Well, 2018 was an excellent year for me for reading! Last year I didn't quite make my Goodreads Challenge goal, but this year I exceeded it. I set a goal to read one book a week but at the end managed 66 books! I was especially surprised I pulled that off because I had intended to switch to audiobooks for almost the first whole half of the year because I was training to do the Camino de Santiago. (My blog post about audiobooks here.)
In the summer, I summarized the books I’d read so far (this post). Here’s my year-end update:
I read nine books that I highly recommend in the second half of the year. As you’ll see, my fascination with unlikeable-but-interesting characters continued.
Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn
I was on the lookout for unsympathetic but mesmerizing female characters and I found it with more Flynn. Sharp Objects started out in a way I’ve seen before for a female-led psychological thriller (big-city journalist goes home to small town and stays with estranged family) but the way that it unfolds gripped me. Flynn likes to take her characters dark and I am happy to read it. This was also made into an HBO series this year. I haven't finished the show yet, but it seems to be a faithful adaptation of the book, in case you feel like checking that out as well.
The Darkest Secret by Alex Marwood
Shoutout to my critique partner Jeremy for recommending this and lending me his copy. This was a dark past-present narrative about a toddler who went missing in England and what happened to all the people who were at the house party the night she disappeared. It has a lot of twists, in both past and present, that I enjoyed. I must say that both Jeremy and I did actually want it to be even darker than it was (!)—but that probably says more about us than about the book.
The Confidence Game: Why We Fall For It…Every Time by Maria Konnikova
I picked up this nonfiction book while researching a project, and then just really enjoyed the read. Recommended if you're interested in how grifters persuade other people and in some of the great tricks to getting someone to do what you want—and of avoiding getting conned yourself. It includes some interesting contemporary and historical case studies.
Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty
I'm late to the party by a couple years on this one, but Big Little Lies was fantastic and I’m looking forward to reading more by this author. I watched the series first and then decided to pick up the book. Since I’d already seen the show, I expected to fall back out of the book after trying it and I was going to give myself a free do-not-finish pass. But I ended up enjoying the differences between the book and the TV show. The show (also highly recommended) is set in California, but the book is set in Australia and I enjoyed some of the turns of phrase and the characterizations from the novel. I’m now reading one of Moriarty’s earlier works, The Hypnotist’s Love Story.
Into the Water by Paula Hawkins and The Wych Elm by Tana French
I wrote about both of these in my October blog post about spooky books.
The Nightwatchman by Richard Zimler
This book was given to me by my friend Tamah when she was clearing out some unwanted belongings. I think she picked it up on a trip to Portugal, which is where the book is set and where the author currently lives. It was amazing! It’s a police procedural about a detective who is half Portuguese and half American who is investigating the seemingly politically motivated death of an influential building contractor. At the same time, the detective is wrestling with his own terrible childhood and the impact that had on his younger brother and the echoes of his past on his marriage and two young children. From that synopsis, I know it sounds like a by-the-numbers kind of cop book, but it wasn't. I will be looking for more by this author in the future.
The Hungry Tide by Amitav Ghosh
I do look at reviews, but sometimes I like to pick up a book that I know exactly nothing about and start it with zero expectations. I’d heard of this author but didn’t anticipate how much I’d like this slow yet tense journey of an arrogant translator, an earnest marine biologist and an illiterate boatman through the typhoon- and tiger-plagued river deltas in India in search of dolphins. It stayed with me long after I finally closed book.
The Woman in Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware
This was a surprise book for me this year—I didn’t think I’d get to read it. I know a lot of my friends reviewed it several years ago when it first came out, but I had never been able to get a copy of it at the necessary price point. But this summer while visiting family in the States I signed up for a library card and now can borrow ebooks! The story is: an anxiety-ridden alcoholic travel journalist takes a luxury cruise to the Norwegian fjords for work and thinks she hears a body being thrown overboard from the next-door cabin. This is a psychological thriller in the same vein as Hawkins’ Into the Water or The Girl on the Train. If you liked one of those, you will probably like this.
These are the books that I enjoyed but, in most cases, they didn't stay with me as long as the ones in the highly recommended category.
Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman
Thanks to my friend Caroline for recommending this and lending me her copy (I need to get that back to her still—oops!). Set in Scotland, this is about a woman who has a very small life—home, work, vodka—but seems satisfied with it. One day, she decides to make some self-improvements and ends up changing even more than she planned. It’s a quirky book but has a lot of heart.
11/22/63 by Stephen King
My second Stephen King book this year was one I've meant to read since it came out a few years ago. I'm not always in the mood for Stephen King, but when I am I devour it. This is a time travel story about a guy who tries to stop the assassination of US President JF Kennedy. It does an outstanding job of exploring some of the ripple effects in time and the characters, as always, are so real. This was a slower book than some of King’s others but in retrospect I liked it more than The Outsider which I read earlier in the year. There is also a show about this book, but I haven’t seen it. Any good?
