Best Books of 2018

This is my third annual best books post (see 2016 and 2017, respectively), and it’s a doozy!

This year, I began using Goodreads to track my books, which has become WAY more addictive than I would’ve guessed. (In the same way my DVR is like a to-do list for entertainment, Goodreads has become a to-do list for the TBR pile, and I get a little jolt of dopamine every time I update my progress on a book.) If you’re a Goodreads user, find me!

As before, I will broadly organize this list into a few discrete categories, and I refuse to pick a single winner in each category. It’s my list; make your own if you don’t like my methods. (Besides, I read nearly 80 books this year, so choosing just one or two bests? Not plausible.)

On to the bests….!

Best fiction I’m not ashamed to be seen reading in public

Matchmaking for Beginners, by Maddie Dawson
I was so thoroughly enchanted by this story that, after finishing it, I sent Maddie Dawson an email to tell her how much it had brought sparkle and joy into my life. I devoured this book, and I haven’t been able to bring myself to read her others because I want to save them for a particularly sad time. What an incredible story, rich characters, and genuinely delightful read. I honestly might read this one again soon, and that’s something I rarely do given the size of my TBR pile…

One Day in December, by Josie Silver
Yes, yes, yes, I know … Reese Witherspoon chose this book for her book club, so I’m hardly sharing something ground-breaking with you. Still, this book completely stole my heart. I was rooting for Laurie SO HARD. The ups and downs, the near misses … it was just delightful. And, it was also very similar to another favorite…

Miss You, by Kate Eberlen
Again, similar in theme to One Day in December, except we spend the whole book not knowing whether Tess and Gus will ever ACTUALLY meet one another. I won’t spoil the ending. The sixteen years of their not meeting are enjoyable either way.

Perfect Little World, by Kevin Wilson
Apart from the fact that Kevin is a fellow inhabitant of my beloved Cumberland Plateau mountain, he’s a wickedly inventive writer. This story about a group of parents who are convinced to live communally, without telling their babies who is actually biologically related until the kids turn a certain age, stayed with me long, long after I read this. Totally, completely engrossing writing.

Dumplin’, by Julie Murphy
I wanted to read this before watching the Netflix adaptation, and I was so glad I did. The book weaves a far more complex narrative about Willowdean’s life, with plot twists and turns that felt important enough that I was shocked they got axed out of the movie script. This book was a spectacular feel-good story about a teen learning to embrace herself and her body. I cannot fathom how much of a difference reading this might have made in my life, had I come across it as a teenager myself. Get this for every girl you know under the age of 20. Maybe all of them, actually, regardless of age. #itsnevertoolate

Best fiction I read on my Kindle app because I wouldn’t carry the book around

The Kiss Quotient, by Helen Hoang
To be clear, I have no shame about having LOVE-LOVE-LOVED this book, but answering questions about what I was reading probably would’ve made me turn seventeen shades of scarlet. This book was hands down my fastest read of the year. It was incredibly well-written. (It did, after all, win a Goodreads award for Best Romance 2018.)

Love on the North Shore series, by Christina Tetreault
This is your run-of-the-mill romance novel series here, but it was especially well done. None of the books brought a particularly bombshell of a surprise in plot line. No matter; I enjoyed them for the breezy stories they were.

In the Cards, by Jamie Beck
To be honest, I brought this book up in my Kindle queue expecting it to be lackluster, but the story REALLY stayed with me. Very compelling storytelling here.

Fiction authors worth an honorable mention

I’ve been especially fond of basically all books written by:

Best nonfiction about immigration

Tell Me How it Ends, by Valerie Luiselli
This book was recommended by a former student (hat tip to Colin!), and it was just breathtakingly beautiful. It helps us understand more about immigration in the United States, and is therefore a necessary read (in my opinion) in these fraught times. As an amusing side note, I went to a bookstore in Dupont Circle while visiting DC with some students and asked if they had this book. The staff member at Kramerbooks said, “No, and that doesn’t sound like a very good book.” Thanks, dearie.

The Line Becomes a River, by Francisco Cantu
I wish I felt like I could assign this to my students, because it’s just GORGEOUSLY WRITTEN. It’s part memoir, part poetic incantation. What a moving story of a border patrol agent whose own family came to the United States from Mexico as he struggles to understand the conflicting forces at work on the southern border. You won’t leave the reading of this book feeling any more settled than you likely do now, but you’ll certainly come away with a better sense of the hopelessness of the immigrants seeking a better life.

The Distance Between Us, by Reyna Grande
Reyna was brought to the United States from Mexico by her father and lived as an illegal immigrant for much of her childhood. This memoir tells her story about the life she had in Mexico prior to crossing the border, her experiences integrating into life in California, and the struggles she faced throughout. I loved it so much that I assigned it to my honors students, and we had heartfelt conversations about the competing interests in the immigration fight playing out in the US today.

Best nonfiction about Trump

This year saw a flood of books looking at the Trump administration. I was especially fond of:

Best nonfiction to make yourself a better person

The Crossroads of Should and Must, by Elle Luna
This book is one that I seriously want to buy every single woman I know. Maybe some men, too. It’s gorgeously illustrated by Elle Luna, and the message of the book is powerful yet simple: There are things you “should” do, at least according to the world, and there are things you MUST DO, because nobody else will. Better that we focus our efforts on the latter. I needed this book, and I will continue singing its praises for a long, long time.

Landwhale, by Jes Baker
I have SUCH A GIRL CRUSH on Jes Baker!!! At some point, she’s going to return the sentiment and we’ll be BFFs until we die. Until then, I’m content to read and love-love-love her books. This one is just fantastic, and I wish every woman I know would read it.

Best uncategorized nonfiction

Tell Me More, by Kelly Corrigan
Read with tissues. (I hear the audiobook is just as awesome.)

Amusing Ourselves to Death, by Neil Postman
I originally read this book in the late 1990s, but it’s EVEN MORE (!!!) important now. Who might’ve guessed that a book written in 1984 would come to explain the Trump era better than anything written in this century? Not I. Read this. It explains so, so much.

Educated, by Tara Westover
I’m still having conversations about this book, six months after having read it. Tara Westover’s story is enormously compelling, especially for someone like me, with a deep fondness for stories about cults (and cult-like people/groups). It’s an inspiring testament to the strong spirit of a girl who decides to educate herself, environmental influences be damned. (This won Goodreads Best of 2018 in Memoir/Autobiography.)

Just Mercy, by Bryan Stevenson
This is a book I’ve now asked roughly 200 people to read, with mixed results … but, overwhelmingly, they report that it had a significant impact on their understanding of the criminal (in)justice system in America, particularly with respect to the death penalty. I really, truly believe every person should read this book. (Or listen; Bryan Stevenson reads the audiobook as well.)

Best audiobook listens

Everything Happens for a Reason, by Kate Bowler
After listening to this book, plus two seasons of podcast episodes with Kate B., I’m pretty sure we’re now best friends. That’s what I told her when I heard her speak at Agnes Scott College, too. This woman is nothing short of God’s gift to humanity. She’s hilarious, oh-so-human, insightful, humble, and humbled. I want more Kate Bowlers in the world.

Braving the Wilderness, by Brene Brown
It will come as no surprise to those who know me that I’m rather worried about the state of public discourse in the United States today. Brene Brown’s teachings in this book form the backbone of my prescription for making the world better, starting with precept #1: It’s hard to hate up close. Move in. I listened to this AND bought the hardback, because I think this book is something we need in every medium available. (Plus, Brene reads it herself.)

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