Favorite books of 2018

Isn’t it fun to look over what you’ve read throughout the past year? With just four days left, I’m one book shy of the 52 book goal I set for myself last January. Still, 51 ain’t bad. Maybe I’ll finish that last one this weekend!

I was surprised at how eclectic my list was, a little nonfiction, a little fiction, a little YA, couple of classics. Then again, it was a year of literary self-care for me, and I was determined to read what I wanted to read for sheer pleasure, rather than what I felt like I was supposed to read as an author.

You can see all the books I read by visiting the Reading Challenge section of my Goodreads Page.

You can read about my favorite books of 2017 by clicking here.

And you can read about my favorite books of 2016 by clicking here.

In the meantime, here are my five favorites of the 2018 bunch:

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine, by Gail Honeyman

Synopsis: Meet Eleanor Oliphant: She struggles with appropriate social skills and tends to say exactly what she’s thinking. Nothing is missing in her carefully timetabled life of avoiding social interactions, where weekends are punctuated by frozen pizza, vodka, and phone chats with Mummy.

But everything changes when Eleanor meets Raymond, the bumbling and deeply unhygienic IT guy from her office. When she and Raymond together save Sammy, an elderly gentleman who has fallen on the sidewalk, the three become the kinds of friends who rescue one another from the lives of isolation they have each been living. And it is Raymond’s big heart that will ultimately help Eleanor find the way to repair her own profoundly damaged one.

Soon to be a major motion picture produced by Reese Witherspoon, Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine is the smart, warm, and uplifting story of an out-of-the-ordinary heroine whose deadpan weirdness and unconscious wit make for an irresistible journey as she realizes the only way to survive is to open your heart.

Why I liked it: As someone who struggles with OCD and tends to be more than a little agoraphobic at times, I adored this story for its accurate portrayal of living with mental illness, as well as for its charm. Raymond is adorable. Eleanor is frustrating and endearing. I was captivated throughout the story, and think of it often even now–a true measure of what qualifies a book as a favorite for me.

Lab Girl, by Hope Jahren

Synopsis: Acclaimed scientist Hope Jahren has built three laboratories in which she’s studied trees, flowers, seeds, and soil. Her first book is a revelatory treatise on plant life—but it is also so much more.

Lab Girl
 is a book about work, love, and the mountains that can be moved when those two things come together. It is told through Jahren’s stories: about her childhood in rural Minnesota with an uncompromising mother and a father who encouraged hours of play in his classroom’s labs; about how she found a sanctuary in science, and learned to perform lab work done “with both the heart and the hands”; and about the inevitable disappointments, but also the triumphs and exhilarating discoveries, of scientific work.

Yet at the core of this book is the story of a relationship Jahren forged with a brilliant, wounded man named Bill, who becomes her lab partner and best friend. Their sometimes rogue adventures in science take them from the Midwest across the United States and back again, over the Atlantic to the ever-light skies of the North Pole and to tropical Hawaii, where she and her lab currently make their home.

Why I liked it: For as long as I can remember, my love of science and nature has intermingled with my love of writing. Hope Jahren loves trees, and I do, too, which you know if you’ve read Before I Saw You. This unique memoir tugged at the scientist heart within me, and made me appreciate anew how hard scientists work, and what they give up, to advance knowledge for all of us. Her memoir is genuine and honest, and makes me look at the world in new and fresh ways. It also made me just plain happy to see another writer who loves science, not unlike Barbara Kingsolver (one of my all-time favorite authors).

The Great Alone, by Kristin Hannah

Synopsis:  Alaska, 1974.
Unpredictable. Unforgiving. Untamed.
For a family in crisis, the ultimate test of survival.

Ernt Allbright, a former POW, comes home from the Vietnam war a changed and volatile man. When he loses yet another job, he makes an impulsive decision: he will move his family north, to Alaska, where they will live off the grid in America’s last true frontier.

Thirteen-year-old Leni, a girl coming of age in a tumultuous time, caught in the riptide of her parents’ passionate, stormy relationship, dares to hope that a new land will lead to a better future for her family. She is desperate for a place to belong. Her mother, Cora, will do anything and go anywhere for the man she loves, even if it means following him into the unknown.

At first, Alaska seems to be the answer to their prayers. In a wild, remote corner of the state, they find a fiercely independent community of strong men and even stronger women. The long, sunlit days and the generosity of the locals make up for the Allbrights’ lack of preparation and dwindling resources.

But as winter approaches and darkness descends on Alaska, Ernt’s fragile mental state deteriorates and the family begins to fracture. Soon the perils outside pale in comparison to threats from within. In their small cabin, covered in snow, blanketed in eighteen hours of night, Leni and her mother learn the terrible truth: they are on their own. In the wild, there is no one to save them but themselves.

In this unforgettable portrait of human frailty and resilience, Kristin Hannah reveals the indomitable character of the modern American pioneer and the spirit of a vanishing Alaska―a place of incomparable beauty and danger. The Great Alone is a daring, beautiful, stay-up-all-night story about love and loss, the fight for survival, and the wildness that lives in both man and nature.

Why I liked it: Human frailty and resilience–that’s what I loved about this story. Not to mention the fact that I visited Alaska myself some 30 years ago and fell in love with the wild and beautiful place. Months later, I am still thinking about this story, the darkness of it, the desperation, the frustration, and the redemption. A great, meaty beast of a read. 

