It’s an annual tradition—every year I put together a list of my 11 favorite books read during the year. (Yes, 11! I always allow myself one extra book because I’m the boss.) Looking over my picks for 2018, I was struck, as I seem to be every year, by how my reading life continues to change with me as I change as a person.
Just a few ways my reading life has changed for the better this year:
-This year I read more genre fiction and less literary fiction than ever before and had a great time doing it. We all know good books stay with you long after you finish the final page, and whatever headspace a book puts me into is where I tend to stay, mood-wise. So it’s no real surprise that I’ve found my mental health is dramatically better when I’m reading books that make me feel good. Literary fiction and heavy non-fiction, while absolutely worthwhile, generally aren’t doing that for me anymore.
-I used to shy away from self-published books or titles that don’t have many reviews, which I see now is a backwards way of thinking for someone who enjoys recommending books to people. Now I don’t feel pressure to jump on every most-touted, highest-grossing bandwagon that comes along. You don’t need me to tell you about that blockbuster you’ve already seen on the internet, on the front table of the bookstore, or hell, even the endcap at the grocery store—if you’re interested, you probably bought it and it’s sitting on your coffee table. Now it gives me great joy to discover and promote books by lesser known, up and coming authors—especially women and POC authors!
-I used to employ a tone of apology when I reviewed romance, as if I needed to justify my enjoyment of a genre that celebrates relationships between people. Well, those days are officially over. Shame has no place when it comes to our reading choices. Romance is officially my favorite genre--it’s happy, it’s fun, it’s real, it’s an escape, but it also brings out the best in its readers. Reading romance has made me a kinder, gentler, more open and loving person, and that is definitely not something to apologize for.
-I’m continuing to diversify my reading in new ways. Prioritizing books by POC authors has been a habit for several years now, but this year I made an effort to seek out books by and about LGBTQ people, including those who are trans and non-binary. There’s so much good stuff out there, I’ve barely scratched the surface! Look for lots more LGBTQ rep here in 2019.
-I read books aloud in the evenings before bedtime with my husband, Adam, and it was a fun way to bond and wind down from our day. We are slowly working our way through Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files series about a wizard named Harry who lives in Chicago and fights all manner of evil supernatural creatures. Adam has read the whole series multiple times, so he can answer all my annoying questions as they come up. Harry is a great character, the books have a great mix of humor and adventure, and reading them together has been a real highlight of my reading year.
And a few nerdy stats:
I read 175 books this year, for a total of 63,357 pages
53% by POC authors
85% by women
20% from the library
And now for the list--my top 11 favorite books read in 2018! I had a tougher time choosing this year than usual because of my changing tastes, so you get a little bit of everything with this list. There’s plenty of romance, some fantasy, some historical, a Western, and yes, some literary fiction even made the cut (but only the very best!).
Thirsty by Mia Hopkins
I just finished this book yesterday so I haven’t even featured it in a post yet, but I loved it so much there was no way it wasn’t making this list. In my opinion, the best romance novels are those with characters you grow to care about deeply, flawed and fully fleshed out people that overcome their demons and find a happier, better life. Salvador Rosas has just gotten out of prison after a five-year stint for stealing cars. He was a gang member like his father and grandfather before him, but now he’s trying to sort out his life and figure out if there is a different future for him. His relationship with Vanessa, a girl who grew up in the neighborhood and has made a good life for herself and her daughter, has more challenges than most you see in romance, which just made me love them more. I listened to the audio version narrated by Ozzie Rodriguez, and it was so well done I sorted laundry, made two batches of granola, unloaded the dishwasher, scrubbed the bathtub, and finally just sat in a chair for an hour yesterday because I couldn’t stop listening to their story.
Level Up by Cathy Yardley
I have never wanted so badly to smush two characters’ faces together! Tessa is an engineer at a game company, and other than going to work, she doesn’t get out much. But events conspire to thrust her not just into a new much-needed group of girlfriends, but into the arms of her roommate, Adam, who is also her coworker. Tessa and Adam have always had a friendly but distant rapport, but when he agrees to help her out with a side project, they start seeing each other in a new light. I’m sure I’m biased, but with a tech nerd hero named Adam, there was no chance I wasn’t going to adore this book.
A Place for Us by Fatima Farheen Mirza
I was not prepared for how deeply I would feel for these characters and how personally the story would resonate with me. I am always searching for a reading experience like this--where the characters become fully real people, and through observing their lives, I come to understand something new about being human. That, to me, is the highest form of literature and it’s the reason I read.
Next Year in Havana by Chanel Cleeton
Next Year in Havana is about Marisol, a journalist, who grew up hearing tales of her grandmother Elisa’s life in Cuba before the revolution forced their family into exile in Miami. Now Elisa has died and Marisol is on her way to Cuba to scatter her grandmother’s ashes and set foot for the first time on the land that shaped her family’s destiny. Along the way, she meets her grandmother’s closest friends, learns about Cuba’s complicated history, falls into an unexpected romance, and discovers some long-buried secrets of her grandmother’s. In between Marisol’s chapters, we go back in time to hear Elisa’s story firsthand. It’s rare to find historical fiction that makes you feel like you’ve truly traveled to a different time, with characters that are so real you can’t help but empathize with them, and Chanel Cleeton has done both beautifully here.
