligarchy couched in fantasy, this is a book that will occasionally have you wheezing with laughter at wry protagonist Chant's unsparing take on the world. If you are looking for a good read, or listen, this book of stories within stories is excessively diverting. A delightful audiobook.



Everything Here Is BeautifulEverything Here Is Beautiful by Mira T. Lee

What I loved: While Emily X. R. Pan's book above is a YA book that looks at Asian culture and the taboo/stigma of mental illness, Everything Here is Beautiful  is a moving adult fiction novel in which two sisters whose love for each other is strained by the mental health struggles of the younger sister. I loved this book for its portrayal of the siblings, its memorable secondary characters, and the far flung cultural pastiche of the sisters' lives. The audiobook was excellent.


For a Muse of FireFor a Muse of Fire by Heidi Heilig

What I loved: This was a year in which I read three books dealing with Asian culture and aspects of mental illness. They are all very different in plot and concept. Plus, I can assure you, For a Muse of Fire, a book about art, puppetry, mental health, and colonialism is like nothing you have ever read before. From its compelling protagonist Jetta to its clever ephemera imagery, this is a truly unique world. First in a series, I can't wait to see where Heilig goes from here. I bought the audiobook, narrated by the wonderful Emily Woo Zeller, but haven't had a chance to listen yet.


The Great AloneThe Great Alone by Kristin Hannah

What I loved: Written in an authentic voice (Hannah's family were homesteaders in Alaska), The Great Alone gives us the story of Leni Allbright. A coming of age tale set in the larger than life Alaskan Wilderness, we follow Leni from age thirteen through adulthood. With complex issues of survival in the far north, mental health, war trauma, domestic abuse, and physical disability, Hannah's novel is simply a standout.



Heart Berries: A Memoir

What I loved: Mailhot's moving memoir gives the reader often heartbreaking insight into the lives of aboriginal women. With self-deprecating humor and frank discussions about issues of racism, mental health and addiction, Mailhot is a unique and important voice.




How to Walk AwayHow to Walk Away by Katherine Center

What I loved: If you are looking for a relentlessly positive book to read or to give, look no further than the story of Maggie, a phoenix rising from the ashes of what she thought her life would be. I enjoyed this book immensely and even my husband, who hates that feel good stuff, did. Last week St. Martin's publicist asked me if I wanted to try the DRC of Center's latest novel and I snapped it up in a hot minute. Don't walk away from this one.



In Other LandsIn Other Lands by Sarah Rees Brennan

What I loved: If Rowland's Chant is the King of Snark, Brennan's wonderful Elliott is Snark's Prince. A coming of age story set in a magical world, with a magical school, in which perhaps the least diplomatic character I've seen in a while studies diplomacy and counseling. A book about love, friendship, magic and the occasional mermaid. This is a wonderful YA novel. The audiobook captures Elliott's snarky cadence perfectly.



The Map of Salt and StarsThe Map of Salt and Stars by Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar

What I loved: As I noted in my November Classic Read review of To Kill a Mockingbird, one of the most powerful ways to convey difficult topics is to present them through the eyes of children. Joukhadar gives us a young Syrian refugee's story mingled with that of a fictional girl making a mirroring journey to work with famous Arabic mapmaker al-Idrisi, a real-life historical figure. Mixing terrifying realism torn from Middle Eastern news headlines and magical realism, Joukhadar's debut novel is breathtaking in its scope and mastery.  I bought the audiobook to read it again.


My Name Is Venus BlackMy Name Is Venus Black by Heather Lloyd

What I loved: I love a good redemption story. Venus Black's story is a bit reminiscent of Silver Linings Playbook in feel but has its own voice and story to tell. Venus Black is a young woman who did something terrible as a teen and yet you feel empathy for her, as she tries to find her way as a young adult, rebuilding her life and searching for the brother she loves. A well-written, polished debut novel.


The Philosopher's FlightThe Philosopher's Flight by Tom Miller

What I loved: I noted loved everything about this unique book about philosophers (witches) in which women are stronger than men, and the tables are turned in terms of sexism. Miller's wry humor and gentle poke at the way we view one sex as somehow lesser than the other is a truly delightful read. I can't wait for the sequel, The Philosopher's War, set to publish in July 2019. I enjoyed the audiobook.


