Best Books of 2018

It’s the time of year that book bloggers simultaneously love and hate – when we eagerly prepare lists of both our favourite and least favourite reads of the year, and agonize over what to include and where to rank each book. 2018 was a tumultuous year for me personally and it meant that I didn’t read as much as I hoped to, falling short of my goodreads challenge goal of 60 books with a total of 57. Although I read a lot of really strong 4 star books this year, I didn’t read many books that absolutely wowed me and only a few would make my all-time favourites list. My goal for 2019 is definitely to read more books I suspect I’m going to love instead of picking up what’s new and shiny on the shelf.

Honourable mentions: Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman, The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, The Lightkeepers by Abby Geni, Radio Silence by Alice Oseman, Sadie by Courtney Summers, and Yevgeny Onegin by Alexander Pushkin (translated by Anthony Briggs).

For the second year in a row I’ve had trouble deciding on a tenth book to fill my list. This could easily have been the haunting YA mystery Sadie by Courtney Summers, witty novel-in-verse Russian classic Yevgeny Onegin by Alexander Pushkin (translated by Anthony Briggs), or atmospheric ode to the beauty and power of nature The Lightkeepers by Abby Geni, all of which I loved, but I’ve opted to go with:

2281736810. Bright We Burn by Kiersten White

Is there anything more difficult than bringing a series to a satisfying conclusion that wraps up loose ends and feels earned? I’m not a writer but I’m guessing the answer is no, which is why I’m so impressed when an author does so well. The conclusion to White’s Conqueror’s Saga, a YA historical fiction trilogy that gender swaps the female Lada for the historical Vlad the Impaler was just about perfect. At the centre of these books have always been siblings Lada and Radu, and Bright We Burn satisfied both by giving each Dracul sibling a conclusion to their individual story arcs – as Lada becomes more brutal in her desire to maintain Wallachia’s freedom, whatever the cost, and Radu makes peace with himself – and by bringing them together as siblings once more. Saying goodbye to the characters I cared so much about was definitely bittersweet, but I know this is a series that I will re-read in the future and I loved that the series ended the way that it did. Full review here.

“Lada had always known exactly what shape she would take. She had never let it be determined by the people around her. But Radu could not escape the need for love, the need for people in his life to help him see what he should—and could—be. Lada shaped herself in spite of her environment. Radu shaped himself because of it.”

326203329. The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo was the right book at (sort-of) the wrong time. I brought it with me on my vacation to the UK and I think my reading experience suffered for it, but it’s still a bright spot in my 2018 reading year. Reclusive film star Evelyn Hugo decides to tell-all about her life, loves, and rise to stardom in this Golden Age of Hollywood inspired novel that’s not nearly as heterosexual as the title may lead the few people as yet unaware of this book to believe. I loved the juxtaposition of the raw, real characters and relationships Evelyn reveals and the surface-deep glamour of Hollywood in the mid-twentieth century. Yet the main draw of The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo is Evelyn herself. A complex anti-heroine who’s unapologetically ambitious, I loved her desire to get ahead at all costs and the quieter moments with her friends and found family (an equally engaging set of supporting characters). Full review here.

“People think that intimacy is about sex. But intimacy is about truth. When you realize you can tell someone your truth, when you can show yourself to them, when you stand in front of them bare and their response is ‘you’re safe with me’- that’s intimacy.”

386335268. Vita Nostra by Marina Dyachenko and Sergey Dyachenko (translated by Julia Meitov Hersey)

Vita Nostra is hands down one of the strangest things I’ve ever read. Since the publication of Harry Potter, schools for magic have been a prolific trope in fantasy fiction, but Marina and Sergey Dyachenko have transformed this genre cliché into an unnerving and philosophical coming-of-age tale. Defying categorization, Vita Nostra combines metaphysics and a thoughtful meditation on transformation, with dark fantastical elements and psychological suspense to construct a story that is difficult to comprehend, but completely hypnotic. I’m honestly a little in awe of how cleverly the authors have managed to construct a reading experience that mirrors the stages of teenage protagonist Sasha Samokhina’s education. From following along blindly as Sasha tries to adjust to a world of oddities and chilling manipulations, I quickly found myself unable to put Vita Nostra down, even when my head threatened to explode from the pressure of trying to make sense of it all. Although I understood only a fraction of what I read, I loved Vita Nostra anyway. It’s the kind of book that stays with you, and I suspect it will also reward re-readers looking to glean additional insights from its pages.

“There are concepts that cannot be imagined but can be named. Having received a name, they change, flow into a different entity, and cease to correspond to the name, and then they can be given another, different name, and this process—the spellbinding process of creation—is infinite: this is the word that names it, and this is the word that signifies. A concept as an organism, and text as the universe.”

