It’s that time of year again when I like to share my favorite books of the past year. (Just to clarify, this list doesn’t represent every book I read in the past year, and placement on this list doesn’t necessarily mean a book was published in 2018. Instead, these are books I read for the very first time in 2018.) So with that out of the way, on to the list! 🙂
8. The Land of Little Rain by Mary Austin
Premise: The best known and most beloved work of literary pioneer Mary Austin, 1903’s “The Land of Little Rain” is a collection of 14 vignettes paying poetic homage to the arid beauty of the lands of Death Valley and the Mojave. An amateur naturalist and a keen observer of human influence on the landscape, Austin here introduces us, in her inimitable way, to the wildlife, the people, and the unique problems and attractions of these sandy reaches in such essays as “The Mesa Trail,” “Shoshone Land,” “Water Borders,” “Nurslings of the Sky,” and others. The author herself believed that she had “done for the desert what Thoreau did for New England.”
My Thoughts: I usually don’t gravitate towards nature books, but I enjoyed this essay collection which explores aspects of the American Southwest – from flora and fauna to urbanization – through vivid description and a storytelling style. It was a pleasant find that was also a free Kindle book.
7. Starlight Nights: The Adventures of a Star Gazer by Leslie L. Peltier
Premise: Long out of print, the much-loved autobiography of celebrated comet-hunter Leslie Peltier is being reissued on the 100th anniversary of his birth. In a career spanning six decades and using telescopes from 2 to 12 inches in diameter, Peltier discovered a dozen comets and six novae and made more than 100,000 observations of variable stars. In “Starlight Nights,” he recalls these achievements and reflects on the meaning of observational astronomy as well as all of nature.
My Thoughts: I remember seeing this book advertised years ago in a Sky & Telescope magazine, but it took me this long to finally read it! I thoroughly enjoyed this as Peltier relates his passion for stargazing and astronomy in a warm, inviting way that I could perfectly relate to as a stargazer myself.
6. Breadcrumbs by Anne Ursu
Premise: Once upon a time, Hazel and Jack were best friends. They had been best friends since they were six, spending hot Minneapolis summers and cold Minneapolis winters together, dreaming of Hogwarts and Oz, superheroes and baseball. Now that they were eleven, it was weird for a boy and a girl to be best friends. But they couldn’t help it – Hazel and Jack fit, in that way you only read about in books. And they didn’t fit anywhere else. And then, one day, it was over. Jack just stopped talking to Hazel. And while her mom tried to tell her that this sometimes happens to boys and girls at this age, Hazel had read enough stories to know that it’s never that simple. And it turns out, she was right. Jack’s heart had been frozen, and he was taken into the woods by a woman dressed in white to live in a palace made of ice. Now, it’s up to Hazel to venture into the woods after him. Hazel finds, however, that these woods are nothing like what she’s read about, and the Jack that Hazel went in to save isn’t the same Jack that will emerge. Or even the same Hazel.
My Thoughts: This was one of the first books I read in 2018, and I knew early on that it would earn a spot on my year-end list. This is a lovely retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen that explores the bittersweet process of growing up by taking a creative spin on how getting older can be both exciting and sobering. It was a very engaging read as well as appreciatively thoughtful.
5. The Girl from the Savoy by Hazel Gaynor
Premise: Dolly Lane is a dreamer; a downtrodden maid who longs to dance on the London stage, but her life has been fractured by the Great War. Memories of the soldier she loved, of secret shame and profound loss, by turns pull her back and spur her on to make a better life. When she finds employment as a chambermaid at London’s grandest hotel, The Savoy, Dolly takes a step closer to the glittering lives of the Bright Young Things who thrive on champagne, jazz and rebellion. Right now, she must exist on the fringes of power, wealth and glamor—she must remain invisible and unimportant. But her fortunes take an unexpected turn when she responds to a struggling songwriter’s advertisement for a ‘muse’ and finds herself thrust into London’s exhilarating theatre scene and into the lives of celebrated actress, Loretta May, and her brother, Perry. Loretta and Perry may have the life Dolly aspires to, but they too are searching for something. Now, at the precipice of the life she has and the one she longs for, the girl from The Savoy must make difficult choices: between two men; between two classes, between everything she knows and everything she dreams of. A brighter future is tantalizingly close—but can a girl like Dolly ever truly leave her past behind?
