(the fiction list)
I’ve read over 170 books so far this year – reading is my favorite thing, I read all the time. My list is not books published in 2018, it is just the best/favorite of the hodgepodge that I read this year. And it isn’t in a ranked order, just a random order. For the record, no one has paid me, and no one has sent me books.
The Magicians (and sequels) by Lev Grossman
I owe so many people apologies. This series is brilliant. First off, the writing is luminous and clear and enthralling – the writer gets that books are something to sink into, to swim in and to escape the dull, dreary world. He gets that some of us long for them to be real. Well… the good parts of real. What happens if you do get to go to a magical college but magic is hard, brutal work? What happens if, as a magician, you find your way into the world of your favorite children’s book and then things get complicated? And things get dark. It turns out our world has magicians and Quentin, a brilliant high school senior, is invited to test for acceptance atBrakebills, one of the elite magical colleges in the world. Quentin’s high school crush, Julia, has her own arc, as do the students he becomes close to at Brakebills. The subsequent books entangle more and more storylines, but they all work together for good, becoming more complex as Quentin himself becomes more mature. While the SyFy channel tv series sort of envisions the series and is entertaining, it does not have the same structure and poetry; it is really quite different. The books are much much better. This is a combination of Narnia and Harry Potter but strictly for adults, because seriously some shit goes down. It completely works. I’m reading the last 100 pages of the last book very slowly to make it last. Although I am starting to believe that despite everything — and magic always has a price — there may after all be a happy ending.
Solo by Kwame Alexander & Mary Rand Hess
Told in poetry, that is brilliant, funny, real, heart-breaking, amazing, this is the story of Blade, who is the son of a famous and infamous musician. When the story opens, Blade is 17 and his life is about to be ruined by his drunken father and family secrets. Or perhaps saved, as he ends up on a journey. While the bones of the story’s plot are about as old as time, the storytelling is truly brilliant. For a YA novel it absolutely surprised me and swallowed me whole. I think all ages would like it, but I also think that teen boys who don’t even think they like reading would like it. It is that engaging – and deep and rich. Plus I heard Alexander speak last winter at a conference and he is just amazing and funny and kind.
Rage against the Dying by Becky Masterman (and the series)
(Brigid Quinn Series book 1, 2013)
What I love is that Brigid Quinn, our heroine, is 59 years old and a retired FBI agent and newly married. This is remarkable in fiction – an older woman who is strong and independent and in love and newly married to a great husband. Brigid is amazing and interesting. I have gobbled up all three of the books that are out so far and I hope there are lots more in the pipeline – I really like the writing and really like Brigid. “Thriller” is not my normal wheelhouse, but the writing and characters deepen the genre. If you actually like thrillers and serial killers and stuff, these books should be your jam.
The Power by Naomi Alderman
Many storylines and many characters face the consequences of a new power unleashed in our world –suddenly girls have the power to zap people, a physical power that negates the power of physical strength that men have and then some. The playing field is suddenly level or completely upended. Published in October 2017 I think this predates and certainly was written before the #metoo movement. I could not help wondering if the author would have written it differently if she were writing now. And it made me wonder if #metoo and many women winning public office and so on does not and has not really changed anything? Will a world with more women in power be a better world, a more perfect world? It would be foolish to think so, actually. Does power always, inevitably, destroy? The frame of the story is delicious as we get a glimpse of the future of this world where “the power” is taken for granted and archeologists cannot make sense or interrupt the ruins of a past world that was balanced differently and certainly do not understand the significance of the ubiquitous “bitten fruit” image carved on so many relics they find. This is science fiction well done: take a “what if” and build a world and put some people in it and see happens. And I could hardly put it down, it was enthralling. The questions have lingered with me.
Among Others by Jo Walton
I’m so late to the party with Jo Walton. This book won the Nebula in 2011, the Hugo in 2012 – and it is a rare book that is really unique, straddling the line between what is real, what might be real, and growing up. The young heroine is struggling to escape a troubled childhood and the story is told in diary format – so I gave this a hard pass for many years. Oh my gosh. It is so good! Especially if you are a reader of beloved science fiction and fantasy and stuff. It is practically a love letter. Magic or madness? This was my year of reading Jo Walton actually, and everything she writes I have loved, but I am limiting myself to this book for this list. Coming out in 2019, she has a new book entitled “Lent” that takes place, apparently, in 15th century Florence. I can hardly wait.
Year One by Nora Roberts
Like a Stephen King novel, it starts with a sickness that wipes out our world. And in our world, some people have “magickal” gifts. And others hunt. Is the world ending or beginning? Has everything been lost? Can human nature change for the better or is a battle between good and evil ongoing? This was full of action and wonderful characters to root for and horrible characters to hate. It is truly a page turner and fun. I am glad that is the start of a series that I suspect will hold together because you can absolutely trust Nora Roberts to write a wonderful story.
The Speed of Dark by Elizabeth Moon
Lou Arrendale is a high-functioning autistic adult born just too late into a world that has cure autism. He and his friends are employed for their unique skills and suddenly are offered experimental surgery that is an expansion of the cure given to babies and children. Will Lou still be Lou? As he tries to decide what to do we see his unique gifts and we realize, as Lou does not, that someone hates him. And the gift of a cure may be, in fact, not a gift of kindness but a profound act of hate even if the cure itself is still something good. The ending is surprising and just as beautiful as the rest of the book. Who are we, actually? Are we shaped solely by our brains? Are we shaped by a delicate combination of head and heart and society and family? Is there some “core of you”? But as much as this book raises these sorts of thoughts – that linger in my mind – it also is simply and purely a very excellent read, a very good story, beautifully written.
The Witch Elm by Tana French
Tana French’s writing is delicious, smooth as chocolate. Told in the first person by Toby, whose easy life of luck and charm ended one night when he surprised burglars in his apartment, we are swept into a story of suspense that grows and entangles as many characters appear and reappear. Recuperating at the family house of his uncle, a magical place of family gatherings and a garden grown wild, a human skull is found. Whose is it? How much do you trust the storyteller? How much truth does one person know? Where will the past lead Toby as his future recedes and changes before him? In the end, is he still living a life of luck? The writing is wonderful, the characters are top notch, the suspense and angst – this is just brilliant, as of course, all Tana French’s books are. I literally could not stop reading this.
Only Child by Rhiannon Navin
Told by six-year-old Zach, my book group debated quite a bit if the story really truly could be told by a six year old. Maybe, maybe not. Regardless Zach is a sweetie-pie and his family is suffering deeply because Zach’s older brother was killed in a school shooting. Complicating the death of the old brother is the fact that he was not a “nice” kid, he was not a “good” boy. Almost too real in the conflicting ways of sorting through the maze of grief and guilt and anger, seeing it all from the eyes of a child makes the story that much harder. The author brings the horrific to grave light and never once makes a school shooting just a plot device. The author wrote a good book that is heartbreaking on so many levels, and yet with an essential hope and optimism that doesn’t deny the dark. I would never have read this if my book group had not decided on it, and I have surprised myself by putting in my top reads this year.