195478567. Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli

It’s been a difficult year both personally and for the world at large. I’m usually all for getting my heart broken by books (see later entries on this list for more on that) but this year even I needed something that wasn’t so relentlessly melancholy. Enter Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda. Adapted into the equally charming movie Love, Simon earlier this year, Becky Albertalli’s contemporary YA novel left me with a warm and fuzzy feeling when I read it in a single night this Spring. Simon Spier is an incredibly likable protagonist as he navigates a nightmarish situation with humour. When his anonymous emails to another closeted high school student – known only as “Blue” – are found on a shared computer, he risks not only being outed to the entire school, but also losing his burgeoning relationship with “Blue” unless he helps the blackmailer. I saw the movie first so I knew the identity of “Blue” going in, but this didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the book. Albertalli doesn’t shy away from depicting the reality of life as a gay high school student in the South, but her book serves as such a beacon of light and positivity as it gives a teenage gay couple a happy ending and portrays Simon as having a supportive family and circle of friends. Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda is the rare YA contemporary novel that I not only loved reading, but that I’m sure I’ll re-read in the future. In dark times it’s the perfect bookish equivalent of comfort food.

“The way I feel about him is like a heartbeat — soft and persistent, underlying everything.”

Foundryside RD4 clean flat6. Foundryside by Robert Jackson Bennett

The Divine Cities trilogy is one of my favourite things ever so I was, understandably, both anxious and excited when I heard that the author was writing a new fantasy series. With Foundryside, Robert Jackson Bennett has secured his place as an author whose books I will automatically buy/place on hold at my local library. Refreshingly set not in another pseudo-medieval world, but in an industrial city inspired by the Italian City States, Foundryside is an inventive, fast-paced book about a street smart thief who gets in over her head when she unknowingly steals an immensely powerful object. There is a lot to like here, but I could write a thesis, or at least an emphatic, multi-paragraph rant, on how much I love the magic system in this book. Basically the consciousness of objects in the world can be manipulated when they’re inscribed (referred to in-world as ‘scriving’) with a set of magical symbols and codes. Operating like the rules of a computer programming language in our world, scriving tricks objects into believing that they are supposed to behave differently. The result is a fantasy novel uniquely placed to comment on the ethics of technology, intellectual property, and anti-competitive practices that create barriers to information for the less privileged members of society.

“The worst thing about this place isn’t that it treats people like chattel. The worst part, just the worst part is that it tricks you… It makes you think you’re a thing. It makes you resign yourself to becoming a crude good. It makes things out of people so thoroughly, they don’t even know that they’ve become things. Even after you’re free, you don’t even know how to be free! It changes your reality, and you don’t know how to change it back!”

350687055. The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang

My expectations were sky-high going into The Poppy War, but this stunning, and unexpectedly brutal, debut still managed to blow me away. Fusing Chinese history with fantastical elements, Kuang delivered a dark, but incredibly compelling, novel that I had trouble putting down! I adored Rin, the ruthless antiheroine at its core, and how self-assured, driven, and pragmatic she is. She gets ahead not due to dumb luck or because she is chosen, but because she sets out to achieve her goals regardless of the cost. Although I had some minor issues with the under-developed secondary characters during the second half of the book and I wished there were more female characters throughout, this was a book I couldn’t stop reading and I eagerly await the second book in this series! Full review here.

“Well, fuck the heavenly order of things. If getting married to a gross old man was her preordained role on this earth, then Rin was determined to rewrite it.”

47228404. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

You know those books that sit on your TBR for months or even years? The ones you’re certain you’ll enjoy if you can just get around to reading them? That was Jane Eyre. Somehow I never encountered Jane Eyre during high school or my four year English degree, but after sitting on my to-read list for more than a decade, I finally tackled Jane Eyre and all I can say is what took me so long?! I was swept away by the gothic atmosphere of the book, compelled by the arrogance and charisma of the enigmatic Mr. Rochester, and, most importantly, I adored Jane. My gripe with some classics still taught in classrooms today is that some books that were ground-breaking or important for the period in which they were written don’t always stand the test of time and resonate with modern readers. Happily Jane Eyre resonates. At times its early feminism meant that I forgot that it had been written 200 years ago! I loved reading the story of this fiercely independent heroine who overcomes childhood abuse and tragedy to obtain freedom and love on her own terms and this is undoubtedly one of my favourite classics of all-time.

“I am no bird; and no net ensnares me: I am a free human being with an independent will.”

314511863. Borne by Jeff VanderMeer

Like Vita Nostra, I loved Borne because it’s one of the most unique books I’ve ever read. A post-apocalyptic book where the antagonist is a giant, insane flying grizzly bear and the main character is a constantly growing and changing sentient being initially mistaken for a plant? It shouldn’t work. But not only does Borne work, it’s intensely believable, offering thoughtful commentary on what it means to be a person and a melancholy, but ultimately hopeful, exploration of humanity, the environment, and non-human intelligence. VanderMeer’s prose is by turns lyrical and eerie, and his world building and writing style are so visual and sensory that surely a film can’t be too far off. I loved the relationships between the few major characters, as well as the process of watching Borne grow and change and explore questions about himself. Full review here.

