Educated (Tara Westover) — This is my first “I couldn’t put it down” book of 2018. It’s the amazing true story of a young woman raised off the grid in a strict Mormon fundamentalist family. Not allowed to attend school or visit doctors, Tara Westover was used as slave labor in her family’s scrap business, suffering life-threatening injuries multiple times. Through incredible strength and some lucky breaks, Westover got herself to college and eventually to graduate school at Cambridge.
Heather, the Totality (Matthew Weinstein) — This is a very weird little book. I can’t decide if it’s brilliant or just plain bad, and the reviews are equally divided. (See the article in Library Journal, “What to Make of Heather, the Totality.”)
Wild Bird (Wendelin Van Draanen) — Wren, a troubled teenager, is sent to a therapeutic wilderness program when her parents have run out of options. It’s a well-crafted and moving story, but one best suited to YA readers.
An American Marriage (Tayari Jones) — Married just a year, Roy and Celestial are adjusting to marriage when Roy is arrested for a crime he didn’t commit and sentenced to a lengthy prison term. Through letters, we see Celestial’s commitment unraveling, and when Roy is released early, matters come to a head. This is an insightful portrait of flawed but appealing characters facing a no-win situation. I was a little bothered by a plot hole and would love to discuss this book with other readers.
Tell Me More: Stories About the 12 Hardest Things I’m Learning to Say (Kelly Corrigan) — Corrigan’s trademark wisdom and self-deprecating humor shine in this series of personal essays. This is the perfect gift for your sister, mother, daughter, or friend.
Exit West (Mohsin Hamid) — Some books are best enjoyed and appreciated by solitary readers, while others demand discussion. Exit West, a finalist for last year’s Man Booker Prize, is one of the latter. It’s the story of a young couple, Saaed and Nadia, who escape their war-torn country through a series of magical doors. Fans of The Underground Railroad will love this novel.
Sing, Unburied, Sing (Jesmyn Ward) — Last year’s National Book Award winner is a beautifully written story about, among other things, the legacy of slavery. I had to slow myself down while reading it to savor the language. Usually, when ghosts show up in a book, I put the book down in disappointment — but I can’t imagine this novel without the ghosts.
Mothers of Sparta: A Memoir in Pieces (Dawn Davies) — These essays are all spectacular and some of them will break your heart — the titular essay, in particular.
The Perfect Nanny (Leila Slimani) — Plenty of controversy has surrounded this book, which is loosely based on a real-life case in which a nanny murdered her charges. I don’t think the author is trying to make any judgments about working women. Rather, she skillfully depicts the progression of mental illness.
The Immortalists (Chloe Benjamin) — Reading the jacket copy might make you think this book is a work of magical realism, but it’s really a family story — but a very creative one. Four children visit fortune teller who claims to be able to predict the day each of them will die. The rest of the novel follows each sibling’s path through life, asking the question: how much control do we have over the trajectory of our lives?
The Woman in the Window (A.J. Finn) — This is a solid suspense novel that doesn’t quite live up to the hype. But what could? It kept me engrossed on a long plane trip, AND I found the ending completely surprising.
Far From the Tree (Robin Benway) — The National Book Award winner for Young People’s Literature in 2017, Far From the Tree tells the affecting story of three siblings, given up by their birth mother, who find one another as teenagers. I’m a little surprised this won the National Book Award — it’s very good but not exceptional.
Grist Mill Road (Christopher Yates) — This ambitious novel starts out with a bang — literally, as a teenage boy repeatedly shoots a female classmate with a BB gun as another boy watches, leaving her for dead. Soon, the characters are introduced as adults and we learn that the victim and the observer are married to one another. Through each character’s version of events, we go back to the day of the crime, eventually learning what really happened and why. The twist was a big disappointment, and I closed the book feeling that I’d been cheated.