My 20 Favorite Books of 2018
One of my projects this year was to read 50 books. After dozens of trips to my local library and countless recommendations from friends, I’ve done it.
My natural inclination is to read non-fiction, but this year I read mostly fiction. It’s been a fun year discovering new authors and stories I would have normally missed.
Below are the 20 best books (plus a few bonuses) I’ve read so far this year. Maybe you’ll find one for your bookshelf.
Badass women during the World Wars
I went through a phase where every book I read was set during the first or second World War - but all with an interesting twist. Instead of being about the men who fought, these books focused on women spies, pilots, and resistance fighters. My hero is my grandma who was a nurse in Normandy during World War II so I loved these stories.
The Alice Network - by Kate Quinn - A book with two parallel stories - the main one set right after World War II and a secondary (but more exciting) one focused on a network of female spies during World War I. This book left me wondering about all the stories we don’t hear from people who play pivotal roles in the times of war. You’ll cheer out loud for the heroine in this book.
Code Name Verity - by Elizabeth Wein - This young adult novel shares the story of two women who become accidental friends through their individual work as a pilot and a spy during World War II. It’s a story about the war and their efforts, but even more so about friendship.
Bonus: The Women in the Castle by Jessica Shattuck - I also read The Women in the Castle around this same time, which is a well-written story about German women who outlasted their husbands during World War II. I didn’t connect to the characters as much as the two books above, but it’s a great read about women doing what they inherently know is right.
My only experience in Alaska was on a week-long cruise so digging deeper into stories set in this vast place was a fascinating way to learn more about our 49th state.
To the Bright Edge of the World by Eowyn Ivey - Loosely based on a real story, this book has a number of stories - it follows Colonel Allen Forrester and his group of explorers traveling through the Alaskan Territory while also following the wife he left behind. It alternates between mysticism, adversity, and a woman coming into her own. I haven’t read the Snow Child yet, Ivey’s first book, but it’s definitely on my list. She’s a beautiful writer.
The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah - As a former VW van owner, any story about a family who travels around in an old VW bus is one I’ll always read. This heartbreaking story about a young girl trying to survive Alaska - and her family - after their VW lands them in a remote Alaskan town was an emotional roller coaster. I went through a lot of tissues as this story ended. It’s an incredible book that will build your empathy and compassion for all types of people.
Others stories about the U.S.
I’m impressed by authors who can take real-life events and make the stories even more interesting in a novel. These three books weave real people into rich stories that made me want to learn more.
Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders - Wow, this book is wacky. But so interesting. Set over just one evening in a cemetery where young William “Willie” Lincoln gets buried, it’s part ghost story and part angst of a grieving father. This was a 2017 Man Booker Prize winner.
A Piece of the World by Christina Baker Kline - This was my second favorite book this year after Beartown (more below). Based on a true story about artist Andrew Wyeth and his unlikely muse, this story had me questioning everything I take for granted about my adult life. Grab the tissues for this one.
Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline - Did you know orphans from east coast cities in the late 1800s to the early 1900s were put on trains and “relocated” to families in midwest towns? Me either. In Orphan Train, a young girl in the foster system meets an older woman with a story not all that different from hers. The interwoven experiences of the “orphan train” and the foster system are hard to read, but eventually heartwarming when deeply shared between these two generations.
Written by international authors
When I come across books from writers outside (or born outside) the U.S., I’m reminded how little I read of the literary world. These three authors were great discoveries this year.
The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion - I’ve seen The Rosie Project recommended on almost every Facebook thread asking for book recommendations this year. Hands down - it’s a funny and an entertaining read about a quirky Australian genetics professor on the scientific search for a mate. Simsion’s follow up - The Rosie Effect - loses a bit of the original charm, but if you love The Rosie Project characters it’s worth the time. His other book, Two Steps Forward - co-authored by his wife Anne Buist - is their take on walking the Camino de Santiago. The authors trade off chapters and make this a light-hearted story with characters who easily come to life. It had me ready to book the next flight to France to start my own walk to Spain.
The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai - This is a book of very sad tales centered around two young characters - one in India and one who moves to the United States. Every character in this beautifully-written book truly inherits loss in their own way. I kept hoping for a good ending, but it’s not what Desai is doing here. The Inheritance of Loss won the Man Booker Prize in 2006.