…a hybrid of sea anemone and squid: a sleek vase with rippling colors that strayed from purple toward deep blues and greens. Four vertical ridges slid up the sides of its warm and pulsating skin. The texture was as smooth as waterworn stone, if a bit rubbery. It smelled of beach reeds on lazy summer afternoons and, beneath the sea salt, of passionflowers. Much later, I realized it would have smelled different to someone else, might even have appeared in a different form.

350188902. Amberlough by Lara Elena Donnelly

Amberlough has the distinction of being the book I’ve thought about the most since I finished reading it this summer. I picked up the sequel, Armistice, as soon as was humanly possible and polished that off too. I had borrowed both books from the library to read but bought copies from my local science-fiction and fantasy independent bookstore a few months later (and only partially because the paperback editions have some of the most gorgeous covers I’ve ever seen). I had to physically stop myself from re-reading Amberlough. I made embarrassing noises when I saw the release date and summary for the last book in the trilogy, Amnesty, appear on goodreads (don’t read the summary if you haven’t read books 1 and 2 though – spoilers ahoy!). Amberlough has its hooks into me and it’s not letting go! While it’s definitely a book that I want to thrust at everyone and tell them to read, I’m also keenly aware that it may not wow everyone like it did me, simply because Amberlough ticks so many boxes on my ‘things I want in a book’ list. Expertly built tension? Check. Politicking? Check. Queer and diverse? Check. Characters who are complicated, morally grey, and deeply flawed? Check, Check, Check. I loved all three of the alternating POV characters; spirited stripper Cordelia, cabaret performer and head of a smuggling empire, Aristide, and intelligence operative Cyril, who has been left physically and mentally scarred from a mission gone awry. Set in a world inspired by Weimar Berlin, but considerably more accepting and diverse, at least when the novel begins, Amberlough deals with the rise of fascism, which makes for a poignant and, unfortunately, incredibly relevant read in today’s political climate. Rarely have I been so tense about a book, or feared more for the wellbeing of its characters.

“Among the brooks and gorse and muddy stone, he let the façade fall. His own weakness broke his heart, and frightened him.”

366765361. Tin Man by Sarah Winman

Last year I was trading places between my #1 and #2 picks (The Heart’s Invisible Furies and Pachinko, respectively) right up until I hit publish, but this year there was very little competition. Sarah Winman’s poignant exploration of love, loss, grief, and absence, told through deceptively simple, yet evocative prose is undoubtedly the best book I read all year. Very few books emotionally compromised me this year, but Tin Man was certainly one of them. In under 200 pages this quiet, patient book left me teary-eyed and with a physical ache in my chest. It’s difficult to imagine a reader who wouldn’t be won over by this book’s charms. Full review here.

“I’m broken by my need for others. By the erotic dance of memory that pounces when loneliness falls.”

I’d love to know your thoughts! Have you read any of these books, or are you planning to? What were your favourite books of 2018? Please comment and let me know!


 

 

 

 

 

 

Monthly Wrap-up/update: October & November

As Lin Manuel Miranda would say, I’ve had a bit of a month. My November has involved a job interview, the death of a family member, the end of a temporary contract job I really loved (with my future prospects still uncertain), a couple of theatre shows that just weren’t for me, a ballet performance that really was, trying to get a jump on my Christmas shopping and decorating, dealing with an early start to my Seasonal Affective Disorder brought on by a record-setting lack of sun in Toronto, and, finally, obtaining a permanent part-time position as a public librarian. Let’s just say it hasn’t left a lot of time for reading or blogging!

December is still looking pretty packed, but I’m planning to be a little less scarce around these parts and hopefully I’ll be back to blogging, reading, and commenting more frequently soon!

October was mostly consumed with my foolhardy quest to read Anna Karenina before seeing the National Ballet of Canada’s modern adaptation in mid-November. I didn’t quite make it (I still had 200 pages to go when I attended the ballet), and I didn’t always enjoy it, but I’m glad that I can now say that I have read this classic of Russian literature. I found another Russian classic, Alexander Pushkin’s novel-in-verse Yevgeny Onegin, far more enjoyable. To balance out the denser classics and the impending gloom of a Canadian winter, my other reads this fall were both shorter and faster-paced.

