This year, for the first time, I did the Goodreads Reading Challenge, and having that target to strive for made me find more time than I usually do to read for pleasure. Because I write so much, and read so much to teach, and to do beta and editing work for writer friends, I have to really work to find time to read just because I want to. For the Challenge, I set a sedate pace of three books a month and, for the most part, tracked only first reads, not re-reads (I do a lot of re-reading to prep my classes), and I ended up topping my goal by ten books. Yay!
I read some really great books, too. They’re not all new (in fact, I think most of them have been around a minute or two), but they were new to me.
In the past couple of years, I’ve done a December “Fave Five” post of books I read in the year. This year, I’m going to do something a little different. I read across a wide range of genres, this year even more than usual, since I read more than usual, so I thought this time I’d organize my faves by genre. There are ten—ten genres, ten favorites (and a few runners-up).
I think I list the latest volume of Saga as a fave every year, but every year it’s my favorite, and this year it absolutely broke my heart. This is so much more than a science fiction/fantasy story about aliens with horns and wings. At its heart, it’s about true love and pure devotion to family, the heroic lengths we’ll go for the ones we love, and it’s just absolutely brilliant. Can’t recommend it highly enough.
The Carrow Haunt, Darcy Coates
I’ve been a fan of horror since my fourth-grade teacher read “The Tell-Tale Heart” to us on Halloween. I was an avid Stephen King fan for decades, devouring everything he wrote as soon as it came out. But I’ve struggled in recent years to find any I really liked (including King). This fall, after bingeing The Haunting of Hill House on Netflix (OMG SO GOOD!), I was especially hungry for scary reads. I happened upon Darcy Coates because her most recent book, Craven Manor, was in the running for best horror novel of the year on Goodreads. I read that and really liked it, so I went on a Darcy Coates spree and devoured four more of her books (including The Haunting of Ashburn House, The House Next Door, and Hunted), one after the other, like they were Lays Salt & Vinegar potato chips. She has a bunch more as well, but I’m taking a break so I don’t get burned out on her work.
Coates tells really excellent haunted-house stories. She definitely has a formula; those I’ve read share key features and setups (the protagonist is someone who moves into the house because they have no other options and would probably be homeless otherwise, and they tend to be pretty naïve as well), but haunted-house stories generally require a formula to come off right, and hers don’t feel repetitive.
That said, my favorite is a twist on her own formula. The Carrow Haunt, rather than being a “poor person moves into haunted house and shenanigans ensue” story, is more of an homage to Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House (the book, not to be confused with the wonderful Netflix series, which is a very different story, despite being “based” on Jackson’s classic), where an assemblage of strangers undertakes to spend a couple of weeks in the house to study its shenanigans—and they get far more than they bargained for.
Coates writes with a straightforward prose style that pulls you right into the story. Her characters are lively, she builds wonderful tension, and her scares are well earned. Also—she’s obviously a cat person, and her cat characters are lovely!
I’ve enjoyed all her books I’ve read, and The Carrow Haunt in particular. (Also, I fucking LOVE the cover!)
Runner-Up: Heart Shaped Box, Joe Hill
Blackbirds, Chuck Wendig
I’ve followed Wendig on Twitter for awhile—I found him on a retweet of one of his threads of writing advice, and now he’s one of my very favorite follows. His writing advice is always down-to-earth and motivating, not to mention weird and hilarious. It’s the kind of stuff that isn’t bound in rules about the “right” way to do things. In fact, he makes knee-slapping good fun of the overly smug rule-bound kind of advice. I just love him.
But I’d never read his work. I’d bought a couple of his books in support of him but hadn’t gotten around to trying one out. This fall, I started Blackbirds—the first book in the Miriam Black Series, an ongoing series at least six books long—and I fell in love with the deeply flawed, outrageously prickly, filthy-mouthed and combative AF protagonist, a young woman named Miriam Black. Miriam is my kind of chick, and I really appreciate a male writer who can write a female protagonist realistically, without an obsession with her physicality.
Miriam does not boob her boobs boobily, is what I mean.
I’m halfway through the series and loving it madly.
The best way I can describe the Miriam Black Series is “dark crime thriller with paranormal elements.” I recommend it with wild enthusiasm—but be prepared. Miriam is salty and inappropriate AF. She isn’t easy to like, and doesn’t want your affection anyway. Which is why I love her so.