My Thoughts: My only caveat with this novel is that it contains a brief rape scene near the end, but I ultimately forgave it because it ties into the story. That aside, I really enjoyed this novel, which has the lead characters taking turns weaving their respective story threads among each other. I’m usually not fond of multiple POVs, but these were easy to follow and it helped that the cast itself was engaging. While the ending wasn’t exactly what I was hoping for, I think it’s a perfect fit for this frothy, atmospheric read.
4. Carve the Mark by Veronica Roth
Premise: Cyra is the sister of the brutal tyrant who rules the Shotet people. Cyra’s currentgift gives her pain and power—something her brother exploits, using her to torture his enemies. But Cyra is much more than just a blade in her brother’s hand: she is resilient, quick on her feet, and smarter than he knows. Akos is the son of a farmer and an oracle from the frozen nation-planet of Thuvhe. Protected by his unusual currentgift, Akos is generous in spirit, and his loyalty to his family is limitless. Once Akos and his brother are captured by enemy Shotet soldiers, Akos is desperate to get his brother out alive—no matter what the cost. Then Akos is thrust into Cyra’s world, and the enmity between their countries and families seems insurmountable. Will they help each other to survive, or will they destroy one another?
My Thoughts: After reading the Divergent trilogy and being less than impressed, I wanted to see what else Roth could do because I think she’s a capable writer. This novel takes some of the flaws with the Divergent trilogy (particularly world-building) and significantly improves upon them. Likewise, I enjoyed the dynamic among the three lead characters, particularly between Cyra and Akos, as well as the creative focus on personal talents as powers. Overall, Carve the Mark was solidly entertaining SF.
3. The Music Shop by Rachel Joyce
Premise: It is 1988. On a dead-end street in a run-down suburb there is a music shop that stands small and brightly lit, jam-packed with records of every kind. Like a beacon, the shop attracts the lonely, the sleepless, and the adrift; Frank, the shop’s owner, has a way of connecting his customers with just the piece of music they need. Then, one day, into his shop comes a beautiful young woman, Ilse Brauchmann, who asks Frank to teach her about music. Terrified of real closeness, Frank feels compelled to turn and run, yet he is drawn to this strangely still, mysterious woman with eyes as black as vinyl. But Ilse is not what she seems, and Frank has old wounds that threaten to reopen, as well as a past it seems he will never leave behind. Can a man who is so in tune with other people’s needs be so incapable of connecting with the one person who might save him? The journey that these two quirky, wonderful characters make in order to overcome their emotional baggage speaks to the healing power of music – and love – in this poignant, ultimately joyful work of fiction.
My Thoughts: This novel surprised me with how much I liked it as it possesses two story elements I normally shy away from, an ensemble cast and a character-driven plot. However, I instantly connected with the characters, especially Frank who takes his love for music to a whole new level that sees music as a means by which to soothe and nurture the soul. I’m someone who listens to certain songs at times because they match my mood or I find them helpful in getting inspired to write; so to see this reflected in Frank’s character was very relatable for me. Likewise, the plot was pretty straight forwarded yet highly enjoyable thanks to the colorful cast and ends of a well-deserved happy note. I really couldn’t ask for more!
2. Thrawn: Alliances by Timothy Zahn
Premise: On Batuu, at the edges of the Unknown Regions, a threat to the Empire is taking root–its existence little more than a glimmer, its consequences as yet unknowable. But it is troubling enough to the Imperial leader to warrant investigation by his most powerful agents: ruthless enforcer Lord Darth Vader and brilliant strategist Grand Admiral Thrawn. Fierce rivals for the emperor’s favor, and outspoken adversaries on Imperial affairs–including the Death Star project–the formidable pair seem unlikely partners for such a crucial mission. But the Emperor knows it’s not the first time Vader and Thrawn have joined forces. And there’s more behind his royal command than either man suspects. In what seems like a lifetime ago, General Anakin Skywalker of the Galactic Republic, and Commander Mitth’raw’nuruodo, officer of the Chiss Ascendancy, crossed paths for the first time. One on a desperate personal quest, the other with motives unknown . . . and undisclosed. But facing a gauntlet of dangers on a far-flung world, they forged an uneasy alliance–neither remotely aware of what their futures held in store. Now, thrust together once more, they find themselves bound again for the planet where they once fought side by side. There they will be doubly challenged–by a test of their allegiance to the Empire . . . and an enemy that threatens even their combined might.
