4 to 5 Star Books From 2018

I’ve been keeping a not-super-organized Google doc list of books I’ve read, year by year. I include a star rating and a few lines to remind me of the story and what I particularly liked or disliked about it. Right now I’m unwilling to list publicly the books I DIDN’T enjoy. Instead, here’s a list of the books I gave 4 to 5 stars this year. The star rating pretty much reflects how much I enjoyed reading it, but I know I can’t promise you’ll feel the same way.

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THE MAKER OF SWANS by Paraic O’Donnell ****½

There’s a quote on the cover of this book that calls it, “a deeply pleasurable gothic fantasy.” I cannot improve upon that description. For the first 50 pages or so I felt slightly unmoored; it was hard to get a sense of what was going on with the characters. I’m glad I waited out those first pages because it moved along at a clip thereafter. I particularly enjoyed O’Donnell’s descriptions of magic.

EVERYONE’S AN ALIEBN WHEN UR A ALIEBN TOO  by Jomny Sun ****½

This is an illustrated book about an alien who’s sent to earth to study humans. I found it funny, charming, and thoughtful.


THE BURIED GIANT by Kazuo Ishiguro*****

A forgetfulness-inducing mist shrouds post-Arthurian Britain in this novel. The story follows an elderly couple, Axl and Beatrice, who set out to find their son, whom they can only dimly remember. They navigate their way in a world where ogres, sprites, strange wolves, and even dragons exist, but it’s the unpredictable people they encounter who are the most dangerous of all. I loved this book so much, I expect it will be my favorite book of the year. (Update: I was right!)


THE DRY by Jane Harper ****

Detective novels aren’t usually my genre, but if they were, I bet I’d give this 5 stars. Aaron Falk is a white-collar detective, returning to the drought-stricken town of his youth for a friend’s funeral. He stays to investigate the murder, and winds up dealing with unpleasantness from his past, too. This is set in a small mostly farm community in Australia, and for me the setting was part of the book’s interest.


THE WALK HOME by Rachel Seiffert ****

This story has two major narrative threads. The first follows a couple’s meeting, having a child, and slow heartbreak. The second follows that child, an older runaway, after his mother has walked out. It’s set in Glasgow, and I feel I missed occasional clues about prejudices and slurs. That didn’t stop me from enjoying the book, and though there were times where it felt slow, ultimately I always wanted to go back to it.


I AM MALALA by Malala Yousafzai (with Patricia McCormick)*****

This is the true story of the now Nobel Prize Winner-a girl who spoke out about every child’s right to be educated. The Taliban took over her town in Pakistan and began to threaten her. One day they shot her, on a bus, riding home from school. Malala survived and was moved to Birmingham, England, where she now lives, and she continues to travel the world in support of children’s education. This is an incredibly powerful, inspiring story.


ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE by Anthony Doerr ****

This is a WWII novel that follows the stories of Marie-Laure, a blind girl who lives with her father in Paris, and Werner Pfennig, a boy who joins the Nazi forces. That description does not do justice to the scope of the novel; there are many other characters whom we come to know and love. The details of both the technical and natural world are different and interesting, and the writing is excellent.


READY PLAYER ONE by Ernest Cline ****

Wade Watts spends most of his otherwise bleak life in a MMORPG called the OASIS. The creator of the OASIS, “Anorak,” has died, and left behind an epic quest. The person who solves his riddles and completes the quest will inherit his fortune. The competition soon becomes bloody IRL. Wade teams up with three friends to compete against the evil corporate overlords who are also on a mission to complete the quest. This novel is chock full of 80’s movies, tv, music, and video game references, and I’m the right age to enjoy them. It was a fast, pleasurable read.

IN THE KINGDOM OF ICE by Hampton Sides ****½

This is the true story of Captain George De Long and his crew of men who sail the USS Jeanette into the Arctic to explore. Their boat becomes trapped in ice and sinks, and the men make their way across the frozen ocean to try to reach Siberia. Today, it’s mind-boggling to hear the theories these explorers debunk, for example, the idea that there is a warm polar sea at the north pole. It’s a pretty harrowing story, and kept me up late many nights.

SING, UNBURIED, SING by Jesmyn Ward ****½

Leonie has a drug habit and a gift for seeing ghosts, including her dead brother. Her 13-year-old son, JoJo, doesn’t trust her, and spends much of his time taking care of his baby sister, Kayla. JoJo’s and Kayla’s father Michael is in jail for dealing drugs. A road trip to the prison to pick up his father turns up all kinds of problems, terrors, and ghosts. This story covers all kinds of territory--racism, the penal system, family--all in a world where mystical, sometimes dark and unpleasant, things can happen. I’m glad I had the opportunity to read this before seeing Jesmyn Ward at her reading, which was terrific.

LITTLE FIRES EVERYWHERE by Celeste Ng****

This book is well written, and it stays well within the lines of drama without venturing into melodrama. The story follows Mia Warren, an artist and single mother, and her daughter, Pearl. They move to a “nice” suburb and become entangled with a kind of legacy family there, the Richardsons. What makes this novel different is that Mia and her daughter are Asian in a majority white community. The story moved at a fast pace, especially toward the end.


EVICTED by Matthew Desmond ****½

This nonfiction book brings to light the struggles of the poorest people in America, and what happens to them and their families when they lose their housing. Desmond reveals some of the ugliest wrongs entangled in the practice of eviction--how women who too often report spousal abuse to the police receive eviction notices for being a “nuisance”; how landlords take advantage of those who are behind on rent by refusing to fix broken toilets/sinks/doors/windows/stoves; and how landlords evict those who request a state inspection. The problem seems too terribly enormous to fix, but Desmond offers some solutions. This is a difficult but important book.