A Girl Like Her by Talia Hibbert
Hibbert is so, so good at writing realistic characters that you will grow to love. If some romance tropes have made you feel squicky in the past (dubious consent, controlling alpha males, unequal power dynamics, etc.), Hibbert’s books will be a breath of fresh air. Evan is a blacksmith (!) on a mission to get to know his prickly, borderline-unfriendly neighbor Ruth. Ruth, on the other hand, is suspicious of most people in her small town because of an incident in her past that gained her some unfair notoriety. She also has autism spectrum disorder and struggles to relate to people. However, Evan is persistent, striking up conversation and refusing to be swayed by the nosy gossips in town. Two nice but imperfect people getting to know each other and falling in love--this is romance done right!
Winston Brothers series by Penny Reid
Every time I read a new book in the Winston Brothers series, I try to decide who my favorite brother is and it’s totally impossible because I love them all. What makes it such a hit is the way all the brothers relate as a family. They each have their flaws and quirks, and their romantic lives are wildly different, but put them all together and it somehow just works. They’re the kind of family you’d want to marry into, so you could attend all their backyard barbecues and get all the inside jokes. (Sausage, anyone?) I have read every single one of these books like there was an international threat that could only be neutralized by my turning the last page, and I finish them on a high like I’ve saved the world yet again. They’re just magic.
Kingmaker Chronicles trilogy by Amanda Bouchet
Is it still a bodice-ripper if the bodice is made of boiled leather? Either way, I love this series with the heat of a thousand suns. I rarely wish I could live in the world of a book, but I want to fall asleep one night and wake up in Thalyria with a sword in my hand and a band of highly trained warriors at my side. I was super into this outwardly straightforward romance featuring (get this) two humans who love each other (like, a lot a lot). It’s nice to see a couple that has such a strong foundation and isn’t constantly beset by doubts and insecurities. The conflict comes from outside, and they present a united front against it. Which leaves the door open for all manner of magical creatures to come in and wreak havoc—spiders, snakes, Cyclopes, Hades’ guard dog, you name it.
The Boat People by Sharon Bala
Considering the current crisis at the U.S./Mexico border, with children being separated from parents and asylum seekers being treated like criminals, 2018 seemed like a good time to learn what it’s like to be a refugee. Although Bala’s book is set in Canada, not the U.S., and her characters are from Sri Lanka, not Mexico and Central America, the themes of the novel felt highly relevant to me. It doesn’t matter what language you speak or what culture you come from, the desperation that comes from leaving your home and throwing yourself on the mercy of people who may not have any is universal.
An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon
An Unkindness of Ghosts is a science fiction novel unlike any I’ve ever read. It’s set on a massive ship in deep space with stratified levels separating different classes of inhabitants. Aster, a lowdecker, is essentially a slave, forced to work in the fields at the mercy (or lack thereof) of harsh, power-hungry overseers. The only bright spots in her life are her memories of her mother, a brilliant woman trapped like Aster in a low station, and the time she spends with her mentor, the Surgeon. As Aster starts to decode some of the notes her mother left before her death, she realizes she may have a chance to upset the entire social order of the ship.
Heroine Complex by Sarah Kuhn
I've never been particularly into superhero stories, but now I think all I was waiting for was one that featured women. Evie Tanaka is a behind-the-scenes girl, and she likes it that way. She’s the personal assistant to her childhood best friend Annie, who now embodies the persona of Aveda Jupiter, superhero and San Francisco celebrity. Aveda is flashy, flamboyant, and fabulous, and Evie is really good at playing second fiddle. Until suddenly she’s thrust into the superhero role herself—and then the former shrinking violet has to find her inner flaming hot diva. This book has just the right amount of magic and mayhem, not to mention awesome, realistic girl friendships and just enough romance to make you sweat. Of course, we superheroines don’t sweat, we glow.
Heresy by Melissa Lenhardt
Finally, a Western that centers women throughout--and not just one woman, but a whole gang of them, tough and imperfect and rebellious and loyal and just gosh-dang realistic. Former slave Hattie LaCour and widowed white woman Margaret Parker are partners in crime--they and their gang of mostly female outlaws rob banks, stagecoaches, and mining offices, and they never get caught because no one believes women capable of their exploits. Lenhardt tells their story through artifacts like newspaper columns, interviews, and journal entries, which made me feel like a detective historian combing through the archives (but without all the work). I absolutely fell in love with these characters and was blown away by the breadth of diversity represented among them. How amazing to read a story that is in some ways so familiar yet centers people who are usually erased from narratives of this kind. This is the Western the canon has been missing.
I don’t usually pick a single favorite book of the year because that’s my version of Sophie’s Choice, but this year, gun to my head, I’d pick Heresy as the hands-down winner. It’s just so dang good, I’m still thinking about it months afterwards. I even bought a copy for my dad for Christmas. And it’s inspired me to seek out more Westerns in the coming year (look for that post coming soon!). It’s just incredible, and if you only pick one book from this list to try out for yourself, it should be Heresy. Trust.
That’s it for me for 2018! You can find my other annual favorites lists here. Comments are open below if you want to share your favorite books of the year.
Happy New Year, bookworms!