2018 was a year of reading-related milestones for me. It’s the year that I joined Goodreads, first set a reading challenge for myself – which I was able to exceed, yay! – and read genres outside of my comfort zone.
But on top of that, I’ve discovered the kind of fiction I like to read. Just two years ago, while I was finishing a minor in literature, I was reading “Literary Books” that I was supposed to like if I was to be a “Serious Literature Student.” The problem was, I didn’t like half of them. Reading was a source of dread rather than enjoyment. I could have said so in my papers, but I was just too reverent of the canon and my brilliant professors to say otherwise.
Not so now. I feel that in the past two years, and especially this year, I’ve become more aware of what I really enjoy in fiction. I’m happy to say that this year, I’ve read a handful of truly wonderful books that I’ve enjoyed reading to the point of losing sleep over.
Here’s the list of my favorite novels read this year, in order of date read.
1. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler
Published in 2014 by Serpents Tail (First published in 2013)
My Rating: ★★★★★ | We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is a story about the family we’re born into and the family we make for ourselves. It’s told from the point of view of Rosemary, the youngest daughter, and the narrative shifts between past and present to unravel the story behind Rosemary’s unusual family. What I loved about this is that despite it being a heartbreaking story about an unhappy family, it’s still told with so much gentleness, affection, and hope. Through Rosemary’s voice, Fowler also provides incisive insights about the puzzling dynamics of family love and favoritism. On a larger scale, she also explores themes of science and ethics, animal rights, and activism. It’s a complex book with extremely engaging storytelling, and one I’ve been recommending to my friends since.
2. The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert
Published in 2014 by Bloomsbury Publishing (First published in 2013)
My Rating: ★★★★★ | Yes, this is the very same Elizabeth Gilbert of Eat, Pray, Love, and while I have no intention of reading that one, I found The Signature of All Things an engaging, masterful novel. I found this at a booksale, and I found myself drawn in from the first sentences: “Alma Whittaker, born with the century, slid into our world on the fifth of January, 1800. Swiftly — nearly immediately — opinions began to form around her.” The rest of the novel tells the story of Alma Whittaker and her tough and brilliant explorer of a father, Henry Whittaker. It’s the story of the world in the 19th century, and of a brilliant, curious, sheltered woman with a keen scientific mind who finds her own corner of that world to explore. It’s a novel of ideas – the ideas of the time that made the industrial revolution possible, and about the scientific ideas that would change the world.
I loved this novel for its ambitious scope, its engaging storytelling, and its memorable characters. I remember staying up until 4 am to finish this, and afterwards I felt breathless because I felt like I’d seen the world and lived the entire century of Alma’s remarkable life. I recommend this with caution since there are sections about sexual exploration and spirituality and the magical that might put some readers off, but as for me, I found it to be organic to a novel as wide in scope as this. I’ll definitely be rereading this again.
3. The Secret History by Donna Tartt
Published in 2004 by Vintage (First published in 1992)
My Rating: ★★★★★ | I loved this book, but I also understand why not many people would. The Secret History is about a group of misfits at an elite college who take a subject on Ancient Greek under a brilliant, charismatic professor. You can understand why they’re misfits: for the most part, they are pretentious, painfully self-centered, and unlikeable. Even the narrator, with a working-class background that contrasts starkly with that of his rich classmates’, is unlikeable for his spinelessness.
But here’s the thing: I like unlikeable characters – as long they’re understandable. And these characters are remarkably fleshed-out. The dynamics of these characters’ relationships with each other are fascinating to read about, especially how that dynamic changes as the line between good and evil blurs, and after they murder someone in their group. I also loved the storytelling: at the outset, we already know there’s a murder, but what the story unravels is why he was murdered, and the aftermath of that murder.
I found The Secret History is a dark, gripping story, with fascinating characters and a chilling exploration of the fine line between good and evil. The novel may not be to everyone’s liking, especially because of its pessimistic portrayal of human beings and claustrophobic atmosphere, but it did make for a great story.
4. Gillespie and I by Jane Harris
Published in 2011 by Faber & Faber
My Rating: ★★★★★ | Gillespie and I is told from the point of view of an elderly Harriet Baxter as she looks back on her relationship with the artist Gillespie in her youth. I can’t say much about the plot without giving it away, but I liked this one for its unreliable narrator and the unexpected plot twist at the middle of the story. I seem to have a weakness for unlikeable characters, because Harriet eventually becomes unlikeable herself, but I found myself eager to listen to her and believe in her until the end, which is a testament to Harris’s writing.
5. Franny and Zooey by J. D. Salinger
Published in 2001 by Back Bay Books (First published in 1961)
My Rating: ★★★★★ | This is perhaps the shortest book on my list, and it’s not technically a novel as it is two novellas published in one book. Anyway, technicalities aside, I loved Franny and Zooey for the in-depth characterization and the frenetic, breathless dialogue between the titular characters. Like The Secret History, this is a novel about smart, good-looking, pretentious young adults. Unlike The Secret History, there’s no murder, only an existential crisis. People may be unsatisfied with the resolution of the existential crisis at the end, but the resolution didn’t matter to me as much as the acerbic, exasperating, covertly affectionate back-and-forth between the siblings and their mother. I found myself rereading the flow of the dialogue because it flowed so well to me. I read this while my mother was confined in the hospital, and it was the only book that was able to provide a much-needed reprieve from the situation, even for a little while.
6. Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer
Published in 2014 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux
My Rating: ★★★★★ | Another novella, and one I’d picked up specifically because it promised to be a short read. Part sci-fi and part horror, Annihilation is a chilling novella about the mysterious Area X. Previous expedition members murdered each other, and one expedition committed mass suicide. Still, a twelfth expedition is sent to the area, ostensibly to collect samples and record observations, but what they find there is far more sinister than anything they’d imagined. What made this engaging for me was the way various deceptions were unravelled: the deception of the authorities who called for the expedition, and the deception of what Area X is. Another thing that kept me on the edge of my seat was the unknown entity at the heart of Area X. Most of the novel is driven by the fear of something unknown and the desire to finally discover what it is, and it was an extremely effective in driving the story. Not all questions were answered by the end of the novel, though, but since this is part of a trilogy, I’ll let it pass.
7. Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner
Published in 2002 by Modern Library (First published in 1987)
My Rating: ★★★★★ | I find myself at a loss for words for Crossing to Safety. No summary can do it justice; any attempt at summary makes it sound more boring than it really is. It’s what others might disdain as a “plotless” novel, but it doesn’t need the drama and twists of plot to succeed as the story of the intertwined lives of two couples. Crossing to Safety charts how the evolution of the unlikely friendship between an rich couple and a struggling couple. It’s a portrait of human relationships in all their exasperation and affection, and character sketches of human beings with all their goodness and their flaws. Stegner’s prose is beautiful in its simplicity and its rhythm. He has a talent for capturing the qualities of a place (the characters and the story is intimately tied to the place) in words that seem to do it justice by how beautiful the sentences sound.
It took a certain mood for me to get into this—I was finally able to settle back into this in a more meditative mood, with nothing pressing to be done—but it’s worth it. I loved Crossing to Safety for the beautiful language and complex and incredibly human characters—I would say among all the novels I’ve read this year, Stegner’s prose is hands-down the best. I have a feeling this is the sort of novel I could relish on subsequent rereadings.
8. The Travelling Cat Chronicles by Hiro Arikawa, translated by Philip Gabriel
Published in 2017 by Doubleday (First published in 2012)
My Rating: ★★★★★ | I’ve written a full review of The Travelling Cat Chronicles here, so I’ll just paraphrase what I’ve said. The Travelling Cat Chronicles is the story of the bond between cat and owner. This book is a tender meditation on relationships and companionship, both human and non-human, and on grief and letting go. At first, the first-person voice of the proud, grouchy, snobbish cat of the title, Nana, had me chuckling and snorting; but towards the last chapter I was just crying like a leaky faucet, even when I saw the ending coming. The simple, clean prose of the book was beautiful, and gave the feeling of having space for the wonder described in the book. I’d definitely recommend this to everyone, especially cat lovers.
9. Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman
Published in 2017 by Viking
My Rating: ★★★★☆ | Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine is a heartwarming novel about the lonely, socially awkward Eleanor with a past she carefully tries to conceal, and how she eventually finds meaning in her work and her relationships. What struck me about this novel is the positive portrayal of asking for help for one’s mental illness, and a realistic rendering of the journey of recovery from it. I gave it only four stars because Eleanor’s language didn’t feel realistic to me at times, but in the end I found it readable and charming. It’s the kind of novel I would recommend to most of my friends, because I’m sure everyone will find a little bit of Eleanor in them.
10. The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid
Published in 2017 by Washington Square Press
My Rating: ★★★★☆ | Once I started reading The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, I couldn’t put it down. I think it has to do with the storytelling: The famous yet intensely private Hollywood actress Evelyn Hugo is finally ready to tell about her scandalous past with her seven husbands, and she chooses to tell it to a little-known journalist, the narrator Monique. The novel tries to answer the questions of why seven husbands, and who among them did Evelyn love best? (Hint: It’s not who you’re expecting.) It also slowly unravels the reason why Evelyn chose Monique, in particular, to reveal her story to. The subject matter – old Hollywood and an actress’s many love affairs – is already interesting, but the way the story was framed made it feel like listening to gossip, which made it addictively readable. But in the end, I gave it only 4 stars because I felt it didn’t adequately address the issues of racial and LGBTQIA+ representations that were themes in the novel. I’m also not sure about the purported feminism in the novel. Still, it’s engaging and it sparks interesting discussions, so I’d definitely recommend this to my friends.
11. Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
Published in 2009 by HarperCollins e-books (First published in 1937)
My Rating: ★★★★☆ | How could I not read a book with a title like that? And I’m glad that the prose of the novel definitely lives up to the title. I found myself highlighting and rereading long passages that had the rhythm of poetry in prose. That said, the subject matter of Their Eyes Were Watching God was not pretty. It tells the story of African-Americans during a time when most were still slaves from the eyes of a Black woman. There are mentions of violence due to racial discrimination, and there are also descriptions of domestic abuse. It was not a comfortable read, but a highly enlightening one. Hurston, I think, was ahead of her time in portraying the experience of the African-American woman, and how she eventually comes to liberate herself from the abusive men she’s been with. She’s deemed, and rightfully, one of the pioneers of Black feminist fiction.
12. The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller
Published in 2012 by Ecco (First published in 2011)
My Rating: ★★★★☆ | I’m a sucker for retellings, and The Song of Achilles hit all the right notes, including queering the relationship of Achilles and his best friend, Patroclus. I loved the prose and the descriptions of the setting, and even when I knew how it was going to end, I still teared up towards the last chapters. The reason why I’d only given it 3.75 stars was that the prose reminded me of slash fanfiction – there were times that it just bordered on being purple prose. Sometimes, Patroclus and Achilles also struck me as one-dimensional, and their relationship with each other and with other characters wasn’t complex either. Still, this was an enjoyable retelling, one that I’d be recommending to mythology fans everywhere.
Well, that’s it for my 2018 in novels. How did your 2018 in books look like? Here’s to hoping that 2019 will be a great year for reading, too.