Top 10 books I read in 2018: mini-reviews
Well, it’s that time of year yet again. I can’t believe 2018 is already over, but welcome to the sixth annual mini-review-fest on this blog, where I write mini-reviews of the top 10 books I read this year. Das right, betches, we been at this since 2013 and also, every time I write one of these posts, it ages me seven years.
OKAY HERE WE GO.
I have something to admit to you.
At the end of 2017, I went through a major (and I mean major) Vikings phase. By which I mean the History Channel show, Vikings. I went through three seasons in, like, way less time than it should have taken me. But that show actually led me to this book, because I was looking for more viking stuff to consume… but with less hypermasculinity.
Enter Sky in the Deep. This is Adrienne Young’s debut from this year, and it’s SO great. It’s about a 17-year-old Norse girl named Eelyn who was raised to be a warrior but gets captured by an enemy clan in battle after her brother betrays her. Eelyn is given as a slave to a family in that clan and is in the middle of plotting her escape when she realizes that she might be falling for her brother’s handsome friend Fiske. Who happens to be a member of the family that now owns her. To make matters worse, Fiske and Eelyn discover that villages are being raided by a third clan that’s only supposed to exist in legend—and they’re wiping out everything in their path. Together, Fiske and Eelyn must unite their clans, or risk the destruction of their whole world.
I loved this book, and not just because it features a rogue-ish teenage girl who can kick The Most Ass™ (which is, granted, a large reason why). The writing is fast and action-packed, the romance is slow-burning, and the world-building totally scratched my Vikings itch. SUCH a fun read, and if I can one day debut with a book as solid as this one, I will sell my soul to the Norse gods.
This is the story of how I was not expecting to be as into this book as I was. I bought it during the 2017 Book Outlet end-of-year clearance sale, because I loved Patrick Ness’ book A Monster Calls (check my mini-review here, I’m obsessed with it) and have heard great things about The Knife of Never Letting Go. When this book came out three years ago, I remember thinking it sounded interesting. And then I never read it.
I SHOULD HAVE.
You guys, this book is hilarious and so, so weird. It’s about the kids (like in all those dystopian YA books and sci-fi/fantasy reads) who aren’t the ones who save the world or get the special powers or slay the vamps/zombies/etc.—basically, all the non-Chosen Ones. They’re usually the minor characters in superhero stories, but in this book, the narrative gets flipped and it’s just so clever. Admittedly, it took me a bit to get into the rhythm of the world because with characters making remarks like, “They better not blow up the high school again,” you’re like, wait. What? Oh. Right.
I love that Ness makes the normally background-only characters so interesting. The main character Mikey has really intense OCD and is in love with his sister’s best friend Henna, who is black and Scandinavian. His sister, Mel, is funny and sarcastic and has an eating disorder. His best friend Jared is a gay linebacker who is also part-god with power to attract and heal cats. I don’t know, okay. I’m not here to explain, I’m just here to recommend.
Last year we didn’t have a Victoria Schwab book on the Top 10 List, so of course this year, WE BACK.
Every Victoria Schwab fan I know was waiting on this book to come out this year. And OMG, it was so worth the wait.
City of Ghosts is technically Middle Grade, and it gives me major Neil Gaiman’s Graveyard Book-vibes (maybe this was done on purpose? Victoria Schwab loves her some Neil Gaiman). It’s a ghost story/fairytale set in Edinburgh, Scotland, and features a 12-year-old protagonist named Cassidy who can commune with the dead. Her family moves to Scotland because her parents are professional “ghosthunters” (in the reality-TV-show vein) and are filming a special there. So Cassidy explores the city and finds out that something really bad is going on in the Scottish ghost realm, and it’s all going to come down to a fight to save the living from the dead.
I’m 100% obsessed with this book. It’s both sweet and creepy, and honestly, if I had discovered this book when I was 13, I probably would have just spent all my time writing Scottish ghost fanfiction. I am so stoked for the TV show adaptation, which will inevitably also slay my feels. So thanks, Victoria, in advance.
Oh my god, this book. *deep breath*
I don’t think I’ve cried so much reading a book since, like, Patrick Ness’ A Monster Calls. YA HEARD ME, WE BRINGING THAT SHIT BACK. BRINGING IT RIGHT BACK.
Lisa Gungor is a guest on one of my most-listened-to podcasts, The Liturgists, and she is also the co-lead singer of the band Gungor—the same band that inadvertently caused a huge scandal in the Evangelical Christian community a few years ago, after making a statement that alluded to a belief in evolution and a non-literal interpretation of the Bible. Lisa and Michael Gungor, her husband, came under heavy fire from Evangelical churches and leaders around the world, especially after having composed songs for years that were widely played in the Contemporary Christian music industry. This book addresses a little bit of how all of that felt for Lisa, talking about the experience of losing one’s faith and finding it again but having it be different the second time around. But mainly, Lisa uses this book to talk about her experience of giving birth to and raising a daughter with Down’s Syndrome.