SERAFINA AND THE BLACK CLOAK by Robert Beatty ****½

This is a spooky middle grade book set at the Biltmore estate during the time the Vanderbilts lived there. Serafina’s father keeps things running in the mansion, and Serafina pads around the mansion at night, catching rats with her bare hands. She sleeps behind the boiler. Serafina is different, slightly feral, and light on her feet. When children start disappearing at Biltmore, Serafina tells Braeden, Mr. Vanderbilt’s nephew, what she saw in the nights: a terrifying, mysterious figure with a black cloak that seems to swallow children whole. He lurks in the mansion. Serafina is the one who discovers who it is and stops him. I really enjoyed this book--the pace was great, and the plot fairly thrilling.


A GENTLEMAN IN MOSCOW by Amor Towles ****

Count Alexander Rostov has committed the crime of being a Count, and during the Bolshevik revolution in Russia, he is confined to spend his life under house arrest at the Metropol, a luxurious hotel near the Kremlin. Towles sets the novel almost entirely inside the hotel. The relationships the Count forms, the difficulties and joys he encounters, and his end game all keep the story moving. I enjoyed this very much.


CAREFUL, HE MIGHT HEAR YOU by Sumner Locke Elliot*****

PS has spent the first six years of his life living with his Aunt Lila and Uncle George in Neutral Bay, in Australia. Then ominous whisperings begin about the arrival of his Aunt Ness, and soon she arrives from England: cool, poised, snobbish, and very rich. She has decided she will raise PS part time, and has managed to get PS’s alcoholic father’s approval to do so. Elliot writes deftly from many points of view, and the characters and full story unfold beautifully. I had to slow myself down toward the end of the book, when I reached a portion where I wanted to know what would happen so much that I started reading too quickly. I thought this was an excellent novel.


A NORTHERN LIGHT by Jennifer Donnelly*****

This is the story of Mattie Gokey, a girl who lives in rural Herkimer County in New York in 1906. Her mother has passed away, her older brother has left, and Mattie struggles with helping her father run a farm and raise her younger siblings. Mattie has a talent for writing and an avid interest in literature, but her life doesn’t leave much room for these things. Mattie’s future seems tied to the farming community, which is far from her her dream. This book is a coming-of-age story, based on the real-life murder case of Grace Brown. It’s worth every penny.


A MAN CALLED OVE by Fredrik Backman****½

Two people recommended this book to me, and it was everything they said it was: touching, funny, and a fast read. The story is about a grouchy widower, Ove, whose plans to commit suicide are waylaid again and again by his neighbors. It sounds sad, but it’s poignant and ultimately feel-good.


A COURT OF THORNS AND ROSES/ A COURT OF MIST AND FURY/ A COURT OF WINGS AND RUIN by Sarah J Maas ****½

This series was definitely a guilty pleasure--high fantasy and romance. It’s YA a la Twilight, and I was pretty shocked at the graphic sex scenes. It isn’t that I have never read sex scenes before, but I suppose I thought the fact that it was YA would make it tamer. At any rate, the story revolves around Feyre, a human who shoots a wolf-that-is-not-a-wolf, and is forced to cross the wall between the human realm and the Fey realm as a consequence. Feyre ends up a prisoner of Queen Amarantha, Under the Mountain, but her suffering ends up freeing the Fey people. It’s more complicated than all that, and I really appreciate the interesting interplay of these imaginary realms and the complicated people. Knocking off half a star for repetitive descriptions, at times.


THE FISH GIRL by Mirandi Riwoe ****

!!!!!!SPOILER ALERT!!!!!

Geeeeeeez, this one does not pull any punches. It’s a fast-paced novella about an Indonesian girl who goes to work in the kitchen of a Dutch family. She’s betrayed by the only boy she’s interested in, sent off on a ship with a lustful Dutch captain, raped twice, and then drowned. The characters are good, the writing is good, it’s just . . . oof.


CHERRY by Mary Karr****½

Mary Karr writes an excellent memoir. I’m impressed with how vulnerable she makes herself, writing about all kinds of things people generally keep to themselves. She’s open about sex and drugs and mistakes, and she has an excellent sense of storytelling. This is the third of her memoirs I’ve read, and I guess I’ll just read everything she writes.


WORDS IN DEEP BLUE by Cath Crowley ****½

I wasn’t sure I was going to enjoy this YA book. It opens with a young person’s death-by-drowning, and I wasn’t sure I could take it. Happily, the plot moves on to a different location (a used bookstore, mostly) with a likable cast of characters and the best kind of title-dropping. It’s a love story, a nice one.

ANNIHILATION by Jeff Vandermeer **** This literary thriller kept me hooked throughout. I wanted to understand what was happening. The story follows a female biologist, part of a 4 person team exploring a vaguely terrifying place called Area C. We learn early on that she will be the only survivor from her expedition, and then it unfolds. Well done and spooky.

THE WAR THAT SAVED MY LIFE by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley*****

I absolutely loved this story about Ada, a girl born with a club foot and a horrible mother. Ada is unable to walk, and her abusive mother keeps her locked up. With the bombing of London imminent, however, the city is busing children to the countryside for safety. Ada takes her little brother, and they leave town. Their lives change forever—and for the better. A++ would read again.


HARK! A VAGRANT by Kate Beaton****

This is a book of comics relating to history and/or literature. I laughed out loud at some of them. Others fell flat for me because I don’t know much about history and am too lazy to read up on some people. Still, fully enjoyable!


HER BODY AND OTHER PARTIES by Carmen Maria Machado****

It’s been a while since I read a short story collection. These were terrific, well written, dark, feminist fantasies. They were racy and disturbing and hard to read and unfolded remarkably. I am jealous of Machado’s talent. Reading more than one at a time left me in a state of existential despair. I thought these were excellent, and yet I’m happy to be done reading them.