Undead Girl Gang, Lily Anderson
Confession: I don’t really like young adult fiction. In my day job as an English professor who mainly teaches students training to be high-school English teachers, I read a lot of it, because I want to stay up with what’s current and I encourage my students to do the same, so they can talk knowledgeably with their own students about the books they love. But for myself, I get very easily frustrated with YA—its preponderance of first-person present POV, which I’m on record as strongly disliking; its tendency to be either “teachy” and dogmatic and/or ham-fisted in its symbolism; its often problematic depictions of romance and romantic relationships; and so on. So when I find a YA novel I actually enjoy, I’m just about throwing confetti.
Undead Girl Gang was a random find—my husband and I were on a road trip up the PNW coast, and we stopped in Portland for a couple nights. Obviously, my first stop was Powell’s Books. I wandered around in there for a couple hours in perfect bliss, boring the hell out of my poor honey. On a rack of employee recommendations, I found Undead Girl Gang—I liked the cover, the description was interesting, and the recommendation was encouraging, so I picked it up. And what a little treasure I’d found.
It’s funny and quirky, and it’s so much deeper than it first appears. To say too much about it would probably spoil it, but here’s a little bit of my GR review: On the surface, it’s a light, bittersweet, often funny paranormal confection with witches and zombies solving a string of mysterious deaths. But really, it’s about friendship and family, the things we do to survive in the world, the grief we feel for our losses, and the hope that keeps us keeping on.
I might teach this one someday, though that wasn’t my reason for reading it.
Runner Up: The Hollow Girl, Hillary Monahan
I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter, Erika L. Sanchez
I struggled a bit at first with this one, which isn’t unusual for me in YA. It took me some time to fall in love with the protagonist. But once I did, this story sang. It’s another book that deals with grief and identity. Julia is beset with pressures of family and culture and future. She grapples with a ghost (metaphorically speaking), trying to know herself as she learns things about her dead sister that change what she’s known of her family.
You’re Never Weird on the Internet (Almost), Felicia Day
I read several memoirs this year and loved one other at least as much as this one, but the other is political, and I don’t want to tear open that can of worms here, so I’m going to choose Day’s memoir of growing up a home-schooled nerd and becoming the “It Girl” of geekdom. I’ve been a fan of Day since her stint on season 7 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and as a fellow geek and gamer, I enjoyed every moment of this memoir.
So You Want to Talk about Race, Ijeoma Oluo
Okay, so this one is political, but more with a small “p” than a capital-P, Blue v. Red thing. And it’s just such an important read. Oluo lays out the vast array of problematics and pitfalls in the social discourse about race and explains in clear prose, without being unduly provocative, what it is, and what it means, to be a Black person in America. Even as someone who has long tried to pay attention, learn, understand, and adapt, I found the book riveting and essential.
A Court of Thorns and Roses, Sarah J. Maas
I know I’m late to the love-fest for this series, but hey—better late than never, right? While I’ve been grappling with writing my own epic fantasy (it’s so hard!), I haven’t been reading much new stuff in the genre. But I picked this one up after seeing a friend’s glowing post about the whole series, and I really enjoyed it. I haven’t yet read more than this first book, but I loved the protagonist and the world-building, and I hear the series only gets better from here.
The Power, Naomi Alderman
I picked this up after reading an article about a recent uptick in interest in and publication of feminist dystopian novels, and I absolutely loved this. It imagines a contemporary world in which a profound physiological change occurs in women, starting with pubescent girls and eventually moving through all ages, that makes them so powerful and dangerous the whole global patriarchal structure falls apart and power totally inverts. But it’s not so simple as that. Power corrupts, as they say, and absolute power … well. The story is told in multiple POV, with a framing device that creates a really interesting context.
I read this out of simple interest, but I liked it so much and was so intrigued by the questions it raises that I put it on the syllabus for my senior seminar this fall—and students loved it, too. Several were inspired enough to write their seminar papers on it.
The Kiss Quotient, Helen Hoang
This book. This book right here. My very favorite book of the year, and possibly my very favorite romance ever. It won the Goodreads Choice Award for best romance this year, so clearly I’m not alone, and I don’t have to go into much detail about why I love it. You know. It’s just about perfect. I’ve read it three times, because I just don’t want to leave the characters behind.
It’s light and sweet and not at all like what I write, but maybe that’s part of why it works so well for me–I spend so much of my writing time careening through dark thickets of painful feelings, and Hoang’s charming story and characters are a welcome respite. There’s plenty of real emotion here, but it doesn’t hurt so bad.
Also: The sex is seriously hot.
I intentionally didn’t include books I beta’d in my list, but I want to raise up enthusiastic hands for my fellow Freaks who had new releases this year.
Sarah Osborne released a wonderful new installment in her Freaks MC England series: Wish You Were Here.
So those are my faves for 2018. Here’s hoping I’ll have time to read as much in 2019!
And check out my Facebook page today for a giveaway related to this list!