And it—all of it—is so powerful. Lisa’s writing style is so fluid and poetic, like her songwriting. Her voice feels kind and generous, which I can only assume is because Lisa is kind and generous. It’s a really, really hard story (to read and, I’m sure, to tell). But it’s incredibly beautiful. Truly, I couldn’t have prepared myself to be so wholly bowled over by a book until I read this one.
Okay, let’s talk about Kiersten White, the newest queen of my heart and bookshelf. I read a lot of Kiersten White this year, because… well, in all honesty, it’s because I fully fell in love with her when I heard her speak at YALLWEST in May.
This is one of her most recent releases (the woman releases books at a speed that makes me concerned that she might be an actual crazy person??), and I started reading it in October around Halloween. Which, let me tell you, was the perfect time to read this. It also happened to be the 200th anniversary year of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. You guys should know by now that I have a massive ladyboner for Mary Shelley.
This book is the smartest retelling of Frankenstein I have ever read—and even though I’m hardly an authority on Mary Shelley, I think White gets Shelley’s work in a way I don’t think most retellings do. The existentialism, the relationship between creator and creation, all of it. Because… *inhales* Hollywoodalwaysgetssohunguponthecreationcomingaliveandbeinga”monster”andtotallymissesthewholewhatdoesitmeantobehumanandhavevaluequestionthattheoriginaltextposesImeanit’slikeCOMEONjustbecauseyoucastJamesMcAvoydoesn’tmakeyouanintellectual. /rant
Anyway, this is a retelling of Frankenstein from Elizabeth’s point of view! Which, like, I can’t. I am deceased. The narration and tone is very fitting, and sort of pays tribute to the source material, and even though Elizabeth is barely even a minor character in Mary Shelley’s book, White fleshes her out in a way I don’t even think Shelley would have known how to do (apologies to Mary). It starts a little slow, but seriously, push through. It’s worth it. The ending is PERFECT.
I am always thrilled and afraid to read Anne Lamott’s new books because they always manage to rip my heart out at exactly the point in my life when it hurts the most. But they do it in a way that also feels like a warm hug? So that’s fun.
I think Lamott started writing Notes on Hope right around or after the 2016 election, as sort of a way to convince herself not to despair. And it’s truly a testament to her brilliant writing that at the end of the book I was able to think, wow, maybe I shouldn’t despair either. Her books and essays are always written in this stream-of-consciousness style that makes me feel like we’re in the middle of a conversation, like we’ve known each other for years, and Almost Everything was no different.
I read this book in its entirety on my birthday this year—a day that I spent on the couch with a cup of tea and a fuzzy blanket—and it was the perfect way to start the year. The title of the book says everything you need to know about it; it’s almost everything Anne Lamott knows about life and hope and love. And her anecdotes on people taking care of each other and witnessing the resurrecting spirit of a vast God-person that, in her eyes, is love and is joy and is in everything, was a much-needed reminder of the gratitude I hope to remember to have when I wake up every day.
Here it is. Perhaps the most-talked-about YA fantasy novel to be published this year, a book that’s currently (as I write this) enjoying its 40th week on the New York Times Best Sellers list. I hadn’t heard of it until I saw Tomi Adeyemi being interviewed as one of the keynote speakers at YALLWEST this year, but the second I left that session I went to buy her book.
Children of Blood and Bone is book one in a projected trilogy, in which a country called Orïsha has been stripped of its magic. The maji—people who could control the elements and heal others and even summon the souls of the dead—have all been killed, including the main character Zélie’s mother. The people of Orïsha live under an oppressive monarchy, with a crown prince who is desperate to prove himself worthy of the crown. When his sister Princess Amari defects and befriends Zélie, together they seize their one chance to bring magic back to their people—but they’ll have to go through Prince Inan first.
This. Book. Was. Bomb.
How do I even…? It’s like, Zélie and Amari are badasses, Inan is swoony and complex, political intrigue abounds, and the world feels fresh (especially in the current YA fantasy market) and fascinating—plus it’s based on Nigerian mythos and culture (Adeyemi is Nigerian-American). Honestly, just the fact that there’s a person of color on the cover of a fantasy novel makes me want to weep with joy. And then EVERYTHING ELSE about it is amazing too. WTFWTFWTF, you know??
Other cool things include that Adeyemi brings a distinctly Nigerian flair to a plot structure that’s used so much in Western literature (i.e. The Hero’s Journey); because of the way Adeyemi tells the story, it becomes not just about the individual heroine and her “odyssey,” but the whole society, and wider themes of oppression, liberation, spirituality, and community. And if the story itself wasn’t clear enough, the author’s note at the end makes certain that you can’t miss the very deliberate Black Lives Matter metaphor in the book (check out this awesome interview to learn more about Adeyemi’s choice to amplify Black voices). To me, it feels like Adeyemi took elements of both her cultural backgrounds and wove them together to make something new. It’s so great and I’m obsessed with it.