The War that Saved My Life, by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

Synopsis: An exceptionally moving story of triumph against all odds set during World War 2, from the acclaimed author of Jefferson’s Sons and for fans of Number the Stars.

Nine-year-old Ada has never left her one-room apartment. Her mother is too humiliated by Ada’s twisted foot to let her outside. So when her little brother Jamie is shipped out of London to escape the war, Ada doesn’t waste a minute—she sneaks out to join him.

So begins a new adventure of Ada, and for Susan Smith, the woman who is forced to take the two kids in. As Ada teaches herself to ride a pony, learns to read, and watches for German spies, she begins to trust Susan—and Susan begins to love Ada and Jamie. But in the end, will their bond be enough to hold them together through wartime? Or will Ada and her brother fall back into the cruel hands of their mother?

This masterful work of historical fiction is equal parts adventure and a moving tale of family and identity—a classic in the making.

Why I liked it: We all have something twisted about us, don’t we? For Ada it’s a twisted foot, and more than that, the broken way the people who should love her the most react to it the worst. Unexpected. Heartaching-ly real. A moving tale of family and identity, indeed, this one is a lifetime favorite of mine, and I can’t wait to finish reading the sequel, The War I Finally Won. No wonder this story is a Newbery Honor Book.

My Exaggerated Life: Pat Conroy, by Katherine Clark

Synopsis: Pat Conroy’s memoirs and autobiographical novels contain a great deal about his life, but there is much he hasn’t revealed to readers—until now. My Exaggerated Life is the product of a special collaboration between this great American author and oral biographer Katherine Clark, who recorded two hundred hours of conversations with Conroy before he passed away in 2016. In the spring and summer of 2014, the two spoke for an hour or more on the phone every day. No subject was off-limits, including aspects of his tumultuous life he had never before revealed.

This oral biography presents Conroy the man, as if speaking in person, in the colloquial voice familiar to family and friends. This voice is quite different from the authorial style found in his books, which are famous for their lyricism and poetic descriptions. Here Conroy is blunt, plainspoken, and uncommonly candid. While his novels are known for their tragic elements, this volume is suffused with Conroy’s sense of humor, which he credits with saving his life on several occasions.

The story Conroy offers here is about surviving and overcoming the childhood abuse and trauma that marked his life. He is frank about his emotional damage—the depression, the alcoholism, the divorces, and, above all, the crippling lack of self-esteem and self-confidence. He also sheds light on the forces that saved his life from ruin. The act of writing compelled Conroy to confront the painful truths about his past, while years of therapy with a clinical psychologist helped him achieve a greater sense of self-awareness and understanding.

As Conroy recounts his time in Atlanta, Rome, and San Francisco, along with his many years in Beaufort, South Carolina, he portrays a journey full of struggles and suffering that culminated ultimately in redemption and triumph. Although he gained worldwide recognition for his writing, Conroy believed his greatest achievement was in successfully carving out a life filled with family and friends, as well as love and happiness. In the end he arrived at himself and found it was a good place to be.

Why I liked it: Raw. Honest. Redemptive. Not only were the parts about abuse and its impact on life significantly relate-able for me personally, but also the extremes of self-doubt and difficulty involved in being an author. Conroy has always been one of my favorites, and this book explains much of the reasons behind that. I’m so grateful he and Katherine took the time to gather, record and share all of this. 

*****

What were you’re favorite books of 2018?

What do you look forward to reading in 2019?

*****

Here’s a book to consider for your New Year’s reading list:

Coming April 2019, Then Sings My Soul!

Synopsis: 1904, Chudniv, Ukraine. Playing hide-and-seek in bucolic fields of sunflowers, young Jakob never imagines the horrific secrets he will carry as he and his brother escape through genocide-ridden Eastern Europe.

1994, South Haven, Michigan. At age 94, time is running out for any hope that Jakob can be free from his burden of guilt.

When Jakob’s wife dies, he and his daughter, Nel, are forced to face the realities of his worsening dementia—including a near-naked, midnight jaunt down the middle of main street—as well as emerging shadows Nel had no idea lay beneath her father’s beloved, curmudgeonly ways.

While Nel navigates the restoration and sale of Jakob’s dilapidated lake house, her high school sweetheart shows up in town, along with unexpected correspondence from Ukraine. And when she discovers a mysterious gemstone in Jakob’s old lapidary room, Jakob’s condition worsens as he begins having flashbacks about his baby sister from nearly a century past.

As father and daughter race against time to discover the truth behind Jakob’s fragmented memories, the God they have both been running from shows that he redeems not only broken years, but also the future.

“Sorrells stitches together a beautiful story of family and belief that illustrates the importance of closure and the peace derived from faith.” ~Library Journal

One is the loneliest number…until…

Half the battle, you know,
is in feeling alone

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until someone comes along and believes
in something
more than we can see

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in ourselves, the mirror a
dull reflection, a shadow of all the grace
in our lives unnoticed

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the hand of God a mystery until we look back and know
finally
we weren’t ever alone, that

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He was just stitching us up with the threads
of others,
miracles,
the whole
time.

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Then Sings My Soul is a story like that, of lives discouraged and full of hurt and questions and loneliness. But the story doesn’t end there. You won’t believe what happens to Jakob and his daughter, Nel. And you won’t believe what happens to you when you read their story, too.

Then Sings My Soul. Available now wherever your favorite place is to buy books.

*****

“He heals the brokenhearted
and binds up their wounds.”
Psalm 147:3 (NIV)