Space OperaSpace Opera by Catherynne M. Valente

What I loved: Valente's Eurovision confection, with its flamingo-like aliens, an aging rock group called Decibel Jones and the Absolute Zeroe̸s̸, and a terrifying competition called the Metagalactic Grand Prix in which you had better be able to sing and dance your butt off if you are to move the audience enough to make them believe your race (that's like the entire human race) is sentient, offers the guise of pure, crazy diversion while begging the serious question of what the hell it is we've been doing on this planet. (Yes, that's all one sentence and what exactly is your problem?) Even if the answer isn't as simple as 42 you can sing and dance your heart out. The audiobook, narrated by Heath Miller, is delightful fun.

Tiny InfinitiesTiny Infinities by J.H. Diehl

What I loved: Tiny Infinities gives us the story of Alice, a thirteen-year-old girl coming to terms with the fact that her family and her life aren't what she had hoped they would be. From her kindness to children with challenges, to her learning to recognize true friends when she finds them, all the way to her coming to see that parents are just people, too, Alice's story is a deftly told Middle Grade tale about learning to accept change.


Trail of LightningTrail of Lightning (Sixth World #1) by Rebecca Roanhorse

What I loved: Hugo, Nebula and Joseph W. Campbell award winning author Rebecca Roanhorse's debut novel is the first in the Sixth World series. Giving us a Native American post-apocalyptic, climate-wrecked world filled with magic and mythology, Roanhorse offers a unique creative voice in fantasy literature. Her protagonist Maggie is a complex character. A series to watch.



A Very Large Expanse of SeaA Very Large Expanse of Sea by Tahereh Mafi

What I loved: Young Adult novelist Tahereh Mafi has given us a novel about a fifteen year old Iranian-American girl named Shirin and her experiences of racism shortly after 9/11. This is a book I hope will be on every high school summer reading list. This is a moving and accessible story about what it's like to be a hijab-wearing Muslim girl in America. It occasionally broke my heart. A well-narrated, moving audiobook.

And a late addition, added on December 5th:

Where the Crawdads SingWhere the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens

Owens' luminous novel is the story of Kya, the Marsh Girl. Both a mystery and poignant depiction of loneliness and isolation, it also offers wondrous descriptions of marsh wildlife. (Owens is a naturalist.) Without question one of the most distinctive accounts of a young woman in the wilderness I've read, reminiscent of Gene Stratton Porter's best work, The Girl of the Limberlost, with some of the same sense of desperate struggle against poverty found in Vera Cleaver's Where the Lilies Bloom.



Best Series Reads of 2018


Regular followers of the blog know that I've done several Buddy Reads of series this year. I've also been fortunate to have received ARCs of some series that released this year, as well. Amazingly, all these books are from Tor or Tor.com press.

The Craft Sequence by Max Gladstone 


Why I Love Them: I cannot recommend this series highly enough. The Craft Sequence provides some of the most culturally sophisticated fantasy you are ever going to read. Tackling subjects like corporate intrigue and greed, gentrification, colonialism, and overall morality, the series takes place in a fascinating world with gods and immensely powerful (magical) craft workers, offering some of the best written female characters in fantasy. The diversity! The world-building!  I could go on and on. Go back and read my Buddy Reads! These books are tragically, slowly drifting out of (paper) print, even though the most recent installment was released in 2017. I just can't believe it. This is a Hugo Award nominated series! More people need to read them! You can still easily get them all in eBook form and you should.



The Lady Astronaut by Mary Robinette Kowal

Why I Love Them: The Lady Astronaut books are set in an alternate history earth, during the 1950's and 60's, in an America that has been partially obliterated by a major meteorite strike along the Eastern seaboard. Pilot Elma York, who served as a WASP pilot during WWII, seizes her chance to go into space. The catastrophic damage done to the earth's climate by the meteorite strike means that humans will need to get off the planet as the climate grows ever hotter and more extreme. Kowal has meticulously researched the realities of astronaut life but you never feel bogged down in the details. Giving us a taste of the sexism, racism, and misogyny of the 1950's and 60's, she deftly plots Elma's path to the stars. An outstanding series for young adult women. And men. Definite Hugo and Locus Award nominees. There are two more novels in the series before the books align with Kowal's Hugo Award-winning Lady Astronaut of Mars, the short story that launched rockets to Mars and the Moon. Mary Robinette narrates her own books and I hope everyone knows how wonderful her performances are.

The Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells

Why I Love Them: If you know me, you'll probably find it rather extraordinary that I'm saying I love anything with Murder in the title. But you probably know I am fascinated by AI, love sci-fi and can't get enough of snarky and self-deprecating robots. But beyond all that, the reason you should read Murderbot Diaries is for what it tells us about being human. That we are too easily distracted, pay attention to the wrong things, don't trust our tech to keep us safe, and most of all have a huge amount of hubris about being "better" than a robot. Murderbot, who is a SecUnit, will set it all right in your mind. They won't let you fool yourself or bluff yourself into danger. And they won't let you get away with corporate espionage or murder, either. Simply a delightful series of novellas, the first of which, All Systems Red, won the Alex, Hugo, Locus and Nebula Awards for Best Novella earlier this year. I keep hoping they will come out with an audiobook omnibus so that more people will listen to Murderbot. (People complain about the price of audiobook novellas. Tor.com solved that with JY Yang's Tensorate novella series. Will we get the same solution for Murderbot? Please?) The audiobooks are excellent but that omnibus would be welcome. I also bought them in paper people. 'Nuff said.


The Wayward Children by Seanan McGuire

Why I Love Them: First, I should probably come clean and say that I am a huge fan of Seanan McGuire's work. Enough so that I started her fan group on Facebook. I don't think I've ever read a single thing she's written that I didn't like. She has even gotten me to like horror, which, well... it's not my thing unless she's writing it. She has quite a few series going both as Seanan McGuire and Mira Grant. I love them all but The Wayward Children series of novellas, has a special place in my heart. Fantasy, especially juvenile or YA fantasy, spends a lot of time telling us about other worlds, portals to other worlds, people who go through those portals, etc. It's a little less focused on why a child or teen might need those other worlds, or what happens when they find joy in those other worlds but then get bounced back to mundane earth. Seanan McGuire has explored just those concepts in this series, along with things like gender stereotypes, body stereotypes, and how vicious children can be in order to get what they want. These stories are luminous. They are heartbreaking. They offer fictional representation to children and teens. They offer hope. I have seen some adults say that they just don't get it. And you know what, you're right, you don't. To a transgender child, a curvy or 'plump' child, a child who doesn't want to dress like their gender but still feels cis, a child who loves same gender (gay/bi), or a child who isn't sure they could ever love anyone in a sexual sense, these books offer a door to a world that says you are okay as you are. This is why I love these books. Your door may never find you but you can always find yourself here. These books are invaluable to young people. Gift them. (Also owned in paper and you can't imagine how beautiful these covers are.) By the way, let's not forget to mention that the first book in the series, Every Heart a Doorway, was also an Alex, Hugo, Locus and Nebula Award winner for Best Novella in 2017.

Recommendations of Books from Previous Years


Finally, among series books that I reviewed in late 2017 that were released in 2018 or which were so outstanding I continue to recommend them, we have:



The Winternight Trilogy by Katherine Arden

Why I Love Them: I was blown away when I read the ARC of Arden's The Bear and the Nightingale in 2016. To find a debut author who had absorbed, internalized, and refined so much of Russian folklore was stunning. Her followup, The Girl in the Tower only furthered her stature. When it comes to Russian folklore, she's right up there with Jane Yolen in my mind. Someone needs to hand this woman some awards. The Winter of the Witch, conclusion to her Vasilisa trilogy, releases in early January. You can get a head start with the first two in the series. I'll be doing a feature on the books and offering a giveaway later this month, in advance of the release of the final book.


The Daevabad Trilogy by S. A. Chakraborty

Why I Love Them: Chakraborty used a story from The Thousand Nights and One Night as a platform for a masterful fantasy set in a fictional Middle Eastern culture. Protagonist Nahri finds out that she is more than she thought she was (that hallmark of YA fiction) and yet the story is so much more than it might have been- with political intrigue and questions of morality and justice, this is a trilogy that fascinates me. Book two, The Kingdom of Copper, releases in early January. and has already garnered starred reviews. Along with my review of the second book's ARC, I'll also be doing a blog feature with a giveaway of the first book in the trilogy, bound in a new edition with sample chapters of The Kingdom of Copper.


The Broken Earth Trilogy by N. K. Jemisin

Why I Love Them: This series is one of the deepest contemplations of the human condition, including racism, institutionalized oppression, and slavery that I have read. It is couched in fantasy, with magic called orogeny, which deals with the power to literally move the earth. The Broken Earth has much to say about what we, as people, do to one another, both good and bad. Jemisin is the first person ever to have won back to back to back Hugo Awards for Best Novels, for each of these three books, in 2016, 2017 and in 2018. Orbit has produced a boxed set (ISBN978-0316527194) and really, you won't find a better 1424 pages in fantasy. The audiobooks, read by the fabulous Robin Miles, are equally lauded.


And finally....




I always can recommend All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr,  which is my favorite book I've read in the past five years. It haunts me. Some day I'm going to visit St. Malo and reread (again) this beautiful book about the transcendent human spirit. A luminous audiobook.















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