My Thought: This was my most anticipated new release of 2018. It certainly didn’t disappoint and provided even more fascinating insights and depth into Thrawn as a character, his motivations, and the Chiss themselves. This book was a great, hit-the-ground-running follow up to its predecessor, Star Wars: Thrawn, and lays the groundwork for more Thrawn stories (hopefully!) to come.
1. The Devil’s West trilogy (Silver On the Road, The Cold Eye, Red Waters Rising) by Laura Anne Gilman
Premise – Silver On the Road: On her sixteenth birthday, Isobel makes the choice to work for the devil in his territory west of the Mississippi. But this is not the devil you know. This is a being who deals fairly with immense—but not unlimited—power, who offers opportunities to people who want to make a deal, and makes sure they always get what they deserve. But his land is a wild west that needs a human touch, and that’s where Izzy comes in. Inadvertently trained by him to see the clues in and manipulations of human desire, Izzy is raised to be his left hand and travel the circuitous road through the territory. As we all know, where there is magic there is power and chaos…and death.
Premise – The Cold Eye: In the anticipated sequel to “Silver on the Road,” Isobel is riding circuit through the Territory as the Devil’s Left Hand. But when she responds to a natural disaster, she learns the limits of her power and the growing danger of something mysterious that is threatening not just her life, but the whole Territory. Isobel is the left hand of the old man of the Territory, the Boss – better known as the Devil. Along with her mentor, Gabriel, she is traveling circuit through Flood to represent the power of the Devil and uphold the agreement he made with the people to protect them. Here in the Territory, magic exists – sometimes wild and perilous. But there is a growing danger in the bones of the land that is killing livestock, threatening souls, and weakening the power of magic. In the next installment of the Devil’s West series, Isobel and Gabriel are in over their heads as they find what’s happening and try to stop the people behind it before it unravels the Territory.
Premise – Red Waters Rising: In the last novel of The Devil’s West trilogy, Isobel, the Devil’s Left Hand, and Gabriel ride through the magical land of the Territory to root out evil by the way of mad magicians, ghosts, and twisted animal spirits. As Isobel and Gabriel travel to the southern edge of the Territory, they arrive in the free city of Red Stick. Tensions are running high as the homesteading population grows, crowding the native lands, and suspicions rise across the river from an American fort. But there is a sickness running through Red Stick and Isobel begins to find her authority challenged. She’ll be abandoned, betrayed, and forced to stand her ground as the Devil’s left hand in this thrilling conclusion to The Devil’s West Trilogy.
My Thoughts: I started out reading Silver On the Road and was prepared to write it off as yet another run-of-the-mill YA coming-of-age tale. But was I wrong! It captured my attention and drew me into its Weird West world that’s vibrating with temperamental, malicious magic. Izzy and Gabriel are one of the most interesting character pairings I’ve run across in a long time as they come from different circumstances and have very different paths in life despite sharing the same road. Also, their mentor-apprentice relationship avoids the usual cliches and contrived romance (of course it helps that they are several years apart). (Sidebar: I kept picturing Gabriel as actor Jeffrey Dean Morgan – not exactly a bad mental image to have, by the way. 😉 ) Overall, this trilogy was a much-needed breath of fresh air and will be a series I look forward to diving into time and again.
Confession time: 2018 was a book drought for me.
I struggled to compile this list as I just didn’t read that many new books this year in general, and most of the titles I did read were re-reads, which I don’t include on my year-end list. Sadly, as the market is flooded with cliched, recycled tales and politically-motivated/feminist/social justice/”diversity”/lqbt-agenda fiction, I’m finding it harder and harder to locate new books that are even remotely within my reading tastes as authors now seem more intent on delivering a “message” by appealing to social justice warrior sentiments or advocating the social “cause” hashtag of the day as opposed to just telling a good story with timeless characters minus any ulterior motives.