The Freedom Broker by KJ Howe
I’ve met the author in person—she runs ThrillerFest—and I was excited when one of my online writers’ groups selected her book to discuss this summer. I was unfortunately never able to make it to any of the discussions, but I'm glad I managed to read it even without the discussion. It follows a rich, beautiful heiress—who’s also one of the world’s best operatives at getting captives released from their kidnappers. She’s a kick-ass heroine and the book is a very high-octane international romp. It would be a great action movie.
The Gift of Fear: Survival Signals that Protect Us from Violence by Gavin de Becker
Another nonfiction book. This book was recommended to me many times over the years, especially by writers when talking about how to make a good villain or how to elicit the idea of scary situations and tension and scary characters. But I kept forgetting to buy it. Then I was at a thrift store in the States this summer and found it for two bucks! The book explains how people can often use their intuition to avoid perilous situations. It gives a lot of fascinating real-life examples.
Motive by Jonathan Kellerman
I just love this author. It's another of his Alex Delaware series and is on par with the other ones. One thing I like about these books is that you can pick them up out of order and they're still good. Like episodes in a long-running TV show, I sometimes find it hard to remember which book was which afterward, but I always love the story while I’m reading it. In this one, psychologist Delaware tries to help his cop friend Milo find a murderer who leaves an elaborately set dinner at each crime scene. I'm currently listening to Night Moves, Kellerman’s latest.
Prior Bad Acts and Ashes to Ashes by Tami Hoag
I enjoyed Hoag’s plots, but these books ran together in my head after the fact which is why I put them in the recommended instead of highly recommended category. These are both police procedurals with a lot of heart and characterization. Hoag’s style reads a bit slower than Kellerman’s, but sometimes I’m in the mood for that.
The Masquerading Magician by Gigi Pandian
Gigi is an online friend – we are both Sisters in Crime members – and I had loved her Jaya Jones adventure series, but I hadn't gotten to this urban fantasy crime fiction series yet. This is the second in the series and I kind of wish I didn’t start it out of order. It's about a centuries-old alchemist who is now living in Portland, Oregon trying to save her gargoyle friend from turning entirely to stone. It's fun and witty and whimsical—and I just heard the series is maybe going to become a TV show!
An Untamed State by Roxane Gay
This is a devastating book that’s not easy to read (I listened to it which made it even heavier because it was a longer experience). It's about a Haitian-American woman who goes to visit family in Haiti and gets kidnapped. It goes deep into what happens to her and also into her past, which helps her hang on during her ordeal. The story stayed with me for a long time but I didn’t put it in “highly recommended” because it’s so emotionally difficult to read I don’t think everyone is going to enjoy it. I would also like to note it’s another excellent example of an unlikeable but fascinating and sympathetic character. Another one for my run!
Adrift by Micki Browning
This is from another Sisters in Crime member! I’m trying to collect more by these authors. Adrift is Micki’s first novel. It follows a marine biologist who is working in a dive shop in Florida and comes across some shady people who want to investigate a “haunted” wreck that is also a popular dive site. A committed scientist, the protagonist knows something else is going on when the chief investigator disappears on a night dive. I loved the scuba diving aspect, and the mystery plot was fun too.
Wool by Hugh Howey
My friend Dan recommended this to me several years ago, and I'd started to read it and then for some reason put it aside and then couldn’t find my copy of the book again. Luckily, this is another book I managed to get to thanks to the library card I got this in the States the summer. I burned right through it and thoroughly enjoyed the dystopian concept of humanity buried in a silo. There are several main characters, each of whom tries to figure out “what’s really going on” even though they are threatened with being put outside the silo’s air purification system and into the post-apocalyptic world the common people know nothing about. I also enjoyed the Romeo and Juliet allegory.
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
This story follows slave girl Cora as she escapes from the brutal life on a cotton plantation in a fictionalized version of the American South in the 1800s and seeks freedom farther north, using the underground railroad—shown here as an *actual* railroad—to move undetected. This book will stay with me for a long time – the subject matter almost guarantees it – but as I read it I wished that the writer got deeper into the thoughts of Cora and the other characters. I also wondered if, like the harrowing An Untamed State, a first-person narration wouldn’t have been appropriate. Anyway, those are small notes on a book that is otherwise good. You should read it.
The Missing by Caroline Eriksson
This was a kind of crazy book and I enjoyed it while I was reading it. It's a Scandinavian indie noir: A woman is on vacation at a lake with her husband and child. They take a boat out to an island and the husband and daughter disappear. The woman tries to find them but…did they really disappear? Who are they, anyway? Some of the scenes might stay with me—I'm not sure yet. It’s worth picking up if you like something dark and where you're not quite sure what you're reading. It's a good psychological thriller in that respect.
It was OK
Now here are the books that I liked but I had a hard time recalling after a few weeks. I enjoyed them when I read them, but now that I’ve shelved them, the magic faded.
The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life by Mark Manson
Another nonfiction book, lent to me by my friend Andrea. This was kind of a refresher on Buddhism lite. A good book with some good ideas but nothing I hadn’t read before.
The Crow Girl by Erik Axl Sund
This is actually five books in one, I guess? I started reading and couldn't put it down but now that it's over I don't actually know what it was about. Some Scandinavian noir—part police procedural, part serial killer horror—that gets super messed up. I recommend it if you're looking for a dark diversion.
The Girls by Emma Cline
This book became famous on my Twitter feed because the author’s boyfriend sued her. That's not why read it, but it’s why I remembered the title when I was looking for something to read on the library app. It’s a portrait of growing up in the 1970s and features a Manson-like cult that eventually murders someone. I enjoyed the setting, and the descriptions of that particular time and the intense friendships that form when you're an early teenager.
The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith
We’ve all seen the movie. The book is good too (despite having less Matt Damon). I may check out the others in the series but I wasn’t as transported as I had hoped to be.
The ABC Murders by Agatha Christie
I read this book and then realized that a TV adaptation had been made! I don't know if I'll watch the adaptation yet. The mystery was classic Agatha Christie, but I think I like her other work better. Poirot is always enjoyable, but the other characters weren’t as fun for me.
Didn't Really Love
I didn't dislike these books. I just didn't love them.
The Accident and The Travelers by Chris Pavone
I’m going to pick on Chris Pavone here. I love his plots; some of his concepts are fantastic. But he writes with so many lists! Every paragraph is full of lists! I don't need to know every thing in a room. Not every person who passes on the street and in the scene is important. In both of these books, the writing got in the way of the story for me. I will keep reading him. But I'm going to complain every time.
The Girl In the Ice by Robert Bryndza
This author lives in Slovakia and is well marketed here in the Czech Republic – advertisement posters for his books are even put up in the metro! So I have been curious about his books for years and I was glad I finally had a chance to check out this book. The concept is great, but I didn't really love the main character’s portrayal. The Slovak-British detective is a series character, though, and so I might pick a book later in the series to see if she develops a bit more.
The Last Time I Lied by Riley Sager
This author wrote one of the books I most enjoyed reading this year. That was not this book. There's nothing too wrong with the book, which is about an artist who goes back to teach at a summer camp her friends disappeared from years before. But the narrative just seemed to go on and on in a lot of places where I wanted quicker action. At times, I also didn’t believe the main character would make the decisions she did and the villain was both over-signposted and not believable enough.
I am Not a Serial Killer by Dan Wells
I picked up this book because I enjoy the podcast that the author contributes to, Writing Excuses. I like his take on writing craft and the perspectives that are explained in the podcast. On reflection, I think my problem with this book was not the story or writing but my expectations going in. I knew it was a YA book – that's fine, I sometimes like to read YA – but I didn't realize it was a paranormal book. I also would not have minded the paranormal hook, as I can enjoy that, but it seemed like the first half of this book was just a straight-up young Dexter serial-killer-dealing-with-his-urges and then all of a sudden there was a paranormal villain, which made my reader expectations take a nosedive because it seemed like the set-up for the paranormal hadn't been there since the beginning. It also felt like the paranormal monster and the serial killer’s “monster” self didn’t play off each other as well as I wanted it to. I might try another one by this author in a different series.
One Corpse Too Many by Ellis Peters
I was thrilled to pick up this book, which is set in medieval Britain and follows a monk detective. But I found ultimately that the book took a deep look into the politics of the time – which I know is going to appeal to some readers, but didn't to me. The actual mystery was overshadowed by both the political plotline and a romantic subplot.
I try to read some craft books each year about writing and storytelling. I don’t think I remembered to include them all in my Goodreads Challenge this year, but here are two I did!
The Story Grid: What Good Editors Know by Shawn Coyne
This was recommended to me by an online writing group friend, Kate, and then also by my critique partner Jeremy. This demonstrates a very analytical way of looking at how to edit your novel. And I'm excited to use some of these practices when I finally finish my next manuscript! It’s also helped me analyze books as I read them.
Story Genius: How to Use Brain Science to Go Beyond Outlining and Write a Riveting Novel (Before You Waste Three Years Writing 327 Pages That Go Nowhere) by Lisa Cron
This was one of my favorite books from this year, along with Lisa Cron’s other book, Wired for Story. You should also check out some of her talks that are available on YouTube if you’re interested in how we create stories and how to engineer the elements of a good story. Here’s one of her hosted by the Creative Penn podcast.
So there they are, my books of 2018! I have set 52 books as my goal for this year too (and am already two books in!). Let’s see how it goes!
What’s on your shelf? Happy reading!
News from Beth
Updates and musings.