Vengeful by V.E. Schwab  small 4 stars
An Ocean of Minutes by Thea Lim  small-3-stars + Review
The Last Days of Judas Iscariot by Stephen Adly Guirgis
Sadie by Courtney Summers  small 4 half stars
Yevgeny Onegin by Alexander Pushkin (translated by Anthony Briggs)  small 4 half stars
Gmorning, Gnight!: Little Pep Talks for Me & You by Lin Manuel Miranda (illustrated by Jonny Sun)  small 4 stars
Runaways, Vol. 2: Best Friends Forever by Rainbow Rowell (illustrated by Kris Anka)  small 4 stars
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy (translated by Richard Pevear & Larissa Volokhonsky)  small-3-stars

Book(s) of the Month: After seeing and loving both a ballet and a musical adaptation of Alexander Pushkin’s novel in verse, I finally got around to reading Yevgeny Onegin. I loved it. This is the first translated classic since Les Miserables where I thought, you know what? I would love to read another translation and compare! Less romantic and more witty than its ballet and opera adaptations, Yevgeny Onegin is a compelling classic and Tatyana, is the shy, bookish, dreaming heroine we deserve! I also adored Sadie by Courtney Summers. It’s one of those books where I found myself thinking about it long after I had put it down, and I found Sadie herself such an intriguing protagonist.

Least Favourite: There was nothing I read this fall that I disliked, but there were a couple of books that were just… fine. Unfortunately, they’re both books that have been, to a certain degree, hyped and so I expected more out of them.  I liked the premise (and the striking cover) of Thea Lim’s Giller-nominated An Ocean of Minutes, but the characters and the love story at its core fell flat. Anna Karenina has been called the greatest work of literature ever written. It wasn’t even the best thing I read this month. Unlike War & Peace, which was a slog, I did actually find parts of Anna Karenina engaging, but I don’t think characters are Tolstoy’s strong suit. I found Anna Karenina too long, disjointed (the Levin/Kitty story and Anna/Karenin/Vronsky story didn’t connect or weren’t contrasted effectively enough for my tastes), and I was never very interested in Levin’s philosophical musings or Tolstoy’s thoughts on Russian farming techniques in the nineteenth century. Sorry Tolstoy, I just don’t think your works are for me.

***

Seen on Stage: Fall marks the beginning of the traditionally packed Toronto theatre season. Over the last two months I’ve watched 2 ballets, an opera, a concert performed by musical theatre artists, a musical, and 4 plays!

Highlights: 
The Dream, Frederick Ashton’s ballet adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Featuring the most perfect opening night casting I could imagine (including my ballet dancer fave Skylar Campbell as mischievous Puck, and a regal Harrison James and Jillian Vanstone as Oberon and Titania), I enjoyed this double bill with Guillaume Cote’s Being and Nothingness immensely.

The Wolves
is undoubtedly one of the best things I’ve seen on stage all year. The cast was comprised entirely of women and non-binary individuals, all of whom were wonderful, the dialogue really captured the way that teenage girls talk to one another as they effortlessly move from serious topics to casual observations and gossip and back again, and the pacing was pretty much perfect.

Hart House Theatre’s Heathers was a tremendous amount of fun with catchy tunes (I went home and downloaded the cast recording), and the joy that comes from an engaged, mostly student, audience. Not coming from a religious background or that community, I undoubtedly missed references in Judas Noir, an all-black adaptation of The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, but it was just so much fun that this didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the play at all! Some tremendous performances in there as well.

Middletown (play) at Crow’s Theatre, a remount of a Shaw Festival production
The Dream & Being and Nothingness by The National Ballet of Canada
Anna Karenina (choreographed by John Neumeier) by the National Ballet of Canada
Uncovered: Joni Mitchell & Carole King by Musical Stage Company
Eugene Onegin by the Canadian Opera Company
Dancing at Lughnasa by the Toronto Irish Players – Review for My Entertainment World
The Wolves by The Howland Company/Crow’s Theatre
Judas Noir by Obsidian Theatre/BDB Productions – Review for My Entertainment World
Heathers by Hart House Theatre

***

Coming up in December: It’s that time of year again! I’m starting to think about my Favourite reads and theatre performances of the year and will try to have lists up in a timely fashion, but I’m also really hoping to read a few more things that will make my Top Ten Books Read In 2018 because so far the list is looking a little weak…

Honestly I don’t have a set reading list for December and I’m in a pretty big reading slump at the moment, so I’m just hoping to pick up something that engages me. I have a few possibilities checked out from the library and I’ll keep you posted! I make no promises because I’m notoriously bad at promising to write a review later and never doing it, but hopefully I’ll be posting some thoughts on a few of the books and/or things I’ve seen on stage in October and November on here too.

Since I am now a newly minted Children’s Librarian and want to be able to provide effective reader’s advisory services, it means that I’ll be reading more middle grade and picture books. I’m thinking about adding a Middle Grade Monday feature once or twice a month where I’ll compile short reviews of middle grade and other younger reader things I’ve been reading, both for my benefit and for any parents, teachers, or fellow librarians out there who are curious.

Happy Reading!