Ugh, these reviews are getting harder and harder to write as I go on. I just looked at the cover of this book and thought, How the eff am I going to do this one justice??? I’m just going to have to come to terms with the fact that I probably won’t. So sorry, Nicole, but in my defense, you wrecked my heart first.
Ever since Nicole Chung announced on Twitter that she signed a book contract, I have been waiting with bated breath for All You Can Ever Know. Nicole’s writing has resonated with me ever since she was an editor for The Toast, a now-defunct feminist humor website full of sometimes-heartfelt and sometimes-comedic essays and listicles. This is a side note (but IT’S MY BLOG SO BYE) but I absolutely loved that website; it felt like a weird, bright home for me on a very dark and cynical Internet. Anyway, Nicole published some essays of her own on The Toast that were legit the first pieces of writing I read that actually gave me words for the feeling of being Asian around a lot of mostly well-meaning but oblivious white people—which in turn led me to finding words for the feeling of being seen as white by mostly well-meaning Asian people. While I’m talking about it, I highly recommend this and this (both written by Nicole).
Then, this book. This book is Nicole’s memoir, written about her experience of being a Korean-American adoptee and searching for her birth parents as an adult. And it. Broke. Me. I was sobbing by page 20. Not only is Nicole just a beautiful writer, her story is poignant and painful and funny and sad and beautiful all at the same time. She holds nothing back, and I cannot say enough good things about it. It’s moving. It will win all the awards. It’s everything. I’ll share my tissues.
Of course, this will not be news to those of you who have been on the Jason Reynolds train for years, but this is the first of his books I’ve read, and holy shit. I might be dead? I might be writing this from the afterlife?
All-American Boys is a novel told from duel points of view—the first is Rashad, a black boy who gets beaten up by a police officer after dropping a bag of chips in the aisle of a store. The second is Quinn, a white boy whose best friend’s brother is the officer who put Rashad in the hospital. Rashad and Quinn go to the same school, and after the incident, their friend groups are divided on what exactly happened and word quickly spreads until it becomes first a hashtag and then a nationwide debate. The two boys have to figure out where they stand, and their alternating narrations give insight into two very different experiences of being American.
First off, Jason Reynolds is Black Shakespeare. His narrative voice (he writes Rashad’s chapters, and co-author Brendan Kiely writes Quinn’s) is pure poetry. From the first sentence, I felt transported into Rashad’s shoes—first in the store and then in his hospital bed. Reynolds is such a thoughtful, compelling, and musical writer, and Rashad’s story is really a coming-of-age tale of what it is to be black in America. Kiely’s chapters I think really complemented Reynolds’s well, with Quinn’s voice striking a really interesting tone of being both deeply empathetic and also afraid of what his community will think of him. I don’t know how anybody can co-write a book (I am too controlling for this), but the fact that these two did it and did it so incredibly well is astounding.
Idk man, this book just totally floored me. Everyone should read it.
HAVE YOU EVER READ A 500-PAGE HISFIC IN ONE DAY BC I HAVE THX TO KIERSTEN F*CKING WHITE.
My friend and fellow Figment-alum Kristin Yuki bonded over these books on Twitter? Or Goodreads? I forget (Kristin, help me out). But then when we met up at Comic Con this summer, she demanded that I not tell her anything about third book, which I had just started at that point, and it was all I could do to not spoil it for her because I wanted to talk about it so badly. And now I can! But, like, in a spoiler-free way, of course.
And I Darken and the following books are essentially the origin story of Vlad the Impaler—but with a twist. In this version, Vlad is a princess named Lada. I DIE.
Lada and her brother Radu are traded by their father to the enemy Ottoman court, and Lada grows into a ruthless, smart, boss-ass, brutal warrior-bitch-kween (come THROUGH with that unlikable-likable female character), whose singular goal in life is to return to her homeland to claim her throne. Radu, on the other hand, is gentle and kind and lovable and also deeply religious, which becomes important when he realizes that he’s falling in love with the heir to the Ottoman throne—the lonely prince Mehmed. The problem (one of many) is that Mehmed is falling in love with Lada, who sees Mehmed purely as a way to secure her way back home to her people. The three royal friends grow up together, never knowing who to trust or each other’s true intentions until the bitter end.
These books are so goddamn incredible. I think they rival the Outlander series for romance/historical fiction and Game of Thrones series for intrigue. Because, hello. IT’S VLAD THE IMPALER AS A GIRL. I will never get over that. Plus, the character of Radu the Handsome (the actual nickname for the real-life historical figure) is perfect and will have you obsessing over his sweet little closeted self into the wee hours of the night as you read these books for 20+ hours straight.
The last book in the series Now I Rise was published this year, and it was so good that I think I blacked out a little. I just might have to re-read the whole series again…