Beartown by Fredrik Backman - Beartown is my favorite book of 2018 so far. I was captivated by the characters, the storytelling, and the need to know what happens next. Beartown tells the story of a town in Sweden defined by its junior hockey league and the lengths community members and friends will go to protect their own. I can’t say enough good things about this book and Backman as a writer. Soon after reading Beartown, I picked up A Man Called Ove and while vastly different in style, it’s great fun. Britt-Marie Was Here is essentially the female version of A Man Called Ove and while good, it feels less emotionally-charged than A Man Called Ove.
I rarely read books that come from the mystery section of the library and happened upon these almost by accident. I’m glad I did.
The Sherlockian by Graham Moore - I’ve never read a Sherlock Holmes book so uncertain if the Holmes-hype portrayed in this book is real, but Moore writes a whodunnit story that twists, turns, and leaves you guessing until the very end. A fun and quick read.
Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz - I love books that tell stories in a story and this one takes the cake. I had to stop reading after the first few pages to make sure I wasn’t reading an excerpt from a different book. This story follows a book editor on a wild goose chase after her most popular author dies without finishing his last book. You won’t be disappointed!
My husband says I love learning more than anything - he’s mostly right and it’s why I typically read non-fiction. This year it was a small portion of my list of 50, but the ones below were highlights.
Temperance Creek by Pamela Royes - I moved to Central Oregon a year ago and soon after read this book by Oregon-based Royes. As a young woman, she met Skip and took every risk by leaving a comfortable life and living off the land across the Northwest. I was so impressed with what she did at a young age and loved her descriptions of the places they explored and lived.
Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah - Thanks to my brother-in-law, I was able to see Noah’s stand up act last fall and meet him afterward. Coupled with a trip I had planned to South Africa, I really wanted to read this book. Noah covers a wide range of South African issues, shares stories of his family, and the life that led to where he is today. I liked that it wasn’t a chronological digest of his life, but focused on bringing South African topics to the forefront. I’m a fan.
Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness by Susannah Cahalan - This is a crazy account of Cahalan’s month spent in the hospital with a disease/disorder no one could figure out, but one that ravaged her mind. This was an eye-opening reminder that when faced with a rare illness or in times of extreme distress, you need all hands on deck.
U.S. history you may not know
The Emerald Mile: The Epic Story of the Fastest Ride in History Through the Heart of the Grand Canyon by Kevin Fedarko - If you love nature, National Parks, and open land - you should read this book. An exciting tale of river rafting mavericks on the Colorado through the Grand Canyon interspersed with the history behind the damming of the river. Fascinating and exhilarating.
Shadow Divers: The True Adventure of Two Americans Who Risked Everything to Solve One of the Last Mysteries of World War II by Robert Kurson - I know absolutely nothing about scuba diving. Or submarines. But this story about divers on the east coast who discover an unknown submarine and make it their personal mission to find out its origins from World War II is incredible. I was amazed by the dedication of ordinary people who risked their lives to uncover this little corner of history.
Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI by David Grann - Native Americans rich from oil discovery on their land in Oklahoma find themselves targeted in a spree of murders? This was not in my high school history books. This could easily be a fiction mystery novel, but instead tells the true stories of people losing their families, their houses, and their sanity during years of unsolved murder cases.
Books about business (and more importantly) life
The Power of Moments: Why Certain Experiences Have Extraordinary Impact by Chip Heath and Dan Heath - I read this book twice - back-to-back. There are so many ideas for anyone who runs an organization, serves customers, has a family, or just interacts with people. This book had me thinking a lot about how experiences shape us and how we’re individually responsible for the experiences we create.
Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’e Wrong About the World — And Why Things Are Better Than You Think by Hans Rosling, Anna Rosling Ronnlund, Ola Rosling - This book challenged the way I think about almost everything. It’s full of charts, statistics, and facts, but in true Hans Rosling fashion the numbers feel like they actually mean something.
I’m embarking on a new reading project now and it’s one I’m really excited to share. Reflecting back on these past 50 books, I found that I really want to support women writers and read more from authors outside the United States. My new project is to read a book from every country in the world - but written by a woman. You can follow